Finding A Way Towards Ethical & Sustainable Community Supported Foraging

I’m passionate about reclaiming wild plants and  “weeds” as the important ancestral foods and medicines that they are, so I’m thrilled people are reconnecting with our oldest and most primal relationship with the earth – foraging.  I’m also a little concerned.  While books, courses, educational walks, online resources, websites on wildcrafting and foraging are proliferating, here in Victoria, as across North America, foraging is not permitted in parks whether urban, rural, municipal, provincial, or federal. Unless people are lucky (and privileged) enough to have a backyard, a friend with a few acres, or can drive to remote Crown lands with a permit to harvest – well, they don’t have many options.

While many park officials turn a blind eye to a little picking here and there, I’m worried that this tolerance could be put to the test. Take what is happening in the UK. Under common law, it is not an offence to pick the “Four F’s”; fruit, foliage, fungi or flowers which are growing wild if they are for personal use and not for sale. But in many parts of the country, where foraging was previously legal it is now being banned. The reason? What used to be a niche countryside pursuit is now a burgeoning trend leading to increasing environmental concerns.

So here’s a question I continually struggle with as a wild food educator. Is it ethical to continue to teach growing numbers of people to identify and harvest wild foods and medicines if they don’t have anywhere to go to legally harvest those plants? Where all these newly enthused foragers with a recipe for dandelion pesto in hand are supposed to go?

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Like most responsible wild food educators, I discuss the tenets of ethical and sustainable wildcrafting,  i.e. do no harm, tread lightly, take little, give back, never harvest rare plants, be respectful of unceded territories, land, foods, sacred plants of local First Peoples – but is it enough? Because the most asked question I get from new wildcrafters is where can I go to forage? And here’s the moral rub. I know, despite my warnings about the necessity of obtaining permissions, many will inevitably end up harvesting illegally.

Plucking a few dandelions from the park seems harmless enough (yes I’ve done it myself)  but it’s a slippery slope. Could this lead to a backlash as is already happening in the UK? Could hordes of foragers descend on the wilds, trampling delicate ecosystems and over-harvesting native plants?

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This question is rarely addressed even though the answer shapes the future of wildcrafting itself.  Because until we set aside safe and legal places for people to forage, we are setting the stage for exploitation and degradation in endangered ecosystems, and to the lands and plants of our First Peoples.  I think it’s going to take a lot more than connecting with the “spirit of the land” and teaching the “in and outs” of ethical foraging enough to truly protect our natural environments.

This is why five years ago Gather Victoria attempted to launch a Community Supported Foraging Plan (CSFP), a coalition of wild food educators and local foragers that would a) lobby the City to recognize foraging as a valued resource within urban food systems b) grant designated pilot spaces in urban and municipal parks for public foraging c) create educational opportunities to learn about wild plants and sustainable ethical methods of harvest. 

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The way I saw it, Community Supported Foraging Plan addressed one of the biggest misconceptions about wild food foraging – that it necessitates taking to the “wilds” at all. Because as most wild food educators know, the vast majority of wild edible plants and medicines grow within already urbanized spaces and city parks. By encouraging foraging within urban parks (chosen in consultation with city naturalists) in already cultivated spaces, citizens can legally access some of the most nutritious and healing plants of history, all brimming with vital nutrients depleted in our modern food supply. 

Many of these plants were introduced here by the early settlers, and have now colonized local landscapes. Removed at great cost (and often with toxic chemicals) as invasive weeds from our national, regional and local municipal parks. So … why can’t we just eat them instead? 

This is already happening in the Pacific Northwest as many food security activists are looking to foraging to increase the resilience of their food supply.  From Washington to Oregon many parks not only provide legal access to the bounty of freely available nutritious plants but actually teach foraging classes. One can find access to foraging friendly maps and Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest has been around for over a decade. Food grown is available to pick and be consumed by anyone who visits the park. Walks, talks and courses about foraging are also available. 

In California, The Berkley Food Institute and Forage Berkley advocate for public policy “that increases the amount of free, fresh nutritious foods in cities, by stopping the use of herbicides on public lands and allowing foraging of invasive species on public lands; and by promoting the design of parks and public spaces that provide food and habitat for wildlife.

Inspired by these models, the Community Supported Foraging Plan would work to provide city residents with safe, legal access to the freely available nutritious plants growing in designated municipal greenspaces. This could provide several key benefits. It could help control the spread of invasive plants (by eating them) help strengthen local food security and perhaps even improve community health! 

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But the community-supported foraging plan ran into three main obstacles. Basically, it went like this – 1) legalities – if the city condoned eating wild plants they could be held liable if someone poisoned themselves 2) lack of resources, currently there were no departments or funding for wild food education to ensure people understood which plants were safe to consume 3) allowing wild edibles and medicines (otherwise known as weeds) to grow in municipal parks would be a violation of policies that mandate the removal of these plants by provincial law. (BC Weed Control Act).

All this demanded more time, lobbying and monetary resources than I had. It was time to pull back and rethink my approach. And it was pretty clear to me that until the public and we (as wild food foragers and educators)  legitimize foraging as a vital part of urban food systems (along with community and boulevard gardens, urban orchards and farms) the plan didn’t have a hope in hell of ever becoming a reality.

But thank Goddess, a new solution soon presented itself to me – and it was right under my nose. I realized I could bypass all this red tape because I didn’t need to lobby the city to create new spaces for community foraging – because they already existed. It’s just that almost no one in the city, including most foragers, know they are there.

Unlike community garden allotments which provide plots for individual private use, common ground gardens provide public access to the foods and medicines growing within them. In urban areas, waiting lists for community gardens are incredibly long and common ground gardens give city residents access to shared food gardens maintained by a group of community volunteers, whose common ground – their interest in providing nourishing foods and medicinal plants for all neighbourhood residents – brings them together. 

Jackie Robson (above) is one of the founders of the Wark St. Commons in the Quadra-Hillside area. She makes the point that in this inner-city neighbourhood, food security is an ongoing issue. “Green space is limited and community allotment gardens are few and far between. Because many families do not have their own gardens, The Wark St. Commons gives people access to fresh greens, fruit and berries, not to mention the many culinary and medicinal herbs they normally couldn’t find or afford.”

In my general neighbourhood, I was lucky enough to have three such parks nearby, the Wark St. Commons Garden, The People’s Apothecary Garden, and the Spring Ridge Commons. Here culinary and medicinal herbs, native berries, greens, blossoms, and fruits grow in abundance along with many wild edible herbs(weeds) like clover, nettles, hawthorn, milk thistle, St John’s Wort, dandelion, cleavers, plantain, chickweed, curly dock and garlic mustard. All free and legal to harvest – by anyone.

Today we see public green spaces as places to enjoy the beautiful scenery, not eat it. But the tradition of Common land or Common Ground grants the public the use of the “commons”—woods, ponds, fields and grazing grounds—to feed themselves.

So with the understanding that foraging in these gardens is perfectly legal, I unofficially launched a less ambitious version of my community-supported foraging plan. In cooperation with my local common ground gardens, I began to teach residents about the bounty of nutritious and delicious foods, medicines and wild edibles (aka weeds)  growing for free in the heart of their neighbourhoods.

Along the way, I talked about the ethical and ecological issues involved in foraging, such as safety, sustainable harvest methods, respecting native ecosystems and the indigenous cultures of this land.  And I emphasized the matter of legality – reminding them that beyond the borders of the garden, i.e. the rest of the park – the dandelions were out of bounds. And I encouraged everyone to write to city hall requesting access to public green spaces to create even more common ground gardens. And I encouraged them to get involved in caretaking for these spaces as well. 

My hope was that as more and more people enjoyed the bounty of fresh free tasty and nutritious fruits and greens that community demand would grow. And voila, what would slowly come into being is a  “community-supported foraging plan”. A network of public spaces in urban municipal parks where people can legally forage for wild plants. Yay!

Postscript April 2021

But alas, my rose coloured vision seems to be endangered in Victoria. Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched one of the lushest and productive common ground gardens, home of countless herbs, berries, native edibles – The Spring Ridge Commons become a waste zone after being sold to School Board 61. Many of the fruit-bearing trees medlars, figs, autumn olive, elderberry will not survive another summer without water – which the new owners apparently cut off. 

The Peoples Apothecary was also sold to the School Board 61 (despite community protest) and I pray that its future will not be similarly undermined, it hasn’t been looking too healthy. And also, the once verdant garden of the Wark Street Commons filled with countless varieties of herbs, berries and flowers was cleared to make room for a pollinator garden. Large elderberry trees and an autumn Olive were removed along with countless herbs such as Sweet Cicely, Mugwort, St. John Wort – many of which were pollinators already.  Now, all that seems to be growing is chickweed. (Not that I have anything against chickweed! Delicious!)

It makes my heart grieve. It takes years to grow trees and gardens like these.  All three of these gardens were my regular haunts. I attended the opening of the Bee Herb Garden at Spring Ridge Commons and participated in seasonal garden clean-ups, watered and planted herbs in the Wark St. Garden. I don’t understand how gardens full of food and medicinal plants could be so undervalued that they disappear without a whisper of community dissent? Surely I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed their bounty?

 At a time when food prices are rising and space for growing food is limited, we should be treasuring these common ground gardens as valuable community food resources – as they were originally intended. This returns me to the subject of foraging in general, the right of the people to the “commons’. Without legal public spaces, foraging today is largely a private affair reserved for those privileged enough to have access to land.

But I believe wild foods and medicines should be a resource equally available to all. Yes, I believe in the importance of teaching ethical and sustainable harvest methods, but I also believe we need to legitimize wild food/foraging as a valuable food resource within localized food systems – and lobby those who hold the keys of access to public land.

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As a wild food educator who is passionately committed to sharing the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of reconnecting to nature through our birthright – food- I am frustrated by the lack of opportunities to do so. And it’s why I feel a personal ethical responsibility to help create spaces for ALL people to harvest a dandelion for dinner. So I’m planning to be putting my activist hat on again soon…

I’m hoping the newfound popularity of wild foods will spark a grassroots movement of people who demand access to public lands for foraging. I’m hoping it will be led by wild food educators who step forward to work with governing bodies to create legal, ecologically respectful and ethical community foraging spaces. Perhaps then “wild foods” could become part of an evolving “agri-hood” of community gardens, urban farms and food forests in which communities have the right to nourish themselves. Seems the future is ours to decide. 

Here are a few links to explore ethical & sustainable wildcrafting. (If you know of some good ones that should be included here please let me know!)

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

23 thoughts on “Finding A Way Towards Ethical & Sustainable Community Supported Foraging

  1. I’m a wild crafter and up here in Upstate New York, areas are well kept secrets where one forages for medicinal plants. I have begun to grow my own, fortunate to have the property to do so. I have seen though the first hand destruction of over-foraging by harvesters. Beautiful wild cherry trees, high to the sky are now dead because someone harvested in the inner bark for monetary purposes. Or even, over-development of once wild land is killing our native plants. I’m finding now that I have to sometimes drive three-four hours to areas on abandoned farms or wood lots because previous lands are now housing tracts filled with obnoxious weed killing solvents like Round Up for their manicured lawns.

    1. And lets not forget to add that Round-Up is the herbicide of choice in municipal, provincial, state, and federal parks across North America. And while its being used in the name of protecting native plants no one has been able to provide clear evidence that they do not also affect native ecosystems, flora and fauna!

  2. Thank you!

    I witness what can happen when people do not respect responsible harvesting practices. The extreme overharvesting of wild leeks, ramps, in our area of Northern NY is a concern to me (as just one plant example). Thinking back to the wild harvesting of American Ginseng in the ADK Mts… People tell me to “relax, there are HUGE patches everywhere.” Maybe so, for now, but when people go into the woods and literally dig up a whole patch, how DO they think it will regrow?

    Looking forward to this series continuing.

    1. I so hear your concern…when I first began foraging over a decade ago there were no guides to ethical or sustainable wildcrafting – so I admit, I tramped a few delicate ecosystems and harvested a few plants I shouldn’t have. I didn’t do this because I didn’t care – but because I didn’t know any better! So yes it’s our responsibility as educators to help our wildcrafting students become aware of the impact they make when they harvest – and ask those questions!

    2. OK Look, I’m 62 years old and grew up the the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia. I was taught about sustainable foraging at a very young age…..before I was in school, and before sustainable became a buzz word. I do agree with you that foragers must and should use common sense and sustainable, ethical harvesting methods.

      I can tell you with 100% certainty though….that you WILL NOT dig out or over harvest enough Ginseng or Ramps to stop them from coming back.

      You might ask how I know this? I assure you I have seen it first hand. When I was a young boy my grandfather (whom was born in 1895) took me around and shown me many places where Ramps were “dug out” and the same with Ginseng. He also told me that both would “grow back”. I have revisited some of the places that he took me to see what they look like now, and sure enough the regrowth was there for me to see.

      YES is did take many years for the regrowth. But the bottom line is….they grew back!

      How you many ask? Well both adult plants produce many seeds over and over until they are dug up. While the plant that was dug will no longer produce any seeds, the plants work has been done. Then when man leaves and forgets those areas because there are no more plants there that he wants, mother nature does a wonderful thing…those seeds begin to grow and the life cycle begins again. Many years later they look like no one ever touched that area. Kinda cool right.

      The biggest problem I have found over the years to impact or stop wild gathering is industrialization, housing, roads, factories, shopping malls, pollution and so on. Thanks

      1. I appreciate your comments! However in reviewing your points and many others raised here and on social media pages, I think I failed in making my point in this post – and a rewrite may be in order. I made a mistake starting off with the line about foragers trampling & overharvesting, as it acted as a kind of red herring that created debate ( if I may grossly oversimplify) between those who think foraging could be bad for the environment through overharvesting and trampling, and those who believe industrialization and development are far worse threats (yes!) But this wasn’t the point of the blog post at all. I wanted to ask why is there so little activism within the wild food movement around creating safe, legal and thus ethical opportunities for people to forage and wildcraft?

        As we are all aware, foraging is illegal on public lands, so the vast majority of wildcrafting needs to take place on private land in order to be legal. This means the growing number of urban wildcrafters who have a recipe for dandelion pesto in hand have nowhere to go to forage, at least if they are going to do so ethically. This means that foraging today is largely a private affair reserved for those privileged enough to have access to land. But I believe wild foods and medicines should be a resource equally available to all. So yes, like all of us, I believe in the importance of teaching ethical and sustainable harvest methods, of cultivating wild plants at home etc. but I also believe we need to do more than passively work within existing structures. We need lobby those who hold the keys of access to public land to recognize wild food as more than a fringe activity of survivalists and food hipsters, to legitimize wild food/foraging as a valuable food resource within localized food systems.

        As a wild food educator passionately committed to sharing the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of reconnecting to nature through our birthright – food- I am frustrated by the lack of opportunities to do so. And it’s why I feel a personal ethical responsibility to help create spaces for ALL people to harvest a dandelion for dinner.

  3. Hi. I’m considering being a Gathering Patreon in Victoria. Do you have a contact here re follow up. Happy Hunting.

    1. Hi Sheena! How wonderful! Feel free to send me an email from Gather’s contact page and I’ll try to answer your questions the best I can! Thank-you!

  4. (no need to post this comment, perhaps a return email to me?) I just happily pledged to contribute $20 as a monthly patron. Must I deal with Patreon to complete this pledge though, or can I deal directly with you/Gather Victoria? I’d like to avoid another group’s emails to manage, plus I thought my first contribution of $20 would be completed today; instead, they are telling me it won’t happen until February 1st? So happy to support you and your excellent endeavors, regardless of which way it ends up. Blessings, Eileen!

    1. Hi Eileen! Thank-you so, so much! But I’m going to answer this post publicly because I want to be sure you (and others) understand that you are pledging this amount each month! If you’d like to make a one-time donation on Patreon you can do so by following the info at this link https://www.patreon.com/posts/make-one-time-15076061. If that still seems too complicated, I’d be more than happy to receive a direct donation. Just email me through Gather’s contact page and we can set something up. Thank-you so much for caring!

  5. As Helena commented above, finding areas to wildcraft can be problematic. My parents live in the Hudson Valley and I’ve encountered everything she’s mentioned and more.

    And if you live in an ecologically sensitive region like the LA basin, foraging becomes another stressor for native plant species. That’s why I “wild grow” the plants I use. I propagate cuttings (white sage, black sage), scatter a few seeds (fennel), or transplant during the thriving season (artemisia californica, mugwort) and allow these plants to grow with minimal cultivation in my garden. I don’t prune, I don’t clean up leaf litter, I don’t fertilize. I do water minimally. This allows the plants to go through their entire lifecycle the way they would in the wild. Leaf litter is natures mulch and ends up becoming compost for the soil once it breaks down. And the bees benefit as well!

    I LOVE the idea of a community supported foraging program. If hunters are permitted why not foragers?!

    1. Great points all! And yes – why not a community supported foraging program?! Thanks for your input!

  6. Thank you for this article. The concerns you describe have been on my mind for a long time. I live in Colorado, and we have plenty of wild lands all around us, but are also facing over-harvesting, and unethical practices, and other issues. I forwarded this article to a wild-crafting, landowning friend, (and landowning, not wild-crafting ones) looking forward to talking to them about a wild-craft-forest-plot (as in Food-forest) out there, where we could also offer educational resources. There are some other resources around here but I think more can be done, and more people can be involved.

    1. I am so glad you are doing this! Please keep me in the loop about your progress. I’m hoping to eventually put together a “how to” guide for others interested in setting up ethical, sustainable legal spaces for wildcrafting – and the different ways they have gone about it. Thank-you!

  7. Community foraging programs are such a wonderful idea! I have been so inspired by your writings here ever since I first stumbled across your site a few years back. I am still not an experienced forager; mostly your site is an inspiration and a dream of what could be but isn’t possible for me quite yet. I’ve learned to identify a good number of wild plants, but ethics and environmental concern has always held me back. I live in a large city where nearly every plant I see is growing extremely close to a roadway, and having once witnessed a city vehicle drive by my neighbor’s house and douse their tomato plants with weed killer (!) I am perpetually wary of what my local plants might have been sprayed with. If I can’t even trust the city to leave my garden plants alone, how can I trust what grows in more public spaces? When I first read your post about the common ground gardens, my heart leapt with joy to know that such initiatives exist. If I had one in my area, I would probably be there every day just to spend time with these marvelous plants even if not to harvest them. But alas, I live nowhere near Victoria and haven’t found anything like that near me. Which brings me to a question I would love to ask you. Short of starting a garden initiative like those mentioned above, for many of us the most ethical and practical “foraging” option is to plant wild edibles in our own gardens. I’ve dreamed of doing this for quite a long time, but never having had the opportunity to try so many of these lovely plants, I’m left wondering which ones might most merit a spot in my limited garden space. The variety of wild plants you have written about is impressive, and I think that variety is part of the beauty of wild foods. But if space is an issue, I find myself wondering, which ones are the most delicious? The easiest to grow? Provide the best yield for the space they take up? Which ones are most at risk of over harvesting and are better off being cultivated so that wild populations might be left alone? I know this is in many ways also a question of climate and personal preference, but would you be willing to share with us which plants you might choose to grow if a home garden was your main option? I would love to hear what your favorites might be in that scenario!

    1. Stay tuned! Am gathering info on this and plan to feature a blog post on this topic in the coming months. And for those out there who have expertise to share – I’d love to hear from you! And thank-you for your kind words! xo

  8. Hi, Danielle (long time, no talk to – hope you are well! Your site looks great, I’ve been following it for awhile now. It’s fun seeing former students as guest teachers, etc. @ Gather events :o)). This topic is close to our hearts…My husband, Don Ollsin http://www.grassrootsherbalism.com and I have been teaching ethical, medicinal wildcrafting in the Pacific Northwest for the past several decades. We have long been deeply concerned with over-harvesting and the unethical wildcrafting that inevitably occurs. We strongly encourage people to grow whatever they can, as they can, rather than taking so much from the wild. Even apartment balcony gardens can produce a lot, if done well — and balcony worm boxes create fantastic compost for growing. With this many people currently on the planet, the problems around this issue are likely only going to increase. Buying from organic, ethical growers is another part of the solution, as it is a good way to support those who do have access to land for growing. Thanks for alerting others to the importance of responsible harvesting, foraging and wildcrafting. It’s an important issue that has ongoing challenges and requires as many creative solutions as we can possibly come up with! Cheers, Sandy Ollsin PS: Don is actually doing a webinar on ethical wildcrafting with a well-known seed wildcrafter in the next week or so!

    1. Hi there! I know & deeply respect you & your husband’s work – and have tried to attend a few of your events in the past, but never seemed to find the right timing. Maybe one day soon! But please send me info on the webinar and I’m happy to share on Gather! Maybe I can actually attend as well! Thanks so much!

  9. Great post and very important topic, especially that people learn which invasive species are edible. As a environmental project manager, I do want to say that for common ground gardens, please make sure that the plot has not been subject to previous contamination. Especially, in big towns and cities, this is an issue. An EDR report can be ordered and go a long way in deducting the probability of past and current contamination. Thank you

    1. Thanks so much. Yes these common ground gardens all had their soils tested last year because of your precise point!

  10. Such an important topic of discussion. I was recently asked to write an article about foraging with young children & I chose to focus the article on cultivating relationship rather than foraging. I still don’t know if they’ll be printing it, seeing as I sort of worked around the prompts. 🙂 I, too, agree that growing your own and/or growing medicine in community spaces is much preferred to wildcrafted. I do, however, love the symbiotic idea of the Hoop, which centers around tending to wild stands of plants year after year. Some stands of plants grow more vigorously after they are harvested. But it must be done in a way that is helpful to the plant. And to do that, one must know a lot about the life cycle of that plant & have observed it over time. Thanks for writing this.

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