Today the popularity of wild foods and medicines is absolutely booming. And while I should be thrilled – I’m a little worried. I can’t help but wonder where all these newly enthused foragers with a recipe for dandelion pesto are supposed to go? Ever since wild food advocate Steve Brill was arrested for picking a dandelion in New York’s Central Part nearly three decades ago not much has changed. Here in Victoria, as across North America, foraging is not permitted in parks whether they urban or rural, municipal, provincial or federal.
One of the greatest concerns about the growth of the wild food movement is that hordes of foragers will descend on the wilds, trampling delicate ecosystems and over-harvesting native plants etc. And this goes to the heart of 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 safely, and legally harvest those plants?
This question is rarely addressed directly even though the answer shapes the future of wildcrafting itself. Today books, courses, educational walks, online resources, websites on wildcrafting and foraging continue to proliferate, and while most offer responsible guides on how to “do no harm”, tread lightly, take little, never harvest rare plants, be respectful of unceded territories, land, foods, sacred plants and practices of local First Peoples – is it enough? Because the most asked question I get from new wildcrafters is where can I go to forage?
So 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. And here’s the moral rub. I know, deep inside, despite my warnings about the necessity of obtaining permissions, many will inevitably end up harvesting illegally.
And while there seems little harm in picking dandelion leaves from your local neighbourhood park, I worry turning a blind eye sets the stage not for the protection of our endangered ecosystems, the lands and plants of our First Peoples, but for potential trampling, overharvesting and exploitation to occur. And I admit – I too am guilty. I have picked a few plantain, dandelion leaves and other plants in the weed-ridden parks near my house!
It’s a slippery slope. And as more people return to the land looking for mushrooms, nettles, berries and medicinal herbs could it inevitably lead to a backlash against the wild food movement itself, as is already happening in the UK? In parts of the country, where foraging was previously legal (part of the long-standing right of the people) it is now being banned. The reason? What used to be a niche countryside pursuit is now an urban trend leading to increasing environmental concerns i.e. trampling the forests.
I’m passionate about reclaiming wild foods and “weeds” as the important ancestral foods and medicines that they are – but as interest continues to grow exponentially each year, I think it’s going to take a whole lot more than connecting with the “spirit of the land” and teaching the “in and outs” of ethical foraging to protect our already overstressed natural environments.
Which is why four years ago Gather 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 and b) grant designated pilot spaces in urban parks for public foraging c) create educational opportunies to learn about wild plants and sustainable ethical methods of harvest.
I saw the Community Supported Foraging Plan as a way to protect our wilder areas by encouraging foraging within urban parks (chosen in consultation with city naturalists) in already cultivated spaces. I don’t mean allowing weeds to run free but allowing access to controlled “edible weed gardens” here and there. And it would address 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.
While many are classified as “noxious” they are also the earth’s most ancient, nutritious and healing plants, brimming with the vital nutrients so depleted in our modern food supply. Introduced here by the early settlers, many of these plants have now colonized local landscapes and are 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? Providing safe, legal access to the bounty of freely available nutritious plants could provide several key benefits, 1) help control the spread of invasive plants (by eating them) 2) strengthen local food security and 3) protect endangered eco-systems 4) and perhaps even improve community health!
But as I began to talk to municipal park representatives about the plan I 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 much more time, lobbying and monetary resources than I had, so it was time to pull back and rethink my approach. It was pretty clear to me that until we (as wild food foragers and educators) work to 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!
I knew this because the majority of my personal foraging occurs in the city’s “common ground” herbal gardens. Unlike community garden plots which are for private use, common ground gardens are designed to provide public access to the foods growing within them. Here wild edible plants (weeds) like clover, nettles, hawthorn, milk thistle, St.John’s Wort, dandelion, cleavers, plantain, chickweed, curly dock and garlic mustard – are not only permitted to grow – they are free and legal to harvest along with many other culinary and medicinal herbs, native berries, greens, blossoms, and fruits.
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 city hall requesting access to public green spaces to forage.
This is already happening in many places in the Pacific Northwest as many food security activists are looking to foraging to increase the resilience of their food supply. And from Washington to Oregon many parks not only tolerate foraging but actually teach foraging classes. One can find access to foraging friendly maps and Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest has been around for nearly a decade. Food grown there 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 has launched Forage Berkley and they confirm that “there are mountains of wild edible plants in urban food deserts in the Bay Area.” They 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.”
Whether it will be enough to protect our wilder spaces I don’t know. But I’m hoping that as more and more people access these spaces (and enjoy the bounty of fresh free tasty and nutritious fruits and greens) that community demand will grow for even more food forests and common ground gardens. And voila, what will 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!
But alas, that vision is not becoming reality here in Victoria. Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched as more and more common ground gardens begin rigorous weed elimination campaigns removing violets, sweet cicely, horehound, wild rocket, miner’s lettuce, chickweed, fennel and dandelions! And I was told confidentially by one garden coordinator that “government pressure” was involved. Another common ground garden coordinator had plans to set up a little educational “weed garden” but was nixed due to “negative public perception” not to mention running afoul of weed removal regulations.
And worse, I’ve watched one of the most lush 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. The Peoples Apothecary lost its funding in 2019 and was also sold to the School Board (despite community protest) and I pray that its future will not be similarly undermined.
With the loss of these common ground foraging spaces will more people be driven to harvest in ecologically vulnerable spaces? Problem is even if you want to forage illegally for weeds – it’s getting harder and harder to do so. Invasive weed eradication is a top priority in our parks and the application of pesticides and herbicides continues to grow. While pinterest and social media are filled with lists of top ten wild foods and edible weeds most of these same plants are targeted for elimination on invasive species lists. And three years after the application of Glyphosate in Uplands Park, all that is growing is the blackberries – the target of this pesticide application in the first place. (below) I’m not sure what is being restored exactly?
And c’mon are we truly sure that noxious compounds – often applied again and again in the same areas, do not eventually accumulate in the soil, run into waterways or end up consumed by local wildlife?
At a time when food prices are rising and space for growing food is limited, does this really make sense? These nutrient rich freely available foods require no resources to plant, grow or water and could not only radically improve our diet but increase the security and resilience of local food systems .
So I’m hoping the new found 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 ecologically respectful and ethical community foraging guidelines.
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? So can we find a way to ethical and sustainable wildcrafting? 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!)
- Exploring the opportunities and responsibilities of foraging on the West Coast
- Foragers encouraged to harvest wild foods and medicines sustainably around Vancouver
- Wildcrafting For Future Generations
- Ethical Foraging 101: What You Need to Know
- Wildcrafting: A “simple” life fraught with a host of complex ethical and practical considerations
- Wildcrafting Basics: Ethical Wildcrafting
- Wildcrafting Ethics
- STEWARDS OR PROFITEERS: SELLING THE WILD
- WILD CAKES FOR CAMOSSUNG: A PRAYER FOR RESTORING THE GARDEN