Finding A Way Towards Ethical & Sustainable Wildcrafting: Community Supported Foraging

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?

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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! 

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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!

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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.

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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. 

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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!

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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.

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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?

Recently Updated460Desktop75And 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.

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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!)

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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 Wildcrafting: 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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