Today some are called indigenous or native plants, others are called invasive, but all filled the earliest cooking pots of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and continued to be consumed for their health-promoting properties – long after agriculture was well established. In fact, far from a recent food ‘trend’, wild foods once constituted a kind of “medicinal cuisine” enjoyed by our ancestors around the world, and as herbalists have long known, many wild foods are so chock full of healing nutrition they are a veritable medicine.
While many of these plants graced our grandparent’s dinner plates, filled their pantries and medicinal chests just a few generations ago, today they’re either forgotten or classified as weeds. And it’s why many herbalists believe, it’s no coincidence that modern chronic diseases have run rampant as wild foods disappeared from our diet.
Growing where and when mother nature chooses, wild plants are not only free but easy to cook with, delicious and good for you. As wild food forager, Sunny Savage in her popular TedX Talk urges – consuming just one wild plant a day can go a long way in improving our health. And if those aren’t reasons enough to learn about the foods that grow all around you – consider that they help strengthen local food security and forge a relationship to nature that is good for us and the planet.
Vital Food Supplement
Today more than ever, we need wild foods. It is a sad fact that industrial agriculture has stripped our cultivated fruit, grains and vegetables of important nutrients. Soils have become so over-farmed (not to mention saturated with herbicides and pesticides) that they are depleted of the critical vitamins and minerals we need to thrive. However, wild foods—brimming with vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, phytonutrients and antioxidants in such short supply in our conventional diet—are the world’s most nutritionally potent superfoods.
Through domestic agriculture and our quest for sweeter, starchier foods, we’ve tampered with nature’s nutritional balance. Wild foods are the originators of all fruits, grains and vegetables, and as author of The Green Pharmacy, James Duke, PhD, reminds us, wild foods are the “plants that our ancestors ate—that humans evolved to eat”. By eating wild, we are eating unadulterated, seasonal, nutritionally balanced foods in their original form—as nature intended.
Part of New Localized Food Systems
“Foraging skills, coupled with access to land- local parks, community gardens, back yards or vast wilderness equals food sovereignty.” Dina Falconi Foraging and Feasting.
Most “wild foods” are not rare endangered indigenous species, but rather invasive plants (i.e. dandelions, plantain, garlic mustard, hawthorn berries, blackberries) that were introduced here by the early settlers as food. But today the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to eliminate (often with herbicides) these nutrient-rich foods from our lawns, gardens, parks and green spaces. Of course, wild foods will never feed populations en masse, but they have been historically used—and can be again—as a vital food supplement to enrich all of our diets.
Wild foods grow everywhere in our urban and suburban neighbourhoods yet they remain a mostly untapped resource. Scottish forager Mark Williams calls these plants “superabundant”. Meaning, “if everybody within walking distance gathered enough for their personal consumption each year, under 1% of a species would actually be harvested.” Add to this bounty, the fruit produced by tree’s on city streets and boulevards, and feral fruit trees in parks, especially those that were once farmland like the fields surrounding Beaver Lake Park.
Cities like Los Angeles and Seattle are currently considering ways in which ways to allow food harvesting on public land. Some Seattle parks not only tolerate foraging, they actually teach foraging classes. In California, The Berkley Food Institute has launched Forage Berkley which maps the availability of wild and feral edible plants in urban neighbourhoods and provides community education – and they confirm that “there are mountains of wild edible plants in urban food deserts in the Bay Area.” These initiatives are part of a shift in cities preparing for climate changes and rising fuel prices, leading many local food security activists to look to foraging to increase the resilience of their food supply.
Bring Us Into Harmony with Nature
As foragers, our relationship within nature- our complete interdependence- becomes crystal clear…With this comes the rewarding responsibility of caretaking the land and the plants that feed us.”Dina Falconi Foraging and Feasting.
Foraging promotes community health and well-being through more than just nutrition. Countless studies show that spending time in nature reduces blood pressure, anxiety and stress levels. And as David Suzuki points out (see here) – “with more than 80 per cent of Canadians now living in urban settings, many of us lack a meaningful, regular connection with the natural environment that sustains us. Getting in touch with the outdoors has another great benefit: those who know and love nature work harder to protect it.”
Foraging means learning to harvest what nature gives us in time, it teaches us to observe the cycles of the seasons, the changing foliage, the flora and fauna. We begin to gain a deeper ecological understanding of our local environment – and we believe this motivates us to become better stewards of nature – especially the nature that lies just outside our front door.
And as Melissa Poe, an environmental anthropologist states “the more people understand about how the ecosystems work, the more respectful they will be of our parks.” Poe’s research demonstrates that educated foragers help protect urban land, they “enjoy greater connection with their local environment, and as a part of the gathering process, share and maintain significant local environmental knowledge. This element (the connections between nature and people) is among the most deeply significant motivations for people to engage in the practice of foraging. “It’s an intimate connection. You can go out and you can appreciate [urban nature] and say “oh, my isn’t it pretty,” but when you interact on this level, when it becomes part of your pantry, when it’s part of what you eat, now you have a relationship. You’re not an outside observer. It’s not this ‘other’ thing. It’s part of you and you are part of it.”
As a forager, someone who gathers food outside of culturally designated areas of food production, I am regularly reminded of how the colonial legacy still shapes the way nature is managed and accessed. The First Peoples upon whose unceded territory I am privileged to make my home had a very different system of food production to our own.
Within their traditional food cultivation and gathering practices, each season and place had a purpose, part of a system of food production that moved through the landscape, respecting its intrinsic right to exist as is. Access to their foodways and traditional food culture was terminated and colonialists imposed a numbered grid on the land, crisscrossing streets to parcels of farmland, all zoned for appropriate use. Still today, anything that grows outside areas zoned for food production is no longer considered “food” and foraging for any of the fruits, berries or herbs growing freely in our parks is not permitted.
Dawn Morrison, founder and curator of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty (WGIFS) reminds us ” The complex challenges of climate change, coloniality and capitalism before us are calling on us to remember our interrelationships to the natural world and the people, plants and animals that provide us with our food… We are the oldest living memories of what it means to live with one another, and the land, water, plants and animals and work within the natural systems.”
Gathering the food we need to survive is our oldest, most primal relationship to the planet. Ancestral food wisdom reconnects us to a vital truth, it’s the earth – not technology – that sustains us. This is why I believe wild foods should be valued as an important community resource in localized food systems. They pave a path towards a future in which foraging supports a sustainable connection between people, land and food, one that nourishes us and brings us into “right relationship” with nature.