In Sacramento, they pick figs, kumquats, and plums from public trees. In New York, they harvest purslane–an edible flower–from the cracks in the sidewalk. Down south, it’s fiddlehead ferns, and just about everywhere, people are picking black walnuts, wild mushrooms, and dandelion greens.
Urban foraging–gathering fruit, vegetables, and other useful things from parks, lawns, and sidewalks–isn’t a new thing. But as more urbanites become aware of the free bounty surrounding them, new issues are–pardon the pun–cropping up. When a public park’s berry patch is raided, whose responsibility is it to make sure there are some left for everyone to enjoy? What about pesticides?
The Institute for Culture and Ecology has been studying urban foragers since 2008 to understand how foraging fits into a city’s ecosystem. The latest project, studying foragers in Seattle, kicked off in early 2010 with partial funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Since then, researcher Melissa Poe and her team have interviewed 35 foragers.
Among their findings:
This tiny group of foragers–just a small percentage of the people in Seattle who gather wild plants–together picks a whopping 250 different species of plants, year-round. Some have been gathering in Seattle for over 60 years. Most act as caretakers for their favorite spots, which they return to year after year.
Most popular item? “Right now, it’s blackberry season,” Poe said. Seattle is also home to the Oregon grape–more closely related to the barberry than an actual grape–and English ivy, an invasive vine that Seattle-area crafting groups weave into baskets.
How many people are doing this? It depends. Poe has identified 150 self-identified foragers, but “I don’t think people consider what they do wild plant gathering,” she told Green Guide.
“It’s just what you do. There’s a blackberry [plant] in the alley, so you pick it. The number of people who gather blackberries, I am positive, is over half of Seattle.”
Foraging can be a risky business: in some municipalities, it’s not allowed in public parks. Earlier this year, the New York Times’ urban foraging columnist suggested that would-be gatherers pick day lily shoots from Central Park; the Times had to quickly post a clarification that picking plants from city parks was against the law.
“If 15 people decide to go harvest day lilies to stir-fry that night, you could wipe out the entire population of day lilies around the Central Park reservoir,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the Times.
There’s another risk: chemicals. “Most of the foragers we have talked to are expressing concerns about toxicity,” Poe said. Public park managers aren’t necessarily interested in preserving the edibility of the wild things that grow there–don’t even start on whatever might grow in a median or alley. Park managers and city planners could make it easier for foragers, Poe suggested, by minimizing the chemicals sprayed or, at the very least, putting up signs to alert would-be foragers when pesticides are at their most potent.
But outweighing those risks? The food is free and would likely go to waste if not harvested. Foraging gets people outdoors, learning more about the environment. And the food is about as local as can be.
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Photograph courtesy Chris Johns, National Geographic