Foraging for wild edibles is a rapidly growing hobby, popular among naturalists, preppers, anarcho-primitivists, foodies, and so on. And it’s no wonder: wild edibles grow organically and cost no money. But I often wonder about the environmental costs, which could be substantial if popularity continues to rise. That’s why I think it’s important to have a foraging ethic, a code of behavior to guide one’s foraging activities. So I thought I’d share mine here, for whatever it’s worth. Think of this as a special case of Aldo Leopold’s concept of a “land ethic”, as he describes in his seminal book, A Sand County Almanac, whereby consideration for the entire biotic community – soils, waters, plants, and animals – guides all of one’s interactions with nature.
Here are 4 important tips for a good foraging ethic
1. Forage for plants that are common in your area
This ensures that you will not be a threat to rare plants. However, it does require an ability to identify common and uncommon species in your area. This is a daunting concept if you’re a beginner, because it’s easier to learn one or two plants at a time, and more appealing to forage for plants you have heard about and expect to like. It’s fine to start that way, but you’ll find you have many more foraging options, and you’ll be better equipped to make responsible decisions, if you learn plant identification in general.
Get a few field guides or keys, and start learning the plants that grow with wild abandon around your yard, along the roadsides, and wherever you hike. You will soon discover that many of them have edible parts. You’ll probably find it easier to start with a certain class of plants, such as trees, shrubs, or herbaceous plants. Trees are a good place to start, because there are fewer species and because you can identify most of them in any season.
2. Do not spread invasive species
When you eat an invasive plant, it becomes a resource rather than a pest. This is an example of adapting to environmental change, far better than reacting to it (with herbicides, for example). It’s even better if your method of preparation reduces its spread, as when autumnberries or barberries are boiled to make juice, thus killing the seeds.
However, some people worry that foraging for invasive plants will increase demand for them, tempting foragers to plant them in their yards for easy harvesting. In that case, foraging could be harmful to ecosystems. This is a real concern, and, unfortunately, I have come across wild edibles enthusiasts who encouraged the propagation of invasive species, whether due to lack of information or lack of concern.
Educate yourself about plants in your area. If you live in the US, take advantage of the informative and easy to use Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States. If you learn that a plant is considered invasive or potentially invasive, please do not plant it. As a member of my local conservation commission, I am, like many other conservationists, in the throes of the debate over which does more damage, invasive species or herbicides. Nobody thinks herbicide use is a good thing, if it can be avoided, so please do not give us additional cause to consider it.
3. Tread lightly
Be mindful of what you are trampling as you harvest. It is often easy to gather a lot of food directly from the roadside or trail side, and doing so will reduce your impact. Avoid causing unnecessary damage even to common plants. It might be hard to imagine that we could ever threaten an abundant and widespread species, but humans have done it before (remember the passenger pigeon). And, with our ever growing population, we could easily do it again. Arm yourself with knowledge. Understanding biologic systems will help you make more responsible decisions.
4. Develop awareness of other animals, and let it inform your own foraging ethic.
This is what I enjoy most about foraging. You become aware of other species that depend on the plants you harvest. You begin to see yourself as just one part of an intricate system. You recognize that your own actions impact others within that system. You learn that you can choose to steward the land, rather than exploit it.
Occasionally people tell me that foraging is bad because it robs food from wildlife. While their concern for the welfare of wild creatures warms my heart, I don’t think they have given much thought to our current food system. My response to them: Where do you think your store bought food comes from? Most likely, it comes from a virtual monoculture: formerly diverse habitat that was converted by the plow, pesticides, and GMO’s, to a single species plantation, now hostile to most of the wildlife it once supported. That is much worse for wildlife than foraging from a relatively wild patch of land.
In fact, foraging could ultimately benefit wildlife conservation, in the same way hunting has. Revenue from hunting licenses has protected a lot of wildlife habitat. Imagine a system where one could purchase a license to forage on wildlife sanctuaries. This may not appeal to those of us who forage to save money, but it may be more sustainable than a free for all.
So keep an eye out for cedar waxwings enjoying the fruit you want for jam. Observe pollinating insects visiting the flowers you seek for fritters. Look for rodent teeth marks on the shells of hickory nuts you prize for pies. Notice the rabbit’s feeding sign on the sumac stems as you harvest the berries for juice. We are linked to all of them in mutual need for the same soil, water, flora and fauna. If we take them down, we go down with them. But if we help them thrive, we thrive, as well. Let this awareness guide your actions, and shape your foraging ethic.
Shared on: Thank Goodness it’s Monday, HomeAcre Hop, Time Travel Thursday, Wicked Awesome Wednesday, Green Thumb Thursday, From the Farm Blog Hop, Freedom Fridays, Simply Natural Saturdays, Simple Saturdays blog hop #4, Homestead Barn Hop #141, Wildcrafting Wednesday #119, Natural Living Mondays, Mostly Homemade Mondays, Backyard Farming Connection #63, Teach Me Tuesday, Tuesdays with a Twist #41, Fresh Foods Wednesday #65, Waste Not, Want Not Wednesday #59, Tuesday Greens #59