Foraging is hedged around with a thicket of issues: legal questions, ethical dilemmas and safety concerns. Let’s look at them one by one.
The ethics of foraging are fuzzy. When I searched the Internet for information, I found a letter written by a woman in Los Angeles to an ethics columnist. She wanted to know if she could pluck lemons from a tree that was overhanging the sidewalk in her neighborhood. The response was stern. Only if she got permission from the homeowner.
This is the answer dictated by ethics. But the law is not so harsh. In California, any fruit which overhangs public property is public property.
In the United Kingdom the opposite is true. The owner of the fruit tree has the right to all of its fruits. If your apple tree overhangs my yard, I cannot pluck apples from the boughs or gather fallen apples from the ground. And you can come into my yard, any time you want, without asking my permission, to harvest your apples.
I was unable to find any comparable statute in Washington law. I assume that since a parkway (the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street) is a public space, anything growing there is public property. One of my neighbors has blue delphiniums, pink hollyhocks and golden dahlias blooming in his parkway. Yet it has never occurred to me to pick any of these flowers.
I rely on intuition to guide me. I leave the gladiola that is blooming in the crack of a nearby parking lot, even though it’s clearly a volunteer. But I pluck the honeysuckle blossoms that grow on a vine overhanging the sidewalk outside Pepe’s Garden (named after a neighborhood character. Pepe’s Garden is a hillside vacant lot that has been terraced and planted by the tenants of the nearby apartment buildings).
The distinction between public and private is personal. I tend a plot in a community garden, the Thomas Street p-patch on Capitol Hill. Community gardeners learn not to covet. Because the space is so park-like, with winding slate paths and wrought-iron benches, visitors view it as a public space. So although there’s a little sign posted at the gate, asking people to respect the garden, I’ve become used to having my plot raided.
Although I grow a few food crops, I prefer flowers. Tall blue bearded irises. Small purple violets. A flamboyant pink peony. One year I planted several lily bulbs, but only one came up. I watched it grow, admiring the sturdy stalk pressing upwards, the swelling green bud at the top. Every day I went to the garden, eager to see it open. But one day, there was only a stalk. Someone had snapped off the flower.
For weeks I was angry every time I saw that truncated stem. Then one afternoon while I was working in the garden, a woman and two men who had been drinking on the back bench, strolled past me on their way out of the garden. The woman had the reddish, cracked skin of someone who lives on the streets. She was short with a broad face and long dark hair and she had tucked a spotted pink Stargazer lily behind her ear. At first I was irritated by the sight—that might have been my lily—but then I considered what this flower might mean to her. She got beauty and fragrance for free. I could afford to purchase both at the local grocery store.
There is one act of foraging that is I know is illegal in the State of Washington: removing any plant from a public park. When I learned about this law, I was dismayed. For years, I’ve gathered greens for my Advent wreath at Volunteer Park, a large and spacious public park a few blocks from my apartment.
I visit the same trees and plants year after year: here the doll’s eyes (also known as snowberries) growing in a frowsy clump by the path; there the cedar, with its fragrant spreading branches; farther down the path, the holly with its red berries.
Then in 1999, a wild windstorm (known hereabouts as the Election Day storm), eased my guilt by downing most of the branches I needed. That November, I collected my greens by picking them up off the ground. (I have convinced myself this act is not illegal. After all, I am saving the grounds maintenance crew from some work.) This has become my regular practice: to take only what is offered.
Foraging means gathering wild food. For those of us who grew up believing that food came from the grocery store, where it is neatly labeled, the act of yanking greens right out of the ground or plucking berries from a bush seem dangerous. What if they are poisonous?
Samuel Thayer has an interesting take on this in his book, Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. He suggests only eating plants you can positively identify. He gives the following example. Suppose you are at the grocery store and the cashier rings up your bananas as grapes. You point out, “Those are bananas.” The clerk disagrees with you. He calls over the produce manager who says, “No, those are grapes.” You would insist they were bananas. Even if the manager pulled out a chart of photos and shows you grapes labeled as bananas, you would not back down. “I know bananas and these are bananas!”
He recommends a five point system that we’ll visit next week. The goal is the sort of contradictory confidence that would enable you to stand your ground with the produce manager.
But correct identification is not the only issue. Tama Matsuoka Wong in her book, Foraged Flavor, also goes through a thorough process when she finds a new plant.
Once she is satisfied that she has correctly identified the plant, she checks on its sustainability (we’ll get to that in a minute). Then she gets permission to harvest it from the landowner and checks to make sure it is distant from “chemical runoff, highway fumes, animal waste, and pesticides.” That’s likely since she lives on several acres in a rural part of New Jersey. For a city dweller, making this determination is a bit more difficult.
One day, I noted that the contorted branches of the juniper bushes outside the Safeway supermarket on the corner of 15th and John were covered with grey-green berries. I popped one into my mouth. It tasted sharp, bitter, peppery. I thought they would be great as a condiment, in a chutney, or in alcohol (juniper berries are one of the main flavoring ingredients in gin). But I didn’t know if they were safe to consume.
A quick survey of the Internet turned up an article by an urban forager who suggested looking at the trunks of the trees for evidence of spider webs. She believes that if the trees have been sprayed the trunks will be bare. The next morning I checked and found spider webs on the trunks of the junipers but this was not completely reassuring. After all, the webs could be old and abandoned. But I pass it along as a suggestion for other foragers.
One safety rule which is most often applied by foragers in the city has to do with height. Nothing below dog height is the rule for picking plants and flowers along urban sidewalks. In some parts of the city, the height recommendation might be raised to man height. I used to work at a literary arts center situated between a public park and a church that served free lunches on Tuesday. We often had homeless people sleeping on our porch and using our garden as a latrine.
Despite these restrictions, there were plenty of plants available for me to forage. The fennel growing out of the cracks in the parking lot towered over my head. When the seeds turned brown, I clipped off the umbels, plunked them inside a brown paper bag and shook them occasionally to release the seeds. The blackberries in the back of the parking lot also grew too high to be peed upon. Our building manager baked them into delicious scones and muffins for staff meetings.
One June evening, coming back from the library laden with books, I entered a cloud of honeyed sweetness. Looking around, I found the source of the aroma: the linden trees growing beside an old brick church were blooming. I dumped my library books out of their plastic bag and began filling it instead with the sticky white linden flowers. Two men walked by. They stopped a few feet away. “What is that?” one said to the other. They looked all around. Their puzzled expressions reminded me of my first encounter with linden.
I was working as an office manager for a dance school in Ballard. The street outside the office was lined with trees which dripped sap all over the windshields of the parked cars in the month of July. As I walked to work every day, I puzzled over the honeyed scent in the air, pausing to sniff every shrub, every flower. It took me a week before I looked up.
“It’s a linden tree,” I said, showing the passers by the blossoms I was gathering. The flowers are tiny and white and sticky with sap; they cling to the green husks of the seed pods. The two men expressed their amazement and went on. But I wondered, after they left, if I should have been so open about my discovery. Once I alert others to the existence of these plants, will they strip the stand?
So far this hasn’t happened, and, indeed, I am always finding new lindens. It’s almost always the fragrance that alerts me. A few years ago I went to an Obon festival in the International district with my niece and as we walked back to our car we passed under a row of sweet-smelling lindens, laden with flowers and dripping honeydew. So if my library tree is ever out of blossoms, I know where to find more.
How do you know which plants it’s OK to pick? Tama Matsuoka Wong divides the edible plants she knows into three categories: green (go!), yellow (go slow) and red (stop). Most of the plants in the Green category are naturalized and invasive plants, food plants that have escaped into the wild and invasive plants that people want to exterminate. In the Yellow category are native plants that have co-evolved with the local landscape, including other plants, animals, birds and insects. When foraging these plants, a good rule of thumb is to take only 20% of any stand. In the Red category, are specialized plants that need specific conditions to grow and might take years to return, or not at all, if they do at all, so she does not pick these.
Tama lists the following edible invasive plants that get the green light:
Asiatic day flower
As an example of plants in the Red category and should not be harvested, she lists the spring ephemerals, specialist wildflowers like trout lily, spring beauty, toothwort, mayapple, trillium, wild ginger, and solomon’s seal. She writes: “Many of these plants are declining in the wild and will not grow back if the soil around their roots is plowed or disturbed. Some are also slow growers; trilliums can take two years to germinate and seven to ten years to flower.”
Assignment for Week 2
Instead of sending you out to forage this week, I’d like you to come up with your own guidelines about foraging.
- Where do you consider it ethical to gather plants that are not ones that you planted? What are the laws where you live that cover this?
- What would it take for you to feel that a plant you foraged was safe to eat?
- And finally, what plants are considered invasive or noxious weeds in your area? And what plants are rare or endangered?