Foraging, or wildcrafting as it is also known, has been a part of our history since the beginning of our species.
So, it’s like an indelible stamp of being human.
And as much as our forefathers loved hunting, they also didn’t mind the gathering bit.
Back then there was no concept of sustainable foraging. There was plenty to go around as our numbers were less.
It’s different now.
Why sustainable and ethical foraging?
It breaks one’s heart to witness the ravaging of thriving spectrum of plant species.
We tend to exploit the last ounce of goodness from anything beneficial that crosses our path.
Take, for instance, the case of these plants that suffered due to our unscrupulous wildcrafting ways.
The onion-like ramp is a favorite with chefs and predictably this has put a tremendous strain on the species.
Likewise ginseng, which has been used for hundreds of years to alleviate stress, balance blood sugar and reduce stress, is feeling the heat.
Another threatened plant species is bloodroot, a flowering plant that provides sap used for topical purposes.
If only we could forage conscientiously then we’d actually be doing the ecosystems and such plant species a favor.
Besides the element of food and nutrition, foraging sustainably does one more thing:
It can be a fantastic way to get in touch with nature and practice slow and mindful living.
Here are tips to help you forage ethically.
1. Preparing in advance for your wildcrafting trip
Like with everything else, good preparation lays the base for good execution when it comes to responsible foraging.
Keep these tips in mind as you venture into the forest.
Carry your tools with you
Taking the Fred Flintstone route is fun. Nothing like getting in touch with your caveman roots. I have no issues with that school of thought but I personally like to take my tools with me.
My foraging kit typically includes trowels, shovels, scissors, a reusable paper bag to collect my bounty, and a handy guide book to help identify the plants.
Try not doing the dirty work by hand. A plant that is cut clean is less liable to be infected and more likely to survive and give more fruits.
Plus, not all plants are innocent.
Some may cause dangerous reactions. So, wear your gloves.
Know your plants
For example, some plants grow so quickly that it can overtake the entire land. If you stumble upon them then you can harvest them will little restriction. Japanese knotweed is one such plant species.
And while you’re still wearing the Bear Grylls garb, just ensure that you don’t pick the evil twin capable of an apocalypse in your stomach. Mushrooms, for example, have dangerous look-alikes.
How do you avoid such catastrophes?
Make a list of plants you plan to forage and research thoroughly on what they look like and if they have any closely resembling, hazardous plants.
Also, you may not have to go far to get what you need.
Some plants are right under our noses if only we knew where to look. Weeds like dandelion and chickweed are not only edible but may offer health benefits too. These are often found in our gardens.
Finally, glean information from people who’ve been there and done that. Local experts can offer tons of valuable insight that you may not find in your handbook. Use their knowledge.
To know about what flowers and plants to eat and what to keep away from your curious palate at all costs, we’ve created a list of 60+ edible flowers for your kitchen. Don’t forget to scroll down the piece where you will also find a list of poisonous flowers you need to avoid.
2. Pick the right patch to forage
Now that you are armed with the right tools and adequate knowledge of plants, you are ready to unleash the wildcrafter in you.
But you can’t target every available plot of land you lay your eyes upon.
Remember two things:
One, you are not legally allowed to forage every piece of land and, two, your stomach will hold a grudge against you if you are not careful in what you pick.
Here’s what you can do.
Ensure that you forage from non-toxic areas
Stay off land near power lines, roads or any locality that is exposed to toxic chemicals.
Even water bodies like streams are a problem. Run a check first on the source of the water body.
Check if the plant is not located near a dangerous source. Seaweed for example should not be picked from areas close to estuaries.
Not to mention the areas where there are lots of livestock. You wouldn’t want to be snacking on something, however delicious, that grows in a place where cows take their morning dumps.
Finally, ask yourself this: Is my foraging affecting the land? As tempting as it may be to pick plant species you’ve been hunting for days, it’s better to leave them untouched if they have dwindling numbers.
Allow them to flourish as intended by nature. Let them paint the brown canvas with their different shades, a veritable cornucopia of gems meant for us to use with care and prudence. Give them the sovereignty to happily bestow their surplus to man and critter alike. I am channeling Tennyson here.
Let them thrive before you forage them… sustainably. Better.
Trespass at your own peril
You cannot waltz into private property with tools slung over your shoulder and a wide grin on your face and get away with it. Talk to the owner and get their permission before even attempting such a move.
On national parks and public areas you are playing with fire. Unless there is a plant that is guaranteed to give you superpowers, you wouldn’t want to risk paying a hefty fine or spending half a year behind bars.
Let abused land recover
If you see land that has been foraged mercilessly with no hint of care or concern, move to another land, even if that particular land has plants you are looking for. This way, you give the ecosystem a chance to recover.
3. Time to collect
Your pre-wildcrafting research puts a scholar to shame. You have shiny new tools ready to see action. You have been given permission to forage on a patch of land.
How do you approach the collecting bit?
Take only what you need
Greed is not good.
If in doubt, take only 10 percent of the plant available. And make sure to pick those that are not too old or too big; such plants are what ensures that the species survive.
In fact, pick less than 10 percent if possible.
You may not be the only one foraging for that particular species so eventually the total may add up to a point that it affects the plant’s future.
Also, eat only what you can see.
Pick the leaves and don’t forage tubers and bulbs below the ground; these are necessary to ensure the plant grows again.
If leaves do not satisfy your urge and you intend to eat the bulbs, just make sure that you leave untouched the root crown which is a tissue you’ll find at the base of the bulb. You can regrow the plants using these crowns.
As for trees, collect lichens and moss with care so you don’t damage the bark. If it’s bark you’re looking for then take them from felled trees.
Also, trees such as beech, linden, hawthorn and mulberry offer leaves that can be eaten.
Take the fruits, leave the rest untouched
Some trees are designed by nature to provide us with fruits.
The obvious ones are apple and orange trees and the like. Take the case of the robust oak tree, for example, which hold acorns that are meant to be scattered.
So, if a tree is meant for fruits try not picking other parts from them.
Do not pick small clusters of plants
If you see a bunch of plants clustered together, which is far away from the main group, it’s best not to forage them. They may have taken years to grow and regenerating could be a bit of a problem.
Besides the ones already mentioned like ramps and ginseng, there are other extremely fragile plant species that should be left alone, such as osha and peyote.
If we don’t curb our foraging ways then these wonderful plant species that have so much more to offer to both us and animals will be lost to history.
For such plants, try to find substitutes. For example, to prevent infection, you can use Oregon grape in place of the more popular but close-to-endangered goldenseal. Similarly, the nutrient-filled nettle can substitute for ginseng to reduce stress and boost energy levels.
Pick when the time is right
The period from spring to the end of summer is the best time to forage. It is during these months that wild foods are at their peak and have the most variety.
4. Before you leave…
Invest back into nature.
If you are foraging from a patch of land do you bit to put back what you’ve taken. In fact, plant more than your forage.
This action is not just healthy for the land but you’ll also be creating an opportunity for your children and grandchildren to enjoy the benefits of nature.
How do you do this?
There are many ways in which you can. For example, you can scatter seeds and plant root crowns and the forest goddess will smile upon your handiwork.
And find out the endangered plants and stay away from them at all costs, however attractive they look. If possible, help rejuvenate those species in the wild.
Grow a personal garden
There are no restrictions in foraging from your own personal garden. Grow the plant you want and reap the harvest.
For those living in concrete jungles, there is always the option of growing your own indoor herb garden.
There are over seven billon of us and our natural supplies cannot sustain our greed. There are seemingly endless varieties of plants but all that will soon disappear if we do not control our shark-like frenzy to consume.
The need of the hour is ethical wildcrafting. Forage them in a manner that these invaluable plants are not completely wiped out.
You will find plenty of new and unique foods which will negate the need to buy from commercial places, thus reducing your carbon footprint.
Foraging sustainably can actually help such plant species.
And guess what?
Some of them require us to indulge in wildcrafting to ensure their survival.
What’s been your foraging experience? Do you follow any of these tips for sustainable foraging? Let us know in the comments.