Garden season is upon us! However, even if you got a head start by transplanting seedlings, or have a garden full of perennials coming back, a bountiful harvest is still weeks away. If you are craving local fresh greens right now, why not take up foraging? There are plenty of delicious, nutritious wild edibles all around us, and in many cases they are very easy to find, harvest and use. You may not need to go much further than your own backyard (or your neighbours!). Often what is considered to be a “weed” to one person can be a useful plant for others. After all, weeds are really just plants growing where we don’t want them. To help get you started, here are some tips for wild-harvesting in the city, and 12 wild food plants that are easy to find.
Important Ethics for Foraging in the City
- Proper Plant ID – Always know you are properly identifying your plant before you harvest it. Bring a plant ID book along as a reference guide and search for plants by botanical (i.e. Latin) name, as well as using the various photos or keys that the book offers. Get to know basic plant characteristics, such as shape of stem (square or round), pattern of leaves (alternate or opposite), and so forth. Peterson’s, Newcombes, and Lone Pine are all good plant ID books to begin with.
- Find a Mentor – Even better than striking out on your own, is to go foraging with a mentor. Find a friend who has more experience with wild-harvesting than you do, and take time to learn together. Build a network of foraging friends in Midtown!
- Choose Safe and Simple – If you are new to foraging, start with plants that are obvious to identify and safe to use. Most of us are completely familiar with dandelions and violets, which are two safe and useful plants to start with. Do not choose to harvest plants that have toxic “look-alikes” . For example, although purslane is easily identified by those who know it well, it does have the toxic spurge as a close look-alike. Wild mushroom foraging is definitely not for beginners, and should only be done if you are with someone who is absolutely well versed in mushroom identification.
- Choose Healthy Locations – Harvest only from locations that you know are non-toxic and unsprayed. You will want to avoid dog walking areas, former industrial sites, and locations near roadways. The Spurline Trail may have loads of red clover, red raspberry, or chicory, but you need to consider whether you really want to harvest plants that grow along an active rail line
- Find Healthy Plant Populations – In order to ensure plants return the following season, harvest only in areas where you see abundant and healthy-looking plant populations. Never uproot an entire plant, but rather take small sections of various plants. If you do plan to harvest and use the plant root, know that taking a taproot means the entire plant is now gone. Take only what you know you will use. Remember to never harvest plants that are endangered or at risk. Although a patch of wild ginger might be enticing, leave it alone so this at-risk plant can thrive.
- Harvest Correctly and in Season – Remember to make sure you know which part of the plant is used (is it the leaves, the roots, the flowers, or are all parts safe to use?). Note which time of the year each part can be harvested. Generally, harvest leaves and flowers in the spring, and seeds, roots, and berries in the fall.
- Leave No Trace – After you have finished harvesting, it should look as if no one has been there. Try to tread lightly when you harvest, and cover up any cuttings or diggings, so the roots stay firmly in the soil. It’s wise not to draw too much attention while harvesting, so as not to have a special area become over-harvested due to popularity.
- Ask Permission – If you decide to wild-harvest away from your own property site, make sure you are allowed to harvest there. Your neighbour’s luscious dandelion patch might be calling to you, but ask permission before gathering all the blossoms and digging for roots.
- Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification.
- Elpel, Thomas J. Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids 9 to 99.
- Henderson, Robert. The Neighbourhood Forager.
- Silverman, Maida. A City Herbal.
- Thayer, Samuel. The Forager’s Harvest.
- Tilford, Gregory L. From Earth to Herbalist.
- Zachos, Ellen. The Backyard Forager: 65 Familiar Plants you didn’t know you could eat.
Plant Identification Books:
- Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Plants of Eastern North America.
- Newcombes Wildflower Guide.
- Lone Pine Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants of North America.