For most people living in an urban environment, fresh produce and edible plants are something you buy at stores. We operate under the assumption that farmers sell their crops to suppliers, who then transport it to cities, and then, somewhat miraculously, these products are wrapped in plastic and sold on the shelves of a shop near you. It might seem counterintuitive that plants lining the sidewalk might actually be helpful and delicious since they are often regarded as a nuisance. But a growing movement of urban foraging looks at these weeds quite differently. Free produce might be right around the cement block if you’re willing to investigate. Outside the office buildings, busy intersections and pre-packaged grocery stores, there’s a whole world of foraging to discover.
To forage for something is to hunt and search in a particular place for whatever it is you need. While it might seem like a radical hobby to incorporate into your life, the act of foraging is as old as humanity itself. Today, many people in urban areas find foraging to be an empowering skill to hone and an exciting way to connect deeper with their neighborhood. Cities are landscapes too – just ask your local pigeons and raccoons. There’s plenty to take advantage of once you know where to look.
Get to Know Your Native Plants
First things first: get to know your native plants. This is a great place to begin, focusing in on what is already growing around you and relatively easy to find, depending on the season.
For example, in many parts of North America, dandelions are abundant – some folks might even say rampant. While many consider this plant to be a weed, it is actually one of the plants that is entirely edible – root, flower, stem, leaves – any part of this plant can be used for sustenance. The greens of the plant are an excellent source of vitamins A and C and packed with antioxidants. The roots of the dandelion can provide healthy bacteria for your intestinal tract. Creative chefs have used the leaves as greens in quesadillas and fresh salads. Dandelion flower wine is thought to be especially good for your kidneys, and delicious to boot.
Depending on your city, there is an incredibly wide and diverse array of plants to find. Edible varieties include acorns, roses, bamboo, crab apple, chives, spruce tips, nettle, berries, clover, and amaranth. The list goes on and on.
Pay attention to the corners, fringes, and edges of your urban environment. Often, these are the areas where beneficial plants grow wild and are ready to be harvested. As you grow confident in identifying plants, here are some tips to keep in mind: forage only from plants with enough foliage to maintain growth after you’ve harvested; harvest from plants in the morning; forage from plants after buds appear but before flowers blossom; make notes of what you find and where, so you can return again next year.
It’s not hard to walk out of your front door, down the block, and start recognizing plants. With a smartphone in your pocket, it can be as easy as downloading a plant-identification app to help you identify every last green shoot growing beside the boulevard. However, urban foraging is no joke. For all the many friendly plants that line the streets, there are also plants that can result in violent illness and even death. To make things even trickier (or interesting, depending on how you look at it) there are wrong parts to edible plants – the petals might be delicious, but the roots might be dangerous. Be absolutely certain about the plants you are foraging. If you’re not sure, don’t eat it.
It can be helpful to memorize the Latin names of the flora you are foraging. Sometimes, folk names for different plants can vary and be mixed up with other, more dangerous varieties. Steer clear of plants that look unhealthy and rinse any produce thoroughly before eating.
Investigate the Place
Safety doesn’t end when you’re certain about the plants, though. In urban areas, you’ve got other factors to consider. What’s in the soil where you’re foraging? What’s in the water? Was this area recently sprayed with a herbicide that is dangerous to ingest?
These can be really difficult questions to answer in certain city locales. Often, people might be new to an area or move in as renters and are ignorant of past residents, industries or events that might impact the area. Whether you live in Flint, Michigan, or Big Sur, California, residents have to fight and advocate for themselves when it comes to harmful chemicals in the soil, air, and water. Often, these risks are invisible. Talk to your neighbors. Send some soil in for testing. Do what you can to educate yourself on the social and environmental history of the place you now call home. The echoes of these conflicted histories are present in the plants that grow around you.
Don’t let these concerns turn you off to the fun of foraging, though! Urban foraging isn’t necessarily more dangerous than the other ways we consume food. One study showed that plants foraged in areas of Boston were no more dangerous than standard consumer produce.
As a rule of thumb, steer clear of foraging greenery that grows near busy roads, factories, gas stations, auto shops, train tracks, and industrial plants.
Consult the Experts
Between google and a good long walk, there’s a lot you can teach yourself about foraging edible plants. For many people, it is this sort of simple curiosity that burgeons into a deep passion. As you continue to learn, there is no substitute (no matter how helpful the internet is) for connecting with experts on plant lore and foraging techniques. Head out to your local library and check out some plant identification books. Sign up for classes at a nearby nature center. Lucky for you, urban foraging is gaining traction in cities all over the globe. Chances are there’s an expert in your region who can teach you about plants in your area and tips for how to use them.
Once you accumulate knowledge and experience with urban foraging, you might want to consider the ways in which this sort of philosophy can empower communities and strengthen ecosystems within urban environments. What might start out as a personal endeavor can quickly become part of a much bigger, societal conversation. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, are looking at ways in which urban foraging techniques might positively impact low-income neighborhoods. When looking at the links between poverty, obesity and urban living, perhaps there are ways for foraging and plant knowledge to be part of a solution. Share what you learn with the people around you. Consider getting involved in these sorts of initiatives.
But it doesn’t have to start and end with foraging alone. Many people living in urban areas are looking for additional ways to shift their city blocks into food forests. Replacing decorative plants with native, edible varieties is a subtle way to transform the landscape. Often, folks will cultivate plants in abandoned areas and alleyways as a means to utilize space and greenify their block. Throwing seed balls and scattering native varieties of pollinator-friendly plants can transform cities into a haven for a variety of species, not only humans. Some of these “guerilla gardening” techniques might not be totally legal, depending on where you live. Be sure to check the rules before you bend them to determine if certain foraging-friendly initiatives are a good idea or not.
Your imagination is the only limit when it comes to collaborating with plants to create a more beautiful, sustainable way of moving through the world.
Overall, there’s a lot to be gained when you set out from your house to forage some tasty plants: you are reconnecting with nature; you are shrinking your carbon footprint; you’re enjoying free food; your diet will diversify and include less processed, packaged food; you’ll discover new, interesting areas of your city that you perhaps overlooked before. Green spaces in your city will start to feel less like a background to your life, and more like an exciting adventure to behold.
Have you done any urban foraging in your city already? Any tips and tricks for beginners?