Because foraging is an act of physically working with wild plants and ecosystems, it seems necessary to establish and propagate both guidelines and practices that ensure that both the forager and the foraged are enhanced through this interaction and art. I consider this ‘Ethical Foraging’. You can also call it common sense.
The reason I’ve come up with and compiled these guidelines and practices is because I’ve been asked countless times by folks who do not forage, are armchair foragers, or are seriously interested in, but never have foraged, “How would these plants be effected if everyone started foraging?”. It’s almost a knee jerk question to ask. Firstly, it is a purely hypothetical proposition—what if. Obviously everyone does not forage, especially in the US; we foragers are a minority. However, even if only a small fraction of a population foraged irresponsibly, it could potentially have unintended consequences or spoil otherwise treasured locations or plants. A case in point are the beer cans and litter left in public hunting areas by hunters, or the litter in some public parks by average goers, or the fate of our wild populations of ginseng, goldenseal, for example.
I sincerely believe, on the other hand, that we foragers can (& do, for the most part) conduct ourselves responsibly and ethically, harvesting food and medicine while ensuring increased ecosystem health and prosperity. I’ve outlined this philosophy in this article. The following guidelines and practices are suggestive and evolving, so feel free to add your input or own twist.
The Four R’s
This is an idea I found out about through Frank Grindrod that summarizes some basic no-no’s when deciding where to harvest from. Never (under most circumstances) harvest from the following areas:
- Right-of-ways e.g. power lines, corn or soybean fields, etc.
- Residences e.g. schools, municipalities, corporate buildings, etc.
These places are the most likely to be contaminated by runoff containing gasoline, oil and other hydrocarbons and pollutants. Some or all of these places are sprayed with toxic pesticides, petroleum fertilizers, herbicides, sodium chloride (dirt roads) or all of the above. You may, however, use your better judgment. For example, if you’ve found nice fruits in any of these areas, you have a good chance that they have less of or none of the contaminants found in these areas—most plants store these chemicals in their leaves or roots and fruit are not close to the ground. Or, if you are biking on a rural dirt road with obviously pristine or healthy plants and water. There are exceptions, and I too will harvest in these locations if I have judged them to be safe, but always use reason and logic to decide whether it is a safe place to harvest—and always avoid bright green lawns (you know, the chem-lawn look)—you probably won’t find much growing in them anyways…
Never Harvest Endangered Species
As mentioned above, some species in the wild are in serious danger due to over-harvesting by wildcrafters (professional foragers) and foragers. Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) in the wild are declared endangered. If you happen meet these species in the wild, do not harvest them, and if they have seeds, plant them. There are many other species of plants that are endangered, so try your best to learn which are. If anything, start planting some!
Always Positively Identify
Foraging is very easy and safe, but you can’t be lazy or careless. I stress that you never harvest a plant that you cannot positively identify down to the species. There are a handful of poisonous plants, with side effects you would probably rather avoid, and some you would have no space to regret, like poison hemlock (Conium spp.) or water hemlock (Cicuta spp.), which cause certain death if ingested. The key thing is that poisonous species are as easy to identify as edible species—use a field guide if unsure and please, always use your brain. If you can identify a cabbage from a head of iceberg lettuce, you can identify wild parsnip from water hemlock.
I bother to write this section because it’s a matter of being both a good neighbor and being courteous. If you are foraging near or on property somebody else owns, it is a good idea to ask permission to be on the land and to harvest the yield. Most times there’s not an issue with the owner approving the forager and foraging. Sometimes there is. In difficult cases it can be useful, with particularly ornery or curmudgeoned land owners, to bribe them a bit with some of the yield, or advertise that you are helping them clean up—like with black walnuts or mulberrys. I don’t condone trespassing, so do that at your own risk.
The 2/3 Rule
If you stumble upon a nice glut of wild leeks, nettles, or any large “score” of plants on a forage, it can be tempting in the moment to harvest as much as possible. Most times, this is fine, because the population of plants is large enough that even extensive harvesting would hardly make a dent. But some times, you may only find a few plants, and it can be tempting (especially things like wild leeks!) to harvest a glut of whatever it is. So the rule goes: only harvest up to 1/3, at most, of whatever you find. This goes for each plant as well—only harvest 1/3 of the leaves, shoots, roots etc. It isn’t a perfect rule and isn’t applicable to all things (like stinging nettle, garlic mustard, dandelion, etc.). Sometimes harvesting 2/3 or even 100% is desirable for management purposes. Other times, harvesting even 1/3 can be detrimental to the long-term health of the population of whatever you are harvesting*. The take home message is to be conscious and courteous, to the plant population, other foragers, and future generations of foragers. Fruits are an altogether different story since most wild fruits are produced in abundance and it is, for the most part, physically impossible to harvest them all anyways. This practice also accounts for harvesting as much as you actually need or can physically prepare or store away.
*Some fascinating research was compiled on the sustainable harvest threshold for wild leeks aka ramps, Allium tricoccum, over at Agrofrestry Solutions. Please read and take into consideration as well.
This practice follows a few ways. The first is, try and be as careful as possible not to damage plants or ecosystems when harvesting. It is not wise to carelessly or purposefully damage any plant, just as much as it is not wise to hurt your own body, your friends, or the plants in a garden. Of course, this is not a doctrine but a reminder, and you will, if you ever find yourself in a massive stand of blueberries, black raspberries or a thick forest, step on a few plants or break a few stems. That sort of damage is inevitable and comes with the territory. But, it seems important to issue the reminder to be conscious of the plants and ecosystem and aim to do as little harm as possible.
The second way is to literally garden. If you find a plant with ripe seeds, scatter them in the vicinity or rough up the soil and plant them around. If you’re digging roots, make sure to leave a few, or spread some into other areas to expand a planting. If you can, through your foraging, increase the size and number of wild food plants and consciously engage with the ecosystem as a member, you will actually leave a trace, but it will be a trace that enhances the diversity, health, and longevity of the ecosystem. Plus, when you return again, there will be more to harvest and enjoy—it’s a lot like showing up to a party, I’d say.