A basic common sense code can be applied to foraging and the collecting of wild food:
- Only pick where specimens are abundant – If you can only find one or two specimens, leave them where they are.
- Do not strip a site bare – Even where there is an abundance, make sure you only pick enough for your needs and leave more than you take.
- Use a knife – Using a knife to cut specimens avoids excess damage to plants and inadvertent uprooting, increasing the likelihood that the plant will continue to grow and thrive after a little judicious pruning.
- Grow it yourself – Most wild food plants, and even some fungi, are actually very easy to grow at home – in the allotment, garden, window box or even under the stairs (in the case of fungi). If you find a particular wild food that you like, learn how to cultivate it on your own bit of ‘land’ and leave the wild ones for the birds and bees.
Before you go out into the country picking and eating things you find, please digest the information below. This information includes health and safety advice and information about the ethics and legality of collecting wild plants.
Health and Safety and Eating “Wild” Plants
The key to avoiding unpleasant surprises when eating wild foods it to be absolutely sure of your identification. I would always recommend consulting good guides – live, printed and in other media – as often as you can, but the real key to good identification if familiarity. There is a often a lot of nervousness around the prospect of picking and eating unfamiliar wild foods, which in general is a good thing – If you don’t feel confident and comfortable, don’t eat it .
But then imagine you are out walking with friends in September and you chance upon a bunch of juicy blackberries in the hedgerow. I’d bet that the vast majority of us would happily, without a second thought, scoff them straight off the briar with barley a break in the conversation. We do this not because someone has ‘taught’ us how to identify blackberries and we have read all the books, but because it is intuitively and cultural engrained in us. For most of us who have grown up within reach of a piece of ground where blackberries grow, we understand what blackberries are and do not need to study them – they are completely familiar. Unfortunately, or may be not, there are hundreds of other edible plants and fungi that we have not been culturally conditioned to understand so in order to gain that familiarity we do have to study them, get to know them, before we can feel confident about popping them in our mouths.
It is also about understanding those things which are easy to identify and those that are not so easy, as well as the possible consequences of misidentification. For example once we’ve been introduced to the edible nuts of a beech tree, we’d be very hard pushed to confuse it with anything else. Where as, if we were considering eating cow parsley, the knowledge that its close and very similar relatives included the likes of the deadly hemlock, we would use every resource at our disposal to make a positive identification before embarking on that venture.
It is important to understand that toxins in plants are not just either present or absent and that the avoidance of ill effects may be about knowing how to deal with a given type of plant or fungi. So it may be about quantity – eating small amounts of a given plant is safe but excess consumption is not; It may be that different parts of a single plant may be poisonous, while other parts are edible. Or it may be that the plant material needs to be prepared in some way to neutralise the toxins – such a cooking. While these caveats may strike fear into the wild food novice it is also interesting to note that there are toxins in many everyday foods, but our cultural understanding of these foods means we never give them a second thought. For instance spinach contains large amounts of the toxin Oxalic Acid and almonds the glycoside Hydrogen cyanide – it’s cyanide that gives almonds their appealing bitterness. In these cases the effects of the toxins are negligible because we are unlikely to consume enough of the food to poison ourselves. All parts of the potato plant, apart from the tubers, contain highly poisonous toxic Alkoloids (and as a member of the nightshade family it has some deadly relatives). A common example of the need for correct preparation is Kidney Beans which when raw or improperly cooked contain the toxin Lectin Phytohaemagglutinin.
Allergies and Caution when trying new foods
Archaeologists have determined that pre-agricultural humans may have consumed 200 to 1000 different plants species in a single year. Today 90% of cultivated food produce comes from just 20 species. So when trying wild plants for the first time there is the possibility that your body may not have encountered this species of plant before. There is always the possibility that you may get some kind of allergic reaction to a plant that is otherwise ‘safe’ to eat. The sensible approach with any new food stuff is to try a small amounts initially and if works for you, try some more.
Finally when collecting out in the wild always consider possibility of contamination. It is always wise to make sure you understand the location you are collecting from – what is the history of a particular location? Where does water that flows through the site come from? What else is upstream? What is up wind? Is there urban or industrial activity in the vicinity? And don’t forget that many modern agricultural practices include the use of toxic and harmful substances and waste materials.
It is never advisable to collect wild foods besides busy roads where build up of lead and other heavy metals from vehicle exhausts is likely. And I’d think carefully about about collecting wild foods from ex-industrial sites.
Ethics and legality of foraging
According to Section 4, subsection 3, of the Theft Act 1968 Foraging is not theft
A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose. For the purpose of this subsection ‘mushroom’ includes any fungus, and ‘plant’ includes any shrub or tree.
- Although the law is not at all clear, uprooting plants may be illegal, but in general avoiding the uprooting of plants is good environmental and ethical practice anyway.
- Do not pick in protected areas – nature reserves, SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) etc. You will get into trouble.
- It is illegal to pick protected species. There are particular endangered species that are protected by law but as far as I know there are no protected species that have any interest to the forager or wild food enthusiast.
Finally, my intentions in introducing people to wild food is not to suggest that we, individually or collectively, could get by and survive on a diet of foraged food. There are those who, from an ethical/ecological view point, are deeply suspicious of the very notion of foraging. The argument goes that by encouraging wild food collecting we will be depleting the natural environment of the diversity and resources on which other species depend. And if we imagine that as a society we could ever derive any substantial proportion of our diets from the wild, this would indeed be the case.
You could also argue that the environmental destruction caused by a few thousand foragers is far outweighed by the many-fold destruction caused by imported food stuffs developed by fossil fuel hungry global agribusiness and distributed through multinational supermarkets, but hey…
By introducing folks to foraging is not to suggest that we should be sourcing our dietary needs out in what’s left of the wild. As I like to say to people on my walks “this is not a shopping trip to nature’s supermarket”. My motivation is rather to help people make a connection with nature and the landscape around them. And not just in terms of taking in the scenery as a beautiful but separate entity out there. To consume a strange and unfamiliar plant out in the countryside is to make a literal, physical connection with the idea that nature is not just something out there, but is the ultimate and only resource we have to sustain our species. By understanding how and why things grow where they grow and how they can be used by us, we not only make a connection with nature but also with culture and history and human creativity. And maybe by understanding the world around us more we can begin to envision new ways of thinking and acting that can help us develop sustainable nature+culture.