What Is Urban Foraging? How to Find Free Food in the City!
What is Foraging?
Spring is here and a forager can find fresh, wholesome, delicious food for free just about anywhere she looks!
Throughout history, people have practiced foraging to put food on the proverbial table. In school, we learn about 'hunter gatherers,' tribes that foraged for wild plants and followed animal herds. In many cases, these hunter gatherer tribes faded away with the rise of intensive agriculture and sedentary civilizations, but small pockets of strict foragers remain around the world today.
Foraging is also a popular pastime in modern society. Walks through through the countryside with a basket for wild blackberries and strawberries are fantastic to imagine, but unrealistic for most city-dwellers. In recent years, a growing urban foraging movement has drawn attention to the abundance of edible plants in even though most seemingly food-bare environments.
Why Should I Forage?
What is Urban Foraging?
If foragers search for edible wild plants, what do urban foragers do? Look for edible plants in the city, of course! Urban foraging is part of a larger movement towards sustainable living, urban homesteading, and guerrilla gardening. San Francisco, Portland, and New York City are leading the way with urban foraging communities and classes to help aspiring urban foragers learn what is safe to eat and what isn't. Some of these groups have websites where users can share information and map edible wild foods. For example, the Portland, Oregon group allows browsers to search for foods by location or food type, and allows for submissions of newly-discovered items.
Urban foraging is different from the also growing 'freegan' movement. A freegan (freegan is a portmanteau word formed by combing "free" and 'vegan') is an individual who refuses to participate in the modern consumer economy and practices 'dumpster diving' for items and food, including meats. While some urban foragers are also freegans, there are many foragers who don't feel comfortable with digging through dumpsters for unrefrigerated perishables, no matter how safe freegan groups profess these foods to be.
Edible Urban Plants
The edible wild plants in your area may vary widely from what is available where I live, but some of the most popular, easiest to identify plants grow in a wide variety of places.
Catbriar, also known as greenbriar, bullbriar, horsebriar, and by a variety of other names, is one of the most prevalent, and nutritious, foragable plants. It's Latin name is Smilax and all varieties of the plant have edible shoots, leaves, and roots. Some varieties also produce edible berries. Be careful, though, each berry contains one or two inedible seed pods.
Smilax is easy to identify because it is the only vine with both thorns and tendrils. Many people consider this plant an invasive weed and don't even realize it is edible! Any tender portion of the vine that you can snap off with your fingers can be eaten raw or cooked. It has a light, crispy taste and is best treated like asparagus. While it can be eaten raw, eating too much of it uncooked can cause a sour stomach, so it is better to steam it if you want to use Smilax as a side dish. An extract from the root of some varieties was the original root beer, sarsaparilla. The root, itself, is very starchy and a great source of nutrients and calories. The leaves can be cooked like spinach. For a wealth of information about smilax and how to harvest and prepare it, visit Eat the Weeds.
Dock, or Rumex, is also a fairly common weed. Several varieties exist and the leaves are best in the spring. A member of the buckwheat family, dock is also related to chard. The uncooked leaves are edible, but sometimes are very bitter and astringent. They should also only be eaten raw in moderation because they contain a high concentration oxalic acid. Oxalic acid binds up nutrients in food and regularly consuming large amounts of it can lead to mineral deficiencies, particularly calcium deficiency. Consequently, it is best to cook dock leaves before eating them. Cook them like you would spinach, or other assertive greens. Dock roots and seeds are also edible, but the seeds have a lot of chaff. For more information on identifying and using the plant, check here.
Pennywort or Dollarweed is actually edible. Yes, there is a use for this annoying, seemingly-impossible to irradiate plant! Not only do the young, round leaves have a pleasant, crisp taste (kind of like celery or a snow pea), but they also contain a compound scientifically proven to relax blood vessels and reduce blood pressure. If you live in the South, chances are good these 'weeds' are all over your yard. Instead of poisoning them, try eating them! Because they do like damp environments, make sure to thoroughly wash the leaves before putting them in your mouth. To learn more, check here.
These are only a few of the most popular, easiest to identify, and most difficult to confuse with something poisonous plants that can thrive in urban environments. As you can see from my photos, aloe, mint, and rosemary also grow near where I live. Everyone knows aloe is great for burns, but did you know you can make your own aloe vera juice at home? Aloe juice is incredibly healthy because aloe contains natural anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral agents (which is why it's so fantastic for burns). Fruits, such as loquats or wild strawberries, can also grow in cities, so don't limit your quest to veggies!
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Be Safe While Foraging
There are many inedible, and even deadly, plants in the world. Whenever you forage, do not eat anything, or even taste it, until you are 100% sure it is absolutely safe. If you find something interesting while out foraging, take a picture of it, or snip a sample and keep it isolated from your other foraging finds, until you can get home and positively identify the plant.
Some areas have foraging classes. If you have the opportunity to take a foraging identification class, do so. It is a fantastic way to learn from the experience of others.
If you do not have access to a foraging class, purchase a reliable foraging guide. My favorite is Stalking the Wild Asparagus. First published in 1970 and redone in 2005, it was the first real wild food book. The author, Euell Gibbons, was one of the nation's first proponents of natural diets and holistic living. The book contains guides on how to find plants, drawings, potential medicinal uses, and recipes for main dishes, sides, jellies, jams, and 20 different pies. (If that doesn't get you excited, I don't know what will!) No matter which guidebook you choose, read it carefully before you start foraging. Bring the book along as a reference until you are confident in your plant identification skills. A high-quality guide should tell you the plant's characteristics, provide drawings, explain which parts of the plant are edible and which parts are not, and warn you about potentially inedible plants that closely resemble the edible varieties.
No matter where you forage, make sure you do not trespass. Trespassing is illegal and simply not worth it to grab a free vegetable. Some cities actually have ordinances permitting or prohibiting urban foraging, so check your city codes to learn the laws. Also, check local public lands, green spaces, and parks for signs about picking or removing plants. State and national parks do not permit plant removal, but some local parks may.
Find if your community sprays any indigestible pesticides or herbicides on roadways and sidewalks. A free veggie is also not worth getting poisoned!
Always, always make sure to thoroughly wash all foraged produce before eating it, especially if it was foraged in an urban environment. Dirt, road grime, car exhaust, dog pee, bacteria - there's no telling what's lurking on that leaf!
Forage responsibly. If you find some great wild blackberries or strawberries, don't pick all of them - leave some for your fellow foragers and the wildlife. Also, be careful not to damage the plant or the scenery. Yes, the catbrier tuber is very nutritious, but digging up a community flower bed to access one of these roots is not appropriate.
Would you eat foraged food?
Live Frugal and Have Fun Foraging
One of my life mottos is 'if you're nothing having fun or getting paid, why do it?' Foraging for food should be fun and exciting. Some wild foods are an acquired taste - don't get discouraged if you try a plant and it doesn't impress you. You still were able to identify and find the plant, which is an accomplishment to be proud of. Also, don't be afraid to experiment with edible wild plants. Some are fantastic raw, while others need cooking. In some cases, steaming a plant will make it taste wonderful, but sauteing it makes it disgusting. Do not give up if one preparation method doesn't work.
Stay safe, have fun, and good luck!