By Francie Lin, GFN Writer-in-Residence I think everyone would rather forget the early pandemic days…
A guide to beginning responsible wild foraging by GFN Food Access Assistant Jules White.
This past weekend, the Asparagus Festival in Hadley kicked off the grand finale of the tender shoots’ short-lived season. If you grow asparagus in your garden plot, you might find that the plants are still producing new, tasty-looking stalks through June, but the perennial care and cultivation of asparagus requires self-control. Towards the end of this month, it is wise to stop harvesting and let the plants grow to their full spindly height, allowing them to photosynthesize and store nutrients in their elaborate network of snakelike roots.
The same practice—of mindful, sustainable harvest—can be applied to wild food foraging, now that the season is in full swing. Perhaps the relationship between a grower and their asparagus is clearly intimate and intentional, but if you pulled ramps in the early spring, or plan to pick from a tangle of wild black raspberries this summer, I challenge you to think of your relationship with wild food in a similar light. That is to say, care for your wild food sources, and they will care for you in return; like asparagus, many wild edible plants may provide a seemingly abundant supply of food, but that does not mean it is all for the taking.
Though wild plants grow without our support, we enter into a relationship with them as soon as we view them as a source of food. In her collection of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer reflects a moment of “asking the plant for permission” while harvesting ramps, or wild leeks. An early-season attempt ends in replanting, when she uncovers bulbs that are shrunken and small—withholding permission. Later in the season, she revisits the bulbs, and finds them thick and abundant. Sometimes, we must wait until the plants are ready for us.
Care around timing is only one element of a mindful and sustainable harvest. We also must pay attention to the amounts we are taking, so as not to deplete the plant of its resources, or significantly reduce the food supply for any other creatures that might be living off of it. With that said, harvest is not necessarily harmful, as it can aid in the plant’s regeneration and longevity—we already understand this when thinning radishes or rhubarb. Kimmerer describes an experiment she carried out on native sweetgrass, where she discovered that intermittent harvesting actually enriched the population. The framing of human beings in complete opposition to nature is a problematic colonial, European construction, which falls apart in the face of Kimmerer’s generational knowledge and empirical evidence. Drawing on Potawatomi ideas of reciprocity, she deems this mutually beneficial relationship “the Honorable Harvest,” suggesting that the collection of food for human benefit is not inherently an act of destruction or depletion.
We can give back to the world of wild food in other ways: by replanting native perennials, managing (perhaps by eating!) aggressive species like knotweed, sumac, and garlic mustard, and removing trash from wild areas. The forager’s relationship to the land is not limited to physically collecting and/or eating plants. A friend recently described learning plant identifications as “accumulating plant friends,” which is to say that compiling knowledge is a form of gathering in its own way!
Collected knowledge and food are both more valuable when shared. While we are developing relationships with the plants we forage, we also have the opportunity to cultivate closeness with one another, by passing down what we learn about wild plants, and offering samples of what we create with them. Cattails have just begun to flower and release pollen, basswood leaves and shoots are still sweet and tender, wild strawberries ripen while raspberries and blackberries develop tight clusters of green fruit, and the sides of trails and sidewalks are rich with nutrient-dense early summer greens. Wild food is free only in that acquiring it doesn’t require any cash, but instead asks for your attention, and perhaps a bit of effort. Think of it as a relationship, just like one you might have with a friend or a partner, and I can promise that the rewards will be well-worth the commitment.
Resource list for those looking to begin their wild food journey:
The Forager’s Harvest, Nature’s Garden, & Incredible Wild Edibles – Sam Thayer
Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer
Northeast Foraging – Leda Meredith