Foraging is a hot green trend.
It’s not gardening, of course. And I wouldn’t call wild-collecting plant parts horticulture or agriculture, since nothing is cultured or cultivated. When I say “green,” I’m referring to things with chlorophyll and not ecology or sustainability. One of the things that bugs me about foraging is that as it becomes more and more promoted, publicized and popularized, more and more people will go out and “steal” plants from the near-wild. I hear that word and it kind of reminds me of how some people dig up trilliums to package and sell at the box stores. Venus flytraps are also wild collected for sale and they perish in some little boys’ bedrooms.
Some plants species could obviously become threatened or lost. That’s certainly happening with the humble ramp. Ramps, Allium tricoccum or wild leeks, really should not be dug up for any reason: for ramp festivals, fundraisers, farmers’ market sales, and restaurants and by individuals who gather as much as they can for their own use. In many areas where ramps were once abundant they are now rare and populations continue to be decimated by over-harvest. Keep it up, and there won’t be any wild ramps anywhere.
Ramps are difficult to cultivate. (LEFT: Attempts at growing ramps at The Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA.) These onion relatives grow naturally in high elevations on the forest floor in areas with rich soil with organic matter and low pH. (Woodlands are already threatened by deer browsing the understory and exotic alien worms churning up the forest duff.) There are a few groups that are trying to wild-cultivating ramps where they grow naturally and ethically harvest leaves — a few leaves can be taken from ramp plants when they appear in mid-to-late March through April. (This practice is similar to the way America’s major protected crop, the Maine low-bush blueberry, has been maintained for decades.) Never, ever, dig up and take the bulb, which of course, kills the plant.
I suppose it sounds like fun to go out picking from the side of the road, or the woods and wild-like areas. But people will most likely pick a whole lot more than they will ever eat. Another potential problem is whether people are educated as to what is tasty and can be eaten, what tastes bad and what might be downright poisonous. Many wild-growing things may cause upset stomachs, and some can even kill. The number of deaths from eating wild-collected plants and mushrooms has been rising. The American Association of Poison Control Centers notes that the number of deaths tripled from 2010 to 2012. Records aren’t available for more recent dates, but with foraging on the rise, more deaths are inevitable. The bottom line? Just don’t eat anything you cannot identify and teach your children to never put any plant in their mouths that has not been approved by a knowledgeable adult – even in the vegetable garden.
Want to forage? It would be cool to if we could mobilize the new foragers to help instead of hurt. Wouldn’t it be great if Americans were thoroughly educated and would only cut and harvest noxious exotic weeds?
I suppose it might not be bad if you foraged on your own property. I look at the stinging nettle in the garden beds and think about picking and cooking it – I’ve heard they are delicious. But these plants developed defenses to keep my hands off them. Frankly, foraging is a pain.