JuneberriesI know somebody in London who regularly forages in the parks for ingredients which he then uses to prepare sandwiches for his mobile sandwich business.

Is this a new trend? It certainly chimes with what researchers found in Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle when looking into the prevalence of urban foraging.

Right: Juneberries.

In a paper (cited below) published in the journal Local Environment these researchers found men and women of all ages and backgrounds engaging in regular forging practices. Ethnic and racial diversity was common, and it didn't make any difference how much people earnt.

But what were they looking for?

The data is sporadic, but in New York City foragers were gathering from at least 60 plant species and nine fungal species. In Philadelphia 70 different plant species and one fungal species were identified. A further long term study in Philadelphia and Seattle recorded up to 486 different species, a staggering number.

Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape)The top species were, in New York: Juneberries and garlic mustard; in Philadelphia: Japanese wineberries and black walnuts; and in Seattle: Oregon grapes and apples. A table below details the top nine species in each location.

Right: Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape)

Mostly the species were gathered for food, but also for medical purposes, horticulture, nursery, crafts or decoratives. In some cases people were looking for fuel and culturally significant products. In Seattle construction materials were also being brought home along with materials to be used for scientific or educational purposes. And in Philadelphia an additional motive was ecological restoration.

People tended to forage all the year round except in New York and Philadelphia in January and February. In general the most intensive foraging was conducted during the spring, summer and early fall.

Mostly people were gathering for personal consumption but in some cases products were sold or bartered.

Where did they look?

They searched in parks, botanical gardens, cemeteries, vacant lots and from street trees and vegetation at the sides of roads. They looked in Japanese wineberrieshedgerows, fencerows, beneath freeways, in empty lots, community gardens, shorelines and stream banks and in the grounds of institutions. In short, basically anywhere that nature was given a space.

Right: Japanese wineberries

Native species targeted included black walnut, beach plum, pawpaw and hickory. Prominent among non-native species were edible fruit and nut species including apples, sweet chestnuts, ginkgo, plums and pears. Berries, fruits, nuts, greens and young shoots were by far the most frequently mentioned type of product in each place.

In New York, Seattle and Philadelphia the nine top species were gathered for food, but in Philadelphia a couple of people mentioned that they collected items for crafts – basketry and dyeing.

Ethnicity plays a role, unsurprisingly, in some cases; for example Chinese immigrants were looking for ginkgo nuts in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia. African-Americans in Baltimore and Philadelphia were looking for young pokewood shoots and American Indians in Seattle were harvesting evergreen huckleberries and nettle leaves.

Some European immigrants were looking for prized species for family recipes such as morel mushrooms and green leaves that are common in Europe.

Garlic mustard

Above: Garlic mustard

Top nine foraged species gathered in New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle.

Latin name

Common name

Uses

Parts used

New York

Amelanchier spp.

Juneberry

Food

Berries

Alliaria petiolata

Garlic mustard

Food

Leaves

Morus spp.

Mulberry

Food

Berries

Rubus spp.

Blackberries

Food

Berries

Corylus spp.

Hazelnut

Food

Nut

Polygonum spp.

Knotweed

Food

Unspecified

Chenopodium album

Lambs quarter

Food

Unspecified

Pleurotus ostreatus

Oyster mushrooms

Food

Unspecified

Lindera benzoin

Spicebush

Food

Berries

Philadelphia

Rubus phoenicolasius

Japanese Wineberry

Food

Fruit

Juglans nigra

Black walnut

Food, craft/dye

Fruit

Taraxacum officinale

Dandelion

Food, medicine

Leaves, flower, root

Amelanchier arborea

Serviceberry

Food

Fruit

Prunus maritima

Beach plum

Food

Fruits

Rubus allegheniensis

Common blackberry

Food

Fruits

Vaccinium corymbosum

Highbush blueberry

Food

Fruits

Morchella esculenta

Morel mushroom

Food

Fruiting body

Alliaria petiolata

Garlic mustard

Food

Fruits

Seattle

Mahonia nervosa (Berberis)

Low or dull Oregon Grape, cascade barberry, narrowleaf mahonia

Food, medicine, craft/dye

Fruits, bark, roots, stems, tender leaves

Malus domestica

Apple

Food, spiritual, skin care

Fruit, branch, bark

Pleurotus ostreatus

Oyster mushroom, hiratake, tamogitake

Food, choice edible; potential for mycorestoration

Fruiting body; mushroom

Prunus domestica (cerasifera, spinosa)

European plum

Food

Fruit, branches

Rubus armeniacus

Himalayan blackberry, common blackberry

Food; craft, weaving, fencing

Fruit, stems

Rubus laciniatus

Evergreen blackberry, Oregon blackberry

Food

Fruit

Rubus spectabilis

Salmonberry, woodman’s rose

Food

Fruit, young shoots, blossom

Taraxacum officinale

Dandelion

Food, medicine

Leaves, flowers, roots

Urtica dioica

Stinging nettle

Food; medicine; craft, cordage

Young leaves, root, stems, seeds, stalk.

Black walnutsRight: Black walnuts

How often do people forage?

This varies considerably. Only a few do it regularly as a habit, mostly it's opportunistic when incidental to other activities. Gathering did occur year-round in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Seattle and from March to December in New York.

Gathering in these cities, which have cold winters and warm summers, is particularly focussed in spring, when young leaves and mushrooms are gathered, and in late summer and early fall when many fruits, nuts and the majority of wild edible species of fungi are abundant.

Should city managers therefore be fostering the planting of edible species?

Up to now, some cities have actively discouraged this. In Seattle landowners are prohibited from planting apples cherries and pears in streets for health and safety reasons.

The approved street tree lists for New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore emphasise non-fruiting varieties of common fruit trees, although trees with edible nuts, such as oaks (Quercus spp.), are listed as approved species in all three cities, and Philadelphia includes several hickory (Carya spp.) species.

Interviews with New York City managers, however, reveal that in some neighbourhoods people are engaging in “guerrilla” planting of fruit trees - which is sometimes tolerated by individual managers and foresters.

Right: Malus Domestica or the common red apple

Red AppleThe transition town movement has encouraged people to engage in planting edible species in public areas. Todmorden in northern England is famous for this and there are now many imitators throughout the world. 

Culturally many people only expect wild food gathering to happen in the countryside or in gardens. But the future city must expect to rely more and more on itself for food and sustenance. 

People are able to decide for themselves whether a plant product is healthy to eat. So it makes sense, if one is planting in cities at all, to plant species which can be useful in some way to humans - whether for food, medicinal or craft purposes.

Along with green rooves, vertical gardens, urban growing, community gardens and so on, planting for foraging and foraging itself should be encouraged.

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Gathering “wild” food in the city: rethinking the role of foraging in urban ecosystem planning and management, Rebecca J. McLain, Patrick T. Hurley, Marla R. Emery & Melissa R. Poe (2014), Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, 19:2, 220-240, DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2013.841659 is available here