Gathering 'Wild' Food in the City: The Top 9 Species People Look For
I 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.
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.
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 hedgerows, 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.
Above: Garlic mustard
Leaves, flower, root
Mahonia nervosa (Berberis)
Low or dull Oregon Grape, cascade barberry, narrowleaf mahonia
Food, medicine, craft/dye
Fruits, bark, roots, stems, tender leaves
Food, spiritual, skin care
Fruit, branch, bark
Oyster mushroom, hiratake, tamogitake
Food, choice edible; potential for mycorestoration
Fruiting body; mushroom
Prunus domestica (cerasifera, spinosa)
Himalayan blackberry, common blackberry
Food; craft, weaving, fencing
Evergreen blackberry, Oregon blackberry
Salmonberry, woodman’s rose
Fruit, young shoots, blossom
Leaves, flowers, roots
Food; medicine; craft, cordage
Young leaves, root, stems, seeds, stalk.
Right: 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
The 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.
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
David is Special Consultant of this website. He's author of Energy Management in Buildings, Energy Management in Industry, Sustainable Transport Fuels, Solar Technology, Sustainable Home Refurbishment, Solar Photovoltaics Business Briefing, and much more. His new book, The One Planet Life, is due out in November. He's also a novelist, script and comics writer, journalist, and editor. He was ...
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