Urban Foraging: A Beginner's Guide
Urban Foraging: A Beginner's Guide
I'd noticed the crabapple trees the week before as I drove past the apartment complex. The familiar rosy fruit was so laden on these trees, they looked in danger of tearing themselves apart. I made a mental note of their location and returned a week later with a couple of large buckets. As I started to pick fruit, I looked for unblemished skins, both ripe and underripe fruit. I worked quickly, smiling and greeting anyone who walked past. In a half hour, I’d picked maybe three gallons of fruit, all destined to become crabapple jelly. Later, I answered an ad on Craigslist offering for someone, ANYONE, to please collect all the black walnuts from a suburban lawn. I was already plotting how to dry and husk them, dreaming of baked winter goods studded with walnuts. Even with my efforts, I barely scratch the surface of the possibilities within my hometown city limits.
When you think of foraging for food in the wild, you may think of walking down a remote forest path, gathering berries and nuts. While that is true, there are incredibly rich offerings in urban settings if you know where to look. Some people will plant fruit or nut trees for ornamental reasons, and leave the fallen treasures to rot on their lawn. Berries grow wild along fences and in public parks, left to ripen and feed the birds. Wild asparagus sprouts along railroad tracks, mushrooms grow on certain logs, all overlooked and left to decay. With a small amount of research and effort, you can start connecting with local edible bounties.
Foraging is a way of challenging a consumerist society. This helps keep you from having to purchase some foods, and instead utilize the bounties around you. Some people approach this act from a political standpoint and take an anti-capitalist approach, while others simply hate seeing wasted food and want to come up with ways to use it and share with others. We aren’t addressing dumpster diving here, although that falls under urban foraging. There are other guides far better than this to help guide your adventurous spirit in that vein!
Keep your eyes open for the opportunities around you. While some cities have neighborhood orchards, watch for fruit-bearing trees everywhere. You don’t want to trespass onto private property, but look to see if branches overhang a sidewalk or alleyway. There are several online databases available to help map where trees and other edibles are located, and you can both contribute to the database with your own finds as well as benefit from the efforts of others. The free section on Craigslist is a boon. Earlier this year, I saw listings for people offering to let people come and pick cherry trees on their property so the fruit wouldn’t be wasted.
If you’re not familiar with how herbs and edible plants look in the wild, get a good field guide for your geographic area – your public library is an excellent resource, and there are several smartphone apps available to help identify trees and plants. There are copycat plants that can be very dangerous without proper identification. At a quick glance, elderberry and pokeberry look similar. One is delicious and has healing qualities; the other is good for dyeing fabric but toxic to ingest. Without accurate identification, you place yourself in danger. Mushrooms are even trickier – it is safer to hunt mushrooms with an expert guiding you rather than trying to classify a fungus from a field guide. Again, copycats can be poisonous so proceed with caution. All warnings aside, it is a thrill to see the world around you differently. Instead of just glancing and seeing trees and plants, you learn their names and other uses.
I confess, I usually just barge into where ever I am collecting and pretend like I am supposed to be there. People rarely question me, and when they do I let them know what I am picking is edible and give examples of how it can be used. They are nearly all interested and ask more questions, I just keep picking and collecting while I am talking. I work under the axiom of, “It is far easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.” When feasible, you can ask an owner for permission to harvest when the fruit is ripe. Always be polite and offer how you’ll use it – I’ve even offered bribes of baked goods or jellies from the gleaned goods. If they say no, take it as a final answer and look elsewhere. However, if you see a branch overhanging a fence that is accessible from private property, you may not need to seek permission. I take a pair of gloves and a couple of buckets. If I have a companion to accompany me, we may take a stepladder to reach higher branches but it isn’t needed. I recommend to scope it out first, move in quietly, harvest and get out quickly.
Maybe you’ve picked fresh berries that just need a quick rinse of water and can be eaten fresh or easily baked in a cobbler. Perhaps you’ve dug up edible roots that require further processing to make them into a savory dish. Whatever you’re harvesting, have an idea what you’re going to do with it and be ready to proceed immediately while it is still fresh. If you’re making jam or jelly, a friend to help with the process would be helpful. Walnut have to be dried over time and husked – it is a multi-step involved process, but you can be prepared with materials and the space before hand.
A quick search online reveals a depth of resources and classes for different regions of the world to assist with foraging.