Monday, January 31, 2011

Rules of Foraging, and Why I Feel Foraging Is Moral and Healthy

Foraging. Its more complicated and complex than I have led readers to believe. Apparently, from some of the comments I've gotten on my blog the past few days, some of you (or maybe all of you, but you're too polite) think I waltz into people's yards and pick from their garden, or uproot plants in public areas that were painstakingly arranged by gardeners, or even worse (I think), feeding my family plants that have been doused in motor oil, raid, herbicide, and toxic wastes.
These accusations are so far fetched, but I guess I understand where they're coming from, as I didn't share my rules of forage, so I can understand why some people might have thought the above to be true. I mean, I just said "I go out and pick things that I didn't grow", and yes, without explanation, that can sound like bad morals and bad health.
Hence, my rules of forage, so you can get a picture of what really goes on when I go out to forage.

Rules of Forage

Food Today- Safe?
Before I get into my rules of foraging,  I just wanted to point of something that has been bugging me for a while. People today are paranoid about their food, yet at the same time, way too trusting.

 Food today is so far removed from how our ancestors were eating for millenia. Once upon a time, our ancestors foraged, hunted, fermented, cultured, and ate things raw. Today, unless it's bought wrapped in plastic, pasteurized, sprayed with herbicide, fungicide, and insecticide, coated with wax, dyed with food coloring, and sold in the supermarket, people are suspect that the food isn't healthy or good for you.
Unfortunately, this isn't quite the case. Consumer reports show that many foods sold in groceries get recalled because of bad batches with mold inside, salmonella poisoning, among others. Grocery stores are breeding grounds for all types of dangerous bacteria, mold, and other things that can make you sick.
And as for the live cultures found in traditional foods and absent in processed foods sold in the groceries, studies show that the majority of these bacteria and fungi are actually beneficial for your body in many ways.

And then on the topic of pesticides and other chemicals in food... forget the people who say all pesticides are bad for you. The FDA and other governing bodies set guidelines of acceptable safe limits of pesticides in foods as well as only permitting specific pesticides; even those that say pesticides won't hurt you say certain levels and types of pesticides will harm you.
In my country, there recently was an expose on produce in the market. Many fruits and vegetables had higher levels of permitted pesticides than are even allowed by the health ministry here- often 2 or 3 times the permitted amount. Not only that, much of the produce was found to have been sprayed with pesticides that are forbidden to be used on food because they're poisonous! Even the organic produce wasn't perfect. (Yes, this isn't the US, but I'm pretty sure things like that happen in the US as well.)

People are a little bit too comfortable with grocery store shopping, naively assuming that all foods bought there are guaranteed safe, and all other food is suspect. The truth is that everything we eat has the possibility of making us ill or making us strong. Nothing is guaranteed. Bacteria and other unwanted things on our food are a fact of life; all food is suspect. If anyone tells you otherwise, they're either naive or deliberately trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
As responsible consumers and especially parents, all we can do is inform ourselves about the different risks and benefits in the myriad types of available food, decide which risk we feel most comfortable taking, do whatever we can to minimize those risks, and hope for the best. Personally, I feel that the risks in foraging are less than the risks in buying non organic produce in the grocery store, which is why I feel that foraging is an ideal way to lower our family's grocery budget healthily, but it's a choice that you'll have to make for your family.

How do you lower the risks in foraging, and also, very importantly, how do you forage morally? Follow the Rules of Foraging:

Rules of Foraging

1. Don't steal. This means that if a plant belongs to someone else, you have no right to pick it. It's stealing, just as much as if you'd walk into their house and take off with their cash. How do you know they weren't planning on eating it? You have no right to decide to take something that belongs to someone else, even if you think they wouldn't mind or wouldn't use it.

2. Don't trespass. Foraging on someone else's property is trespassing. If you want to pick some plants from someone else's property, either call them up or knock on their door and ask. You might get a wonderful response. I know that 9/10 times I was told "Sure, please come and take. We never pick the stuff out there anyhow and it just rots. I'd love it to get put to use." But for the one in ten times you'll be told no, you must ask. Don't just assume you can go onto their property without permission.
(Just a hint- if people have fruit trees with so much fruit and you see things rotting on the ground, they'll probably be more likely to permit you to pick on their property, because it shows that they're not getting around to picking the things themselves. Still, ask!)

3. Don't pick things that someone else planted. Even if you're on public property, if you see a plant that doesn't and didn't grow there on its own, assume that a gardener was paid to plant it. There's no justification for picking it and messing up the gardener's hard work and the money spent to beautify a place.
When foraging, we pass by a large amount of roses, and even though rose hips are edible, and even though my son has asked if we can pick roses, he's since learned and now will tell me "Right, Mommy, we don't pick things people planted, only what G-d grew?" Weeds that pop up on their own are a nuisance to gardeners and are not planted; weeds are what we typically pick.

4. Only beautify, don't uglify. As a continuation of rule number 3, as foragers, we have a responsibility not to make a place look worse because we've been there. Picking flowers planted to beautify would be breaking this rule. I will break rule number 3, however, when it doesn't break rule number 4.
For example, in my community, lavender and rosemary were planted to the point where they've become self propagating and have taken over large areas. Even though these plants were originally planted by gardeners, I see nothing wrong with picking any, because the few plants that I pick can in no way detract from the beauty of the area. Once I pick a few sprigs of rosemary or lavender you couldn't even tell that I did so. Picking lavender and rosemary doesn't uglify the place at all.
Additionally, I will pick fruit from fruit trees on public lands that would otherwise fall on the ground and rot. These trees were planted for shade and beauty. Rotting fruit on the ground is just disgusting, wasteful, and uglifies a place. Picking fruit from public trees is a-ok in my book. (Just check first that your community doesn't have a program where they pick the fruit and put them to use.)

5. Beware managed places. If you see a carefully manicured public garden, there's a good possibility that the same gardeners that manicured the place also sprayed chemicals. If a patch of ground is carefully manicured, its probably best not to pick anything from it.
In the aforementioned rose example above, the rose bushes get sprayed with insecticide to keep them beautiful. Because of that, I won't even pick weeds that grow between the roses- they're likely to have been sprayed with non safe pesticides as well.

6. Overrun is good. As a continuation of number 5, if you see overgrowth in an area, land that is totally unmanaged and overrun by weeds, there's a very good likelihood that it has not been sprayed by anything, hazardous or not, and it is safest for foraging.
My favorite types of places to forage are places with rocks, thorn bushes, and knee high (or taller) shrubbery. I know that no one steps there aside for me; I know that I can be pretty sure that food foraged from there will be absolutely chemical free.

7. Buggy is good. Bugs eat plants. Plants are yummy. If there's a large area of plants that is devoid of bugs, be very wary. It's not normal for a place to be bug free; its likely been sprayed by herbicides or insecticides and is not fit for human consumption.
I jump for joy when I see buggy produce. They're telling me "Look Penny, this food is safe to eat."

8. Dirt is better than pavement. People don't generally care what dirt looks like. It's dirt, anyhow. But they like their walkways and sidewalks and parking lots free of weeds. Suspect that plants that pop up between cracks have been sprayed or otherwise marred by chemicals and avoid them.

9. Healthy plants only. If a plant looks wilted, droopy, or covered in spots or other unnatural colors, stay away. Its totally possible that the plant is fine to eat, but just on the off chance that the plant looks like that because it has been sprayed, best to stay away.

10. Leave the place as you found it. In order to keep the ecosystem running properly, you don't want to completely deplete an area of its natural resources. Don't pick all of one plant in an area; only take a small percentage of what you find, so that you or others can have more to forage the next time you come. When you leave a place you've foraged, no one should be able to tell that you've been there.

11. Know your plants and its mimickers. Have a detailed book or field guide that tells you exactly how to identify a plant, especially with colored pictures. The first time you encounter a plant, even if it looks like what is in your book, pick the plant and wait till you get home. Check out the plant that you think it is on the internet, and make sure 100% that you're looking at the same thing. Especially if a plant has poisonous look alikes, be absolutely certain that you've got the correct plant, and make sure you're eating the edible part. (Tomato plants and potato plants, for example, are poisonous, even if their fruit is edible.)

12. Know your laws. In some areas, certain types of foraging are illegal. In other areas, permits are necessary. In other places, all foraging is permitted. Check out your local laws to be certain.

13. Clean it well. Because you can never be certain what was on your plant, especially since you're getting it from the wild, soak it in soapy water with vinegar, and scrub it very well before eating.

No, foraging is definitely not immoral. It's definitely not thievery. And its definitely just as safe, if not safer, than eating produce from a supermarket. Just remember to follow the rules of foraging and you'll be fine.

If you ever foraged, what rules do you follow? If you're not a forager, do you think my foraging rules seem fine? Or would you still have a problem with foraging? What food do you feel more comfortable eating? Foods from factories and shrink wrapped and sold in supermarkets, or foods that grew on their own in the wild?

Linking up to the Hearth and Soul Blog Hop, Real Food Wednesday, Works for Me Wednesday, Pennywise Platter, and Fight Back Friday.


  1. The local specialty (read: overpriced) grocery store chain here recently recalled all of their organic leafy greens for contamination. So I definitely agree with you. People are naive if they believe produce from a store is any safer or healthier than something you pick yourself.

  2. Excellent post. It answers some of my concerns. I pinned this on Pinterest under healthy food.

  3. I was picking sloe berries yesterday on a public footpath running by a field when we were approached by a farmer and asked to stop, as they were for the birds. Were we allowed to pick them or not?

  4. I remember eating things from the yard at my grandmothers, things like poke salad, danelion greens and other "weeds" we helped her pick. squash blossoms, and nasturium flowers all were on her menu. She raised a large family during the Depression and was a master of foraging.

  5. You are a sister of my heart! I have been foraging since about age 10 (and I'm almost 50 now). I totally agree with your foraging rules. I find it hard to drive anywhere because I am always scanning my surroundings and making mental notes of edibles and medicinals to go back for. It amazes me how frightened many people are of eating wild things. Keep up the good work.

  6. Thanks for the tips, especially in cleaning it, I used to just use water but with your notes, I feel I'm more knowledgable now.



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