What is Ethical Foraging?
You may have noticed foraging and wildcrafting have taken the spotlight in recent years, especially among social media platforms and the rewilding movement. Foraging, or wildcrafting, is the practice of harvesting plants, fungus, fruits, roots, barks and nuts to use as food or medicine. These practices have been an integral part of Indigenous communities long before “Naked and Afraid” and other popular survival programs.
Language carries weight, and terms like rewilding can be problematic. According to ethnobotanist and Director of Food Sovereignty at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND, Linda Black Elk, “the term suggests humans don’t have a relationship with the land and the rewilding movement can bring harm to Indigenous communities.” At the same time, Black Elk argued, “If non-Indigenous people can go around knowing plants are relatives, people are way less likely to exploit.”
Bringing awareness and intention to cultivating a reciprocal relationship with the land and paying respect to those who came before us is the first step, prior to picking up your pruners and basket.
Consent and respect
The impacts of foraging undertaken with a lack of awareness, respect and consent can be damaging to plant stands for generations to come. By now most of us know that ginseng, goldenseal, and white sage, to name a few, have been over-harvested in many areas due to high demand and commodification. To slow down demand and the over-harvesting of these plants, we can stop using them and start growing them! Before harvesting, study your regional plant flora and what is considered abundant or at-risk in your area by seeking out field guides, trusted foragers and herbalists. United Plant Savers is a great resource for learning what plants are at-risk of being over-harvested and which are endangered.
Identification is key
Learning to identify plants is a MUST – it can save you a lot of discomfort and could even save your life! Use three or more points of identification, instead of relying on one single characteristic like bloom or leaf for ID. Consider fruit, color, leaf, bloom, stem, bark/branches, smell, location and life cycle of the plant, spore prints (for mushrooms) and soil conditions. Attend local plant identification walks, identifying plants in nature can be more straightforward than using a field guide, but still use that too!
Only harvest what you need, and give back
A general rule of thumb when foraging is only take between one-tenth to one-third from any patch you see, and never from the only patch you find. Only harvest what you need, and give back! If you come across a small, sparse plant stand, and you haven’t found any other in your area, it is wise to leave it be. In contrast, if you are harvesting a plant that is abundant like japanese knotweed or kudzu, you can be more liberal, but still only take what you will use or are able to process. Considering the life cycle of the plant is always helpful. If you’re harvesting elderberry blossoms, you will have less berries to harvest come fall. Giving back by replanting seeds in the fall or early spring encourages growth and stronger plant stands.
Harvest from safe areas
Avoid harvesting near busy roads, city parks, along property lines, industrial areas or any areas that spray their weeds. Many of these places have potential for harboring pollutants and contaminants, and plants (being the great bioaccumulators they are) will uptake these chemicals and heavy metals. You don’t want to munch on that! Seek areas that are lightly traveled and scope out the patch a handful of times before you decide to harvest, observing how busy it gets, who else is foraging there, or if flora has been sprayed in spring or fall.
Leave the area as good or better than you found it
Carry an extra baggy for trash you come across, remove all your garbage, clean up your messes, refill your holes! Do not alter the landscape for your own needs, refrain from chopping down limbs and creating new trails. Avoid driving off road, don’t disturb nests, dens or other natural spaces.
Look into legalities
Ethical foraging also means legal foraging. Look into your local Forest Service, Parks & Recreations, Fish & Wildlife service or ask a local hunter to find out what land you’re allowed to forage on or who to ask for permission. Be aware of hunting season schedules and take safety measures during those times of year. Trespassing can be dangerous and the fines can be expensive, so it is best to check in and get permission first.
Have the right tools
Once you squared away all of the above, it’s time to get dirty. The right tools and attire can make all the difference. Clothing that protects you from thorns, bugs and poison ivy will be helpful as you gently meander through the woods. Pruners, sturdy shoes, water, and gloves are good starting points to be prepared. For roots, a Hori Hori (a Japanese tool used for digging and cutting) is helpful. Ensure your pruners are sharp for making clean cuts when pruning, ragged edges and careless pruning can invite disease into open plant wounds. Reusable cloth or mesh bags make great foraging sacks. When harvesting mushrooms, mesh bags encourage the release of spores as you glide through the woods back home, helping spread spores and inoculate other areas along the trail.
Ethical foraging is an ongoing practice
Growing and tending a reciprocal relationship with the land teaches us the importance of community and how we can better show up for the earth, ourselves and those who came before us. Keeping these guidelines in mind and holding ourselves accountable as stewards of the land is one step towards healing generational trauma and decolonizing our relationship to nature.
Author: Julie Douglas
Julie is the Marketing & Communications Associate. She is the owner and Clinical herbalist at Wildkrafted Kitchen, a holistic healthcare company in Asheville, NC. Julie is a medicinal herb grower, ethical wildcrafter, educator, and formulator of internal and external medicines. After graduating with an AA focusing on Photography and Ceramic art, Julie went on to pursue their passion for sustainable small-scale agriculture in Washington state where she apprenticed on various organic farms. After discovering their affinity for medicinal herbs, they moved to Asheville to study Holistic Herbalism at the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine. Julie’s main goals are to make alternative healthcare accessible to marginalized communities, decolonizing herbal medicine, and be part of mutual aid networks which strengthen and empower the community.