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Where The Wild Things Are Growing (Part 1)

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With its popularity growing in urban areas, foraging for wild foods has started to look more Portlandia than primitive. The practice hasn’t always been viewed favorably; many prominent thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes viewed it as brutish, a sentiment later echoed in colonialist discourses. In more recent years, perception of foragers has been reconsidered and interest in the use of wild foods has been renewed and reinterpreted within the culinary world. Perhaps one of the most well known examples of this is René Redzepi’s acclaimed restaurant, Noma, which recently earned the title of Best Restaurant in the World for the fifth time.

Noma is a portmanteau of the two Danish words “nordisk” (Nordic) and “mad” (food) and its food is just that--all the dishes served are created using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.

It’s not just chefs from Michelin starred restaurants that have taken an interest in wild foods. In her research, Melissa Poe, a social scientist at the University of Washington, Washington Sea Grant Program, has found diversity amongst both what is foraged and who is foraging. According to Poe, “It turns out that people from all walks of life forage for food, medicine and craft plants and mushrooms in the city. Urban foragers cross socio-economic boundaries, whether gender, age, ethnicity, class and citizenship.” She also adds that urban foraging also crosses cultures, maintaining traditions that have been passed down through generations. As Poe explains, “We discovered in our work that some foragers drew from diverse cultural traditions and knowledges to guide their selection and uses of species. For example, in suburban areas of Charleston SC, many generations of African Americans continue to harvest sweetgrass for basket making. In Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia, we learned that gingko nuts are important to Chinese immigrants. And in Seattle, several species of wild edible mushrooms were sought by Euro-American harvesters, including the fall Porcini by first generation German and Russian foragers, among others.”

In addition to their cultural component, the gathering and sharing of wild foods can often foster a sense of community. Still, the practice isn’t without its challenges. Although it’s allowed in places such as Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest, foraging is prohibited in many public areas. Plus, there are ongoing debates as to whether or not some wild foods are being over-foraged. And, foraging isn’t always a practical way of obtaining a meal. With those issues in mind, Melissa Poe offers 5 ways to incorporate wild foods into diets in ways that are realistic and sustainable:

1. Hold an “edible invasives ice cream social” for families to come learn about forest ecological communities, intensively harvest non-native blackberries, and enjoy time together. Other candidate wild foods that can be used as ice cream toppings include: knotweed shoots, roasted dandelion root, rhubarb, candy cap mushrooms.

2. Ethnobotany-in-practice class. Join a plant teacher to learn how to identify plants and their valued uses by various ethnic groups, including indigenous communities for whom our cities are located in their customary homelands.

3. Does your lawn host unwanted weeds? Don’t use herbicides! Instead, learn which plants are useful, then harvest them and incorporate them into your life. Mint, violets, sorrel, chickweed, bittercress, clover, thistle, dock, dandelion, and others are common to lawn without chemicals.

4. Join –or organize– a gleaning project to harvest unused/wasted fruits and nuts. Thousands of pounds of healthy perennial fruits grow in cities, going unused. Avoid the nuisance of this waste and instead pick the crabapples, plums, walnuts, chestnuts, ginkgo, serviceberry, and other common tree species to use as for food for your family or community.

5. Finally, PLANT desired native edibles to enhance foraging opportunities for you and the pollinators! Many edibles are attractive landscape plants, and help the bees and butterflies, not to mention their role in reducing storm water runoff that stresses waterways during rain events. Blueberries, huckleberries, roses, Oregon grape, wild strawberries, and many other lovely and nutritious plants can be found to fit your region and increase your bounty & happiness.

*Check back next Tuesday for Part 2–recipes that incorporate wild foods!

Image Credits: Both by cyclonebill

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jomerrick 6:08 pm 06/3/2014

    Given the apocalyptic nature of our future, this seems like a very reasonable idea to consider. What could I eat if that 9.5 earthquake hits the Pacific NW and there are not trucks to bring my food to the market. HMMMMM. Or the prediction of Google’s 2020 coastline which shows Alaskan Way up through 1st and 2nd Avenue to be underwater: what trucks, trains, and cranes will be working anyway. OY! we need to learn now what to eat in the greenbelts.

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  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:58 am 06/5/2014

    I am coming from a country where picking wild mushrooms is a traditional pasttime. Unfortunately, while it was common for generation of my grandparents, I rarely found any mushrooms – simply because all were picked up.

    There are several issues about wild foods, to name just a few:
    - a risk of confusing edible and inedible plants, and dangerous poisoning. In Europe, Nightshade bushes killed many children picking appetizing-looking wild berries.
    - picking parasites like tapeworms if wild plants are eaten raw as salads, fruits etc.
    - exposure to pollutants in the environment – wild plants pick pollution from roads, factories etc.
    - that populations of wild plants are very quickly wiped out if collected by more than a few enthusiasts.

    Link to this

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