“Gathering […] requires a relationship with that place across generations in order to take care of it and understand what abundance looks like.”

— Meleana Estes, Lei Aloha

Foraging: Benefits and threats

Foraging has become a very hot topic lately. There are cookbooks with recipes featuring wild foods, sold out foraging classes, and increasing limitations on foraging in public parks to protect natural resources from enthusiastic crowds.

On Instagram, you can find people using foraged materials to weave baskets, ferment beverages, make pottery, and design floral arrangements. And there’s a lot to love about this interest in reconnecting with the land where we live.

A bucket of foraged acacia and French broom

Foraging can be a way to tune into the health and cycles of the landscapes around us.

It’s a way for modern nomads to begin putting down roots and feeling like we belong somewhere.

And it’s certainly much easier on the Earth to use a little of what is available in abundance nearby, than to clear land for farms full of irrigated, fertilized, pest-controlled crops—at least, so long as foragers gather judiciously, as informed stewards of the land.

Unfortunately, there are also many ways that foraging can harm a fragile natural ecosystem.

Often, people who dive into foraging haven’t first spent the time it takes to learn and become intimately familiar with the habitat they are taking from – to “understand what abundance looks like,” as Meleana Estes eloquently put it[1].

These casual foragers may unknowingly spread invasive plants, disrupt food chains, remove nesting habitat, or otherwise threaten and harm the both species they are gathering and others that rely on them.

Over long years of living in a certain place, indigenous cultures around the world (like the Rumsen Ohlone here in Monterey) have developed close relationships with their homeland. Over and over again, so many traditions I have encountered emphasize the need to not just take from the land, but also to give.

We are in a relationship with the Earth, and in any healthy relationship, both sides must take care of each other.

I am not an heir to the indigenous cultures in the places where I have lived. Like so many of us in this modern era, I have been uprooted and transplanted over and over. But I am learning to know the land where I have settled, and in that process, I have developed certain considerations that constantly run through my mind when I’m gathering wild plants.

While this is not an exhaustive list, and opinions will differ, I hope these ideas offer some guidance to others like me, who aim to help rather than harm the land with their foraging.

Best practices for foragers

Always identify what you’re gathering. If you can’t identify a species with certainty, leave it alone—without this knowledge, it’s impossible to address any of the other considerations. There are now phone apps that do a decent job of identification for fun (I use iNaturalist), but they can and do make mistakes and shouldn’t be relied on when the stakes are high. If in doubt, leave it alone.

Seedheads make for beautiful, unique accents–and they can also spread invasive plants

Know plant origin and status. Is this plant a rare endemic species? A noxious weed that’s taking over the landscape? Or somewhere in between? Knowing where the species falls along this spectrum will help you determine how much and which parts you can gather, if any at all.

Even if a species is on the official invasive plant list, it’s not necessarily safe to cut: foraging wild pampas grass or fennel seed heads, for example, both of which are popular floristry materials and invasive around Monterey, scatters those seeds into new areas where the plants may not yet be growing.

Never transport grasses or other seed heads unless you are sure the plant is not invasive! (Side note: this applies equally to purchased or farmed grasses and seed heads in floral designs for outdoor events.)

Observe growth habits. Some plants are common and widespread, but grow very slowly. There are miles and miles of California live oak and manzanita near me, for example, but I rarely if ever cut from them (although they are gorgeous!) because the individual plants simply grow too slowly, and I would be harming them.

Other native species, such as snowberry and red osier dogwood, are extremely vigorous in their growth and will flourish when pruned judiciously.

Be aware of life cycles, both big and small. On the micro level, it’s important to consider what part of a plant you’re removing, and when. If you remove the flowers from a plant, for example, it will not be able to set seed. For an annual whose propagation depends on seeds, this effectively eliminates it from the gene pool (and could even wipe out an entire population, if you pick too many flowers).

For perennials, if you cut too much foliage when a plant preparing to go dormant, it may not be able to store enough energy to return next season.

Even during a superbloom, when wildflowers carpet the ground following an unusually rainy winter, keep in mind that this could be the plants’ only chance to reproduce for the next decade!

Poison hemlock in flower (Photo credit: UCANR)

Know your poisonous plants. Some plants are pretty but poisonous. For example, most people who live around the Monterey Peninsula should (I hope) recognize poison oak, which has very attractive foliage but produces a resin that will make you extremely itchy.

Not everyone, however, is aware of poison hemlock, which grows widely in the region, has flowers that look similar to Queen Anne’s lace and many popular varieties of flowering carrot—and is highly toxic with no antidote. There are more plants to be aware of, and they are different in different habitats. Know your plants.

Take no more than you need. When you forage, you’re removing part of the ecosystem, with effects difficult to predict. Cut no more than you know you will use, and spread your gathering across multiple plants and locations. Avoid foraging at all in highly trafficked areas. As my mom used to say, if everyone picked just one flower, they’d all be gone!

If this is your first time using an ingredient or material, take only a small amount at first and experiment to make sure it meets your needs and does not go to waste. For floral design materials, strip stems and cut them to size in the place you found them, leaving as many of the nutrients as possible in the place where the plant was growing.

Clean your tools. Just as you would in your own garden, make sure to sterilize your clippers, pruning shears, and other tools to avoid spreading disease.

Respect the law. The details are far beyond the scope of a single post, but be aware that harvesting any part of wild growing plants is prohibited on many state and federal lands, and of course on someone else’s private land without permission.

Using nature’s abundance

Does this feel like a lot to keep in mind while picking wildflowers on a simple stroll? That’s because it is! Foraging is a serious responsibility.

When you have access to a piece of land, the best way to begin is by spending as much time as possible getting to know it—what grows there, what lives there, how it behaves. Look things up. Ask others who know. Learn as much as you can. Do what you can to care for the land.

And then, when you can recognize abundance, use and enjoy nature’s gifts—always in moderation.

[1] Meleana Estes, Lei Aloha: Celebrating the Vibrant Flowers and Lei of Hawai’i (Ten Speed Press, 2023).

Foraging responsibly is just one facet of Thicket’s commitment to sustainable practices. Read the entire Sustainability Charter here.

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