Guidelines for Finding Free Food in Your Urban or Rural Yard

Foraging Basics

Finding food for free in your neighbourhood is not as difficult as you may think. Often, it is as simple as eating the weeds from your garden instead of throwing them in the trash.

Edible plants are found in our lawn, in back alleys, in forests, on mountains or in your local park.

There are, however, some guidelines that we want to follow when harvesting and preparing these plants to ensure our safety and the conservation status of the plants.

Safety

Safety is of utmost importance when foraging for any food or medicine. There are some key points that we need to take into consideration:

1) Identification. This may seem like an obvious one, but all too often I see people trying to make a plant fit a picture because they want so desperately to have found a particular plant. When just getting started, make sure that you cross reference the plant in question in several guidebooks before ever ingesting or harvesting the plant. When you do think that you've made a positive ID, always start with a very small amount before consuming more.

2) Potency. This ties into the last point made above. Wild food is often stronger than the food that we are used to in both constituents, flavour and effect. Just because something is listed as edible DOES NOT mean that you should prepare an entire meal out of it if you've never eaten wild food before. Instead, maybe try using the plant as a garnish or addition to an already prepared salad or side dish.

3) Contamination. Since this first week we are talking about harvesting weeds, they are often going to be found in areas that may not make them safe for consumption or medicinal preparations. If possible, it's best to harvest plants more than 50ft from any roadway. Of course this is a little tricky in an urban setting, so I would advise that you use caution and common sense over hard and fast rules. Also, many areas may be sprayed with herbicides or pesticides which creates a toxic shower for the plant. It's best instead to harvest them from your own yard (if you're chemical-free) or from a friend's yard that you trust.

Consideration of the Plant

This brings me to a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. Since foraging and herbal medicine are becoming a fad in the world today, overharvesting and destruction of habitats is a very real concern. Here are a couple of guidelines that I recommend following each time you consider picking a plant or its parts.

1) Conservation status. This can be found in most guidebooks and reference materials. Please observe these statuses carefully and pick only from plants that are abundant. A good rule of thumb is to only pick 1/10 of what is available and I like to personally lean towards more of 1/20 scenario. Also, keep in mind that harvesting the root of the plant will often mean that plant no longer survives and picking the flower means that that particular plant may not get the chance to reproduce.

2) Respect for the plant. This looks different to different people based on your cultural or spiritual beliefs. In general, asking permission from the plant and making some kind of offering back to the plant is commonplace. Some people may leave an offering of tobacco or a piece of their hair as a way to say thank you. No matter what you choose to do, I just ask that you stop entirely if you get a sense that you shouldn't be harvesting a plant. It may be trying to tell you something.

3) Respect for the ecosystem. When we harvest plants or look for them in the wild, we want to make sure that we are leaving behind the smallest footprint possible. If you have disturbed the soil while harvesting a root, try to repair the ground. By careful of where you're treading when looking at plants so that you are not trampling others in the process. Be sure to leave many fruits behind for the creatures that depend on them. Remember that these are gifts we are given, we do not own them.

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