Foraging in the woods

Urban Foraging: food you can harvest in the city

With too many of us today content with a trip to the local supermarket to satisfy our foodie needs, it’s fair to say that we are, for the most part, out of touch with where our food comes from. In the urban sprawl, it’s increasingly difficult to feel connected to anything green. Though the distance between dinner and the general population is worrying, there is hope for reconciliation in some surprising places. The city may seem relentlessly grey, but even here it is possible to find some incredible ingredients.

It might be a bit of a shock to learn that the average city is home to a huge number of highly sought after ingredients, for those who know what they are looking for. This has helped the philosophy of urban foraging to take serious root. With awareness of where our food comes from and concerns over unnatural additives and ingredients growing, the practice is slowly building a dedicated following. For city dwellers keen to rebuild their connection with food, foraging is a great way to get back in touch with nature. To help get you started, we’ve prepared a short guide to some of the produce that can be found in a typical city and a few tips for becoming an expert forager.

Man foraging from a tree Credit: Flickr/Sean Wilson

Seasons Change

Nature’s bounty is near limitless. However, unlike the local supermarket, not everything is accessible all year round. To master the art of urban foraging, it’s important to get a grip on how the seasons affect what is available and when it can be harvested. Depending on where you are, local produce is far too varied to be listed here, but there are a few general rules that you can follow.

Typically, fresh fruits and berries, such as apples, blackberries and raspberries come into season in late summer/early autumn, after they have spent long summer days ripening. Winter is likely to be the least profitable time of year for a forager, but hardier species such as fungi may still be found. Spring is the ideal time to begin hunting for herbs and other small plants such as sorrel, nettles and dandelions. Though this is only a rough guide and produce will vary greatly from area to area, it’s always good to pay heed to the time of year when setting out on a foraging expedition.

Man picking herbs in a field Credit: Flickr/Walter Torella

Wonderful Weeds

One of the joys of foraging is that species you wouldn’t normally look twice at, and in some cases might actively try to eradicate, suddenly become highly sought after. While not every weed is worth a great deal, some have a host of hidden powers. In particular, species such as nettles, dandelions and chickweed are incredibly common across the northern hemisphere, making them a great introduction to urban foraging.

The ease with which certain plants can be sourced is arguably the best thing about foraging for weeds. Many will often be found in a back garden as well as further afield. Whilst some might require some degree of specialism in order to adequately prepare, the rewards are well worth it if you’re prepared to invest the time.

Edible weeds Credit: Flickr/RanjitMarandi

A shortcut to mushrooms

All over the world, mushrooms form the backbone of many great dishes. Though horror stories of accidental poisonings can make the prospect of picking them yourself daunting, they are nonetheless among the easiest of urban produce to get your hands on. Species that would set you back a significant amount of money can be picked up for free in parks and gardens - if you know what you’re looking for.

Unlike many forms of wildlife, mushrooms readily thrive in an urban environment. Anywhere there are damp, favourable conditions, the chances are that you can find some form of edible fungi. In the northern hemisphere, one can find species such as ceps, morels, oyster and chanterelle mushrooms with relative ease. Thanks to the hardiness of fungi, mushrooms can even grow in winter, making them a great excuse for year-round foraging.

Mushrooms growing on a log

Do your homework

While foraging may be a great way to reconnect with the natural world, it would be foolish to pretend that there are no risks involved. Many plants contain natural toxins designed to protect them from hungry predators. It is for this reason that it is essential to be prepared before embarking on your first foraging trip.

There are some species, such as deadly nightshade, that are notorious for their toxicity. However, other city dwellers are nowhere near as distinguished, yet equally potent. The most insidious are undoubtedly the aforementioned fungi. Though many mushrooms are both delicious and harmless, there are a number of lookalike species that can be deadly. Morels and chanterelles, both highly prized in cooking, are very similar in appearance to the Jack o’ Lantern (poisonous) and the Gyromitra (deadly) respectively. It is imperative that any would-be urban forager not eat anything unless they can be certain of identification.

Mushrooms in a field Credit: Flickr/Kari Haugsal

Know the law

Almost as important as avoiding deadly wildlife is an up-to-date knowledge of the law. Depending on where you live, the bylaws for what foragers are and aren’t allowed to do can vary greatly, so it always pays to be prepared. Having said that, there are a few general rules that you can follow.

Fruit and berries overhanging pavements and sidewalks are, by and large, fair game for the public. However, in many places, it is illegal to dig up, or otherwise damage the environment for the sake of foraging. Equally, some parks and cities will have strict limits on the amount of food that you can take, as well as what you can do with it once it has been harvested. Certain species in certain areas may require a license to be collected and sold. As long as you carry out research on your own area prior to your first foraging mission, you can be assured of a legally secure experience.

Nature reserve sign Credit: Flickr/Danny Walker

Join the community

Foraging is not just about the food. All over the world, there are groups of like-minded people, passionate about the benefits that foraging can bring. Readily available for anyone seeking advice about where and when to go hunting for produce, these communities are a great support network for someone taking their first steps in the foraging world.

In addition to the host of individuals, websites and blogs available online for the enthusiastic amateur, there are a number of new urban projects springing up in cities across the world. As the practice grows in popularity, these projects have become a great way for whole communities to get involved and learn more about nature. For anyone looking for a helping hand to get started, projects such as these are a valuable source of information.

Nature walk Credit: Flickr/Permaculture Yarra Valley

In a landscape that seems to be growing greyer by the day, urban foraging is a great way to reconnect with both nature and food. Spending more time outside and more actively engaged with what we’re eating is hugely beneficial for our mental well-being as well as our wallets. It’s the easiest thing in the world to pick up a basket and get started. The opportunities are endless, so the sooner you start the better. It’s a jungle out there.

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