Simple Ethics of Foraging

Yesterday, I took an intro to foraging class. It was held by an organization called the Driftless Folk School and the session took place on the grounds of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve near La Farge, Wisconsin. This area is a jaw-droppingly (my own term) beautiful part of Wisconsin. I was excited to go, as much to have the class as to be in such natural beauty.

Our leader was an experienced forager and excellent teacher. We were in the field the entire time – two hours. The full day class, which I originally wanted, was booked by the time I tried to register. It is today. But, for a beginning forager, it was still information overload and our guide acknowledged this. None of the information was on fungi, however. We did not forage for any mushrooms. I would guess that is an entire extra day or more of traversing the landscape.

There were many edible plants that he helped us to identify both near the trail, near water, and in the woods. Most, I did not know by sight. Some I knew but did not realize they were edible. This is information I might share in another post.

More importantly, our guide talked about the ethics of foraging. He did this in an unobtrusive way, sprinkled throughout our foraging expedition. This is what I’d like to share today.

  • For those new to foraging, it should be a slow journey. For example, yesterday we learned some plants. We tasted plants. Next time, we might be able to identify the same plants and eat them again. The third time (or season, if you will), you will be fully confident in what you are eating. Learn your area and what grows in it. Pay attention to the land and increase your knowledge of what grows when and where.
  • Be selective – newer leaves are best.
  • One should not rape a hillside. Now, these are my words not his. But, he told a story of how he showed a group a hillside full of wild ramps several years ago. The next week, he took another group out and the ramps had been dug out and taken by some people – probably in the group to which he showed the location. The hillside of ramps is still recovering from this experience. They are not as plentiful as before, according to our guide.
Wild leeks or ramps at Kickapoo Valley Reserve. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2021
  • Ramps or wild leeks (and, really any other plant) should be harvested sparingly. Look for leek plants with three leaves. Take the third leaf by cutting the stem with your thumb nail.
    1. Do not dig up the whole plant and do not take all the leaves from one plant.
    2. Spread your harvest out in an area – do not take everything from one spot.
  • If you dig up a plant for its bulb, tuber, corm, or root – many of which are also edible, replace your divot. Leave some of the newer parts to regenerate.
  • If you take something from the earth (as most foragers do) there is some vein of thought that says you should leave something behind to thank the tree or land or plant for its gift. The only thing I could think of leaving was some water from my bottle. As you know the opposite thought is to leave no trace. I do believe these thoughts can and should co-exist.
  • As we foraged, our guide pulled out garlic mustard, a bitter edible but invasive plant. He pulled out the garlic mustard and replaced the divot. He stated that if you work a little as you collect, you are forming relationship with the land and giving back as well as receiving. This was a great suggestion to me. Garlic mustard is a huge problem in Wisconsin.
  • Do not pick near buildings for the following reasons a) runoff, b) spraying. The same applies to foraging near trails – spraying of pesticides and urination of canines.
  • Not everything is edible. There are absolutely some plants that should not be ingested. One we saw yesterday was water hemlock, near the creek edge. This is highly poisonous. It is important to learn your plants.
  • Tree buds are sometimes edible. We ate basswood buds and rock elm samaras which are the green papery bits that are seen all over the tree in spring, according to our guide. These are actually considered gourmet.
  • You need a foraging bag to put all your finds in as you collect. Our guide encouraged us to collect and try (eat, smell) yesterday. But, only himself and one other forager had a foraging bag. I am going to look for pattern to make some bags – for obvious reasons they should not be plastic!

I came home brimming with information after my introduction to foraging. Luckily, my husband let me share a little with him. It is an interesting hobby and even way of life for some, such as our guide. The earth provides us with many non-cultivated foods, we just need to know where to find them and what is safe for our consumption. I look forward to my next “lesson” in foraging!

Toothwort, tastes a little like horseradish! © Carol Labuzzetta, 2021

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