Foraging: Eating What Grows (and When What Grows is Invasive)

I first found a patch of stinging nettle the way most with an untrained eye do — by getting stung, betrayed by the gap at my wrist between my work gloves and long-sleeve shirt while clearing a patch of invasive holly. It wouldn’t have occurred to me at all that I could (or should, or would) eat the nettles if we hadn’t sat around a fire pit with a friend only a few weeks before, and been served nettle tea from a jar he’d foraged and hung to dry. I was becoming familiar with gardens, with farmers markets, with the idea that food could come from closer to home without semi trucks and supermarkets in the middle, but not yet with the idea of foraging. The idea that food still grew, out there and on its own, was hypothetical at best.

Nettle plants

But it does grow there, whether we see it or not. After the sting on my wrist, I gathered the nettles and hung them to dry. It was inefficient — I didn’t do the math on dollars per cup of tea that first year, but even assuming minimum wage for the time I spent gathering and processing it, I’m sure it would have been astronomical, far more than I would ever pay for tea in a store. I understand why agriculture has been industrialized.

But it wasn’t about money — the tea was good and it made me feel good to know where it had come from and my own part in it, and I gathered it again the next year. I’d learned some things from my first time and I was more efficient than the year before. I was also able to collect more, and while I hung some to dry for tea again, I also mixed a handful or two in with our eggs one morning, just like you would with spinach, and made nettle pasta with a friend. You couldn’t taste the nettle in the pasta much, but the green tinge alone made it worth it.

There are other things available to forage — of course there are, people lived and thrived here before industrialized agriculture — but I’m adding to my repertoire slowly. I started by picking blackberries before the nettles, before it occurred to me that this even qualified as “foraging.” People haven’t forgotten about wild berry-picking, even now, but much beyond berries might earn a sideways glance or two. Many people know you can eat dandelion leaves, too. They know this in theory, but would never consider actually doing it. Why would you? My local grocery store started stocking organic dandelion leaves in the produce section recently, and a fellow chicken keeper sent a picture around, joking that the grocery store was stocking organic chicken feed now.

I added another new plant to my foraging repertoire the following year: big-leaf maple blossoms. The blossoms are small and pale green, growing in clusters that hang down from the tips of each branch. They’re a subtle bloom, and could be mistaken for emerging leaves, if you’re not expecting to see a maple tree in flower. If, like me, it hadn’t occurred to you that maple trees flower at all. Bigleaf maple trees are also big, putting the blossoms well out of reach. Eating them requires a well-timed windstorm to blow them down so that they can be gathered fresh from the ground. This makes them a once-a-year treat for me, no matter how tantalizingly they hang there, out of reach, for several weeks in the spring.

Looking down on a jar full of maple blossoms

Foraging requires a caution I’m not used to exercising. It’s a different skill than reading the nutritional information off the side of a box. Things on the forest floor might kill you now, not of clogged arteries a couple decades from now, though they can hide in wait too. Some fiddlehead ferns — fiddlehead is not actually a type of fern, but a phase of a fern’s life cycle that they all go through each year: the year’s new fronds, before they unfurl, look like the spiraled head of a violin or fiddle — are carcinogenic. Mushrooms of course, are there for the taking in the Pacific Northwest, but you have to be sure.

Fiddlehead fern heads on a baking sheet

Sometimes when I tell people about my foraging adventures, they respond with something in the vein of how well suited I am to survive in the hypothetically approaching apocalypse, but I can’t help but feel that survival isn’t what is at stake here, at least in the physical sense. For starters, the number of calories I actually get from things I forage are minimal. They’re not enough to keep a body going for very long, much less enough to preserve the extra that would be necessary to get that body through the times when little is available for the picking.

But there’s something unspoken in the experience of walking outside, of both knowing and noticing well enough to find food, just there, waiting for you. There’s a kind of sustenance in that, even if it is of an unquantifiable variety that’s only minimally caloric. There is joy in the reciprocity of the garden that I plant and tend carefully, but there is joy of a different sort in the delight of foods that reappear each year where I’ve come to know to look for them, but did nothing to make it so, where the land is doing what it will and in doing so it nourishes me.

Nettle isn’t native to North America, though it’s naturalized to the point that some people think it is — it’s not considered invasive either, which contributes to this idea. People forget that things need not be one or the other, many plants living quietly, unobtrusively alongside the rest — introduced, but not invading.

Any foraging resource worth its salt will include guidelines on sustainable foraging. Never take more than you need or will use, and pick over as wide an area as you can. Leave at least half of what’s there: especially the young ones. If you’re only going to eat the leaves, leave the roots behind. Many people even recommend carrying foraged goods in a loose weave basket or bag — this allows some seeds or spores to fall out behind you as you walk, seeding the next generation.

Which makes you (me) wonder: is using invasive species as food a viable control method? Can we eat our way into restoration, if we intentionally ignore these rules of sustainable foraging, when we know that something is invasive and the ecosystem would be better off without it? Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, thinks so — he started an organization called Eat the Invaders, entirely dedicated to this idea, providing educational resources about which invasive species are edible and recipe ideas for how to consume them.

If eating our way to the eradication of invasive species sounds like an ideal solution, a perfect win-win, we should know by now that it’s never that straightforward. It may be a somewhat more viable solution when it comes to invasive things other than plants — fish, deer maybe. It could never make a meaningful impact on many of our most notorious invasive plants though: removal of invasive plants like garlic mustard and knotweed require what’s called Integrated Pest Management. That’s another way of saying that no one removal method will work in isolation, you’ll need to use all of them — mechanical, biological, chemical. Of course, the moment you spray a plant with synthetic chemicals, it’s no longer good for eating. And if the moment you pick a plant, it responds by re-sprouting many times over, that plant won’t ever go away. Still — in a world where everything is something, is better than nothing, eating invasives may be a good not-nothing way to start. After all, if you can make the work of removal pleasurable, people are more likely to do it and keep doing it.

But there’s another, uniquely human problem with this idea too: nearly the entire basis of invasion management is economic. Sure, we talk about biodiversity loss and all the rest, but if there weren’t economic impacts too, even the insufficient resources that are given to invasive species control would be allocated elsewhere. So if people started eating invasive species in sufficient quantities to actually make a dent in their populations, there’s suddenly an economic incentive for maintaining them — market economics demands it. So then what?

Benoliel, Doug, Northwest Foraging: The Classic Guide to Edible Plants of the Pacific Northwest (Skipstone, 2011)

Eat the Invaders: Fighting Invasive Species, One Bite at a Time

King County, Garlic Mustard Identification and Control

Philadelphia Orchard Project: Japanese Knotweed: Edible, Medicinal, Invasive!