Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Foraging, by Definition, is Not Sexy by guest blogger, Jeanette Ankoma-Sey

By guest blogger Jeanette Ankoma-Sey

Foraging by definition is not sexy: it is plant material eaten by grazing livestock. When the term is applied to humans, the phrase “eating like a cow” can truly have new meaning to the forager!

I have come to realize that many of the plants that are considered generic weeds throughout the regional landscape are actually well loved, functional, and sustaining foods in other parts of the world. Call it the hunter-gatherer African in me, perhaps, but here are some observations and thoughts on foraging.

Foraging and its possibilities have been gained a new renewal following on the popularity of the 21st century edible food movement over the last 5 years. As Thomas mentioned, groups have set up maps and websites dedicated to the art of foraging. When considering foraging in public spaces, some common questions swirl: what is considered public, and when is it not ok? There is no exact answer other than applying common sense practices and asking the authority in question.  But foraging can be and is a wonderful thing!

[Tomatoes and Flowering Parnsip, a combination for beneficial insect control]

Our property is a corner lot, everyone passes by, and thanks to the invention of chain link fence everyone can see our growing abundance and garden oasis: birds, squirrels, adults, and children. We have plants on our fence that happen to extend into the sidewalk from time to time. And on occasion our yard has become a foraging opportunity for the neighborhood, and that is ok. We have met new friends and shown some neighborly face time behind our garden. The Irish twins rush the sidewalk in late -May when they know the raspberries are sneaking on in. Our Asian neighbors eye our daylily flowers as they too get included as ingredients in some delightful recipes.

I cannot fault our neighbors or other foragers. I have plenty for me inside my fence, but whatever is outside, is open for harvest. If I am not around, I am more comfortable if a raspberry finds a new home, because I honestly, I probably would not notice. If I am obviously right there, a courteous query or “may I” is fine, as I would happily let the foraging commence. A fine line runs between my husband, who claims to be a forager in our own yard, and the other foragers, but I am happy to share the neighborly love as well as open the eyes to folks who may never have seen or tasted said plant.

As I think of my foraging neighbors and culture, I think about last week’s Washington Post article that reflected on the Mulberry tree and its special relationship to those of us who are immigrants or ‘have accents’. These cultures harvest mulberries in their home countries because the fruit—somewhere miles away from Washington D.C.—are prized for their edible qualities. Parks in the D.C. region, and other void, underappreciated spaces, are full of Mulberry trees! Maybe the birds may eat them but humans love them too. My friend was just in Greenwood Cemetery (NY) where some Mulberries were dotting the landscape. He picked some up while reminiscing of his boyhood days in Arkansas, only to be greeted by a guard who shooed him away from the property. “Better in the mouth than on the sidewalk,” may have been my friend’s sentiment in this case. [Image to right shows grapes I share with neighbors]

Picking fruit in Potomac Maryland a few weeks ago, ladies from eastern Europe were happily harvesting and collecting the wild chamomile that is scattered along the grassy edge of the property exclaiming when questioned by other visitors, ‘Where I come from this is the best stuff for calming and soothing and tea making!’ Even down my street in Old Town, the Lindens are a big hit for our Asian and Hispanic neighbors, collecting the flowers for teas and candies. Public space can hold some sweet delights!

One group, Fallen Fruit, http://www.fallenfruit.org/, capitalizes on public space edibles. They take an organized and civil guerilla gardening approach with food! The art of fruit mapping is great and works, of course with the consent of the homeowners and neighborhoods. Communities can become better acquainted by allowing foraging to occur. If you have too much of something, spread the word and share with others. Allow those willing to pick in unkempt or ignored locations to pick them and share. Some folks make a living this way! Another similar group includes http://www.neighborhoodfruit.com/ where the “share and share alike” mentality for foraging flourishes.

In closing, foraging can lead to many benefits such as the creation of more productive public spaces or the strengthening of community bonds. Even if it means a small corner of your own space (or a client’s yard) can be dedicated to sharing a random pint or 3 of blueberries with family, friends, visitors alike. I like to think foraging can keep neighborly love (and healthy palettes) alive!

Bon App.

Jeanette Ankoma-Sey is a D.C. based landscape architect and a planting designer extraordinaire. She specializes in landscapes that provide sustenance, children's gardens, and school and botanical gardens. She teaches planting design at the George Washington University's Landscape Design Program.


  1. Thanks for your post Jeanette - Luckily we all have accents, whether the Queen's English or the Deep South, Zimbabwean or American - like the gardens hurrah for difference!
    I wish we could offer our blueberries for foraging - I have 4 on my new bush - I have to admit I only have one neighbour but even so that is not party bowl full of festive food ...
    Here it is Elderflower season and we all have to persuade the chemists that we are not drug addicts to be able to buy it.
    I am still waiting with baited breath for Thomas' super health giving summer foraged fruit - guess he's busy busy.. Happy Summer fruits!

  2. In Maine, where I live, the native wild blueberries are a favorite fruit. (We all think those big, fat cultivated blueberries are what you eat if you can't get real blueberries.) It's generally understood that any blueberries in public places are to be picked, unless there's a sign expressly telling you not to. It's interesting that Acadia National Park makes an exception to the usual NPS "take nothing but photos; leave nothing but footprints" philosophy when it comes to the blueberries that grow all over the park's mountains; it's understood that hikers will pick and eat these. -Jean

  3. We forage for Oxalis leaves in our garden to add to salad. There is a pecan tree on our driveway, and fine line between foraging, and we would like some of our nuts too please!

  4. Moses on foraging:

    Deut. 23: 24 “If you go into your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. 25 If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor's standing grain.

    Deut. 24: 19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.


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