Ethical Foraging Rules

Green hazelnuts, harvested from the edge of a football field.

By the end of this unit you will:
- Understand what foraging is.
- Know the 7 Urban Herbology rules of ethical foraging.
- Be able to locate a list of endangered plants in your area.
- Know if it is legal to forage in your locality.

Please download the unit worksheet, ready to fill in as you work through this unit.
You may also like to listen to the audio version of the unit text.

Audio to accompany Foraging 1

So what is foraging?
Foraging is searching for and gathering wild food resources.

It is not a competitive sport. This may sound obvious but many people who join my walks and workshops at first feel that they must learn everything in one go. They worry that if they cannot successfully name every plant they find, they will have failed in some way. How far from the truth!

Foraging simply is the acquisition of food from the wild.
Foraging is your birth rite. It is available to us all and I believe that it should be an enjoyable, safe activity which we share with friends and family rather than guarding as a secret. Just as we learned how apples and strawberries look and taste different during childhood, we can learn the difference between dandelion and burdock now.  We can gradually learn what tastes good, what doesn't, what is safe and what is poisonous. We can learn this by trial and error but it is safer and faster to use some foraging rules and tips.

It doesn't matter where you are on your foraging path. You may forage regularly, occasionally or this may be a whole new world for you. This is your path and what you decide to learn, forage and eat, is your choice.

Ethical Foraging Rules

Over the years I have built up the following set of foraging rules. Other foragers will have other rules and I am sure that you will have questions about some of these but they are a good place to start. Above all, be considerate, careful and moderate whether harvesting from your own plants or those growing in public spaces. I made up the (not very catchy) mnemonic ALCLES to help people learn my foraging rules but if you think of a better one, please do let me know!

ACLES - Foragers should be...

  • Accurate
  • Light
  • Clean
  • Legal
  • Enriching
  • Safe

Accurate Harvest

Feverfew (Tancetum parthenium) NL: Moederkruid. An acquired taste!

Be 110% certain of identification before harvesting. Use a guide book to identify plants. Practice this skill as it is challenging at first. Learn the features of the main plant families. Perhaps challenge yourself to identify one plant (or family) every time you go out for a weekend walk. Use a loop lens (jewelers lens) to help get an accurate ID, but even a simple children's hand lens can help.

There is a lot to know about each plant. When learning about a new one, get to know the area where it usually lives and find out about it's look-a-likes. Learn the poisonous plants in your area and look out for them too. Which plants are endangered in your area? Perhaps you can grow the plant and get to know it intimately. Learn all you can about it. Learn how to use any harvested parts before you pick them. Do certain animals depend on the plant? What impact do your foraging plants have on the local soil? Is it really appropriate to pick any of the plant at all? These are all valid and helpful questions to remind yourself of regularly.

Cuckoo Pint

Start by focusing on herbs that you are very familiar with (perhaps Rosemary/Rozemarijn, Sage/Salie, Blackberry/Bramen or Dandelion/Paardenbloem) and use at least two good field guides to ensure correct identification. Foraging books are often good for suggesting how to use the plants but should not be relied on for ID purposes. Your foraging guides should be in your language and should be written about the area where you want to forage.  Identify plants at the harvesting location and check again when you get home. Never prep and cook foraged plants without double checking their identity.

Light Harvest

Magnolia. Just one petal is enough to make a delicious pot of infused honey.

Spread your harvest. Pick very, very sparingly (take less than 10% of a plant). Choose areas where your plant grows in abundance, in overgrowth. Select only very healthy looking plants. I don’t harvest roots or bark (unless from recently felled trees) and I don't harvest annuals. Annuals grow from a seed and flower in the same year. Then they die. If harvested, there will be no seed for next year. Root harvesting generally kills the whole plant and it makes a mess in the city.

Biennials grow from seed one year and tend to flower and set seed the next year. Then they die. I avoid harvesting most biennials except for Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata, NL: Look-zonder-look). I find it easy to harvest a single leaf from this plant without preventing it from growing, flowering and seeding.

Harvesting lightly helps conserve the health of the plant, its appearance and the creatures which it supports. Take time before you start to do this. When I find an edible plant species for the first time, I often take a year or more before feeling confident enough to pick it. It is hard to identify plants without flowers and it is good to watch them through a whole year before trusting your identification. Of course some plants are easier to ID than others. Never strip all the leaves, berries or whichever part you are interested in, from a plant, however tempting. Take only a little from each plant, leave plenty and avoid harming plants by rough picking. Leave the plant looking untouched when you walk away.

Clean Harvest

Dog in plants.

All food can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and organic and inorganic residues. Contaminated fruit and vegetables kill many people every year. Contamination can occur before or after harvest, in transit, in storage, and in preparation. Wild food is no different. Beware polluted soil, air and plants. Some plants accumulate heavy metals. Bug free areas are concerning, as are unusual shaped leaves. Manicured green areas and sterile pavement cracks are also areas to avoid. All these signal the use of pesticides. I avoid plants growing under power lines and use my instinct in addition to all of this. When harvested, clean it well. Harvest above dog-pee height when possible, avoid obvious areas of pollution. Many city councils now have policies of not using chemical fertilizers or plant pest control sprays but this is not always the case.

There are unwelcome forms of pollution in both urban and rural areas; fertilisers, animal waste, chemicals, engine fumes and garbage being just a few. Avoid harvesting where pollution is highly likely, such as along busy roadsides, railway verges, building sites, non-organic farmland and industrial zones. Look out for clean, untreated planting areas, away from busy roads. I find that the best urban foraging grounds are usually within large green spaces and parks. It often helps to pick from as high as you can reach, this can minimise collecting harvests which have been soiled by passing people and animals, though it will still require proper cleaning. Avoid any material which looks dirty, unhealthy or unusual.

When harvesting near clean free flowing water, only collect plant parts which have not been submerged. Harmful waterborne parasites can easily transfer to humans when affected plants are eaten. Never harvest from still water. Whenever you harvest, allow time and space for bugs to crawl out from the plants at home. I lay my harvest out on a white teatowel for ten minutes. This encourages many bugs to leave. Wash your harvest under running clean water.

Legal Harvesting

Hoary plantain (Plantago media) NL: Ruige weegbree. Endangered - Do not pick!

Foragers need to consider local laws. They should also consider what is morally acceptable.  Harvesting flowers takes nectar from insects and reduces seed. Trespassing and stealing do not give foragers a good name. If you really want something from someone else's land then ask and you may be surprised by the response. Don’t pick what was deliberately planted. It can be tempting to pick ripe fruit and herbs whilst passing private street gardens but it is so sad for the owners when they see their tended fruit disappear. In the UK all wild flowers are protected. In NL foraging is not legal. What are the rules where you live? It is wise to check local policy and to find out the legal position on foraging from local public spaces. Council ecology teams are usually easy to contact and should be able to explain the local situation.

Juniper - an endangered plant in the Netherlands.

Foragers are a diverse group with varied personal scruples but whatever the rules, we should remember that everywhere belongs to someone. I often feel like the whole of Amsterdam is my garden and cannot imagine why I shouldn't carefully pick a leaf from a certain place. But I must respect other people's boundaries and aim not to annoy others. I become sad when I see that foragers have stripped all the hips from my favourite rosebushes. I don't want others to feel the same way about my foraging. I also encourage you to be discrete. Even if foraging is allowed in a location, there is no harm in being subtle.

The Red List
Here is a link to the full Dutch red list for you. This page also leads you to the red lists for different animal species. A selection of the plants are listed here:

Juniper - Juniperus
Wormwood - Artemisia absinthum
Lady's mantle (many wild varieties) - Alchemilla spp.
Betony - Stachys officinalis
Gallium sylvaticum - looks like Lady's bedstraw
Marshmallow - Althaea officinalis
Gorse - Ulex europeaus
Wild large thyme - Thymus pulegioides
Creeping thyme - Thymus praecox
Wild thyme - Thymus vulgaris
Primula - Primula veris
Primrose - Primula vulgaris
Dog violet - Viola canina
Small valerian - Valeriana dioica
Allium oleraceum - type of wild garlic
Vaccinium uliginosum - type of blueberry
Hoary ribwort - Plantago media
Small lungwort - Pulmonaria montana
Spanish sorrel - Rumex scutatus
Wild sedums (some types Sedum spp.)
Wild thistle (some types)
Arnica montana - Arnica
Rosa villosa - type of wild rose
Catnip (in wild) - Nepeta cataria
Pulsatilla - Pulsatilla vulgaris
Some Clovers (Trifolium spp.).

Enriching Harvest

Elder (NL: Vlier) rooted cutting.

Leave the foraging area better than you found it. I often sow seeds, plant cuttings and clean up litter where I harvest. This is nice for the environment and in turn gives me better foraging grounds. It is also lovely to bring on rare plants at home to later plant outside. Of course these must be ethically sourced. Perhaps talk to the head gardener at your local park about locally rare plants. I plant Elder (Sambucus nigra, NL: Vlier) in many local places. It is easy to grow, produces a wealth of foraging material and is great for wildlife.

Safe Harvest

Ginkgo biloba: Fallen fruit from city trees. Seeds within are edible, after lots of careful preparation.

I have talked about safety already above but it is worth thinking about again. As well as being careful when selecting your foraging locations and making sure you are targeting the correct plants, do ensure your plants are clean before eating and that you label them before storing. Keep them away from children and never store poisonous plants anywhere that your unsuspecting family could find.  It is best to label plants at the collection site, each plant in a different bag. Plants can wilt and change appearance significantly on the journey home. Eat the plants whilst they are in top condition.

(09m10s until end of video) - How NOT to harvest wild garlic and HOW TO harvest it correctly

Assessed Tasks
a) Post a comment in the Foraging forum, saying where you live and telling us a little about the foraging situation there.
Is foraging legal there?
Is it popular?
Is it illegal but tolerated?
Do foragers get in to trouble if caught?
What is the general situation?

b) When you have completed the unit worksheet, please send an electronic copy to your tutor for marking and feedback.

Move on to Light Harvesting when you are ready.