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.
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 that 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...
Be 110% certain of identification before harvesting. Use a guidebook 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 (jeweler's 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 about 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 plants at all? These are all valid and helpful questions to remind yourself of regularly.
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 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.
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 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 that 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.
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 of polluted soil, air, and plants. Some plants accumulate heavy metals. Bug-free areas are concerning, as are unusually 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 instincts in addition to all of this. When harvested, clean it well. Harvest above dog-pee height when possible, and 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; fertilizers, 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 minimize collecting harvests that have been soiled by passing people and animals, though it will still require proper cleaning. Avoid any material that looks dirty, unhealthy, or unusual.
When harvesting near clean flowing water, only collect plant parts that 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 tea towel for ten minutes. This encourages many bugs to leave. Wash your harvest under running clean water.
Is it legal?
Foragers need to consider local laws. They should also consider what is morally acceptable. Harvesting flowers takes nectar from insects and reduces seed production. 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 wildflowers are protected everywhere and there is a list (although old) of threatened and endangered species. Here is a link to those UK government resources.
In the Netherlands, foraging is not legal. It is tolerated in places where it does not cause a nuisance and where there is no danger to biodiversity. "Staatsbosbeheer" run areas also tolerate a little foraging in some places. However, foraging in general is a crime here and if caught foraging or causing harm to nature in a nature reserve, a woodland, private ground (without permission), or another place of special interest, there is (apparently*) a risk of a fine of up to 4100 euros. This is very rarely given out to casual foragers taking a couple of Elderflowers, but it is possible and each year dozens of people here are fined for foraging. However in my years of foraging and teaching here, I know of one apprentice who was told off quite dramatically and made to feel very small, by a park ranger in Amsterdamse Bos, for harvesting a couple of Elderflower sprigs. Better be discrete and stick to the rules.
*I am still looking for an easy-read but reliable source about this fine. If you find an official website mentioning it, please let me know. Here is a link to the actual law for Nature Protection in NL and laws mentioning Poaching in NL, neither contains the term wildpluk (forage) but of course they are to protect nature, so foraging could infringe some of these laws. I am looking for something to help you all understand the Dutch laws better; something a little more substantial than this: https://www.go-rtv.nl/boete-voor-wilde-bramen-plukken-dat-is-stroperij.
The best (legally best) places to forage in the Netherlands are in your own garden, a friend or family member's garden with permission, or a community garden (again, with permission). Ask explicitly for permission to forage edible "weeds" and focus on the plants that most gardeners want to get rid of, such as Ground Elder (Aegopodium podograrium) Zevenblad.
The Dutch Park Ranger Service (Staatsbosbeheer) can issue fines to people who do not comply with Staatsbosbeheer's rules for foraging. As foraging can also be seen as a crime under the same category as poaching here, the police could also issue fines. You can contact them, if unsure whether an area you are in allows foraging or not, via that link. They (and the KNNV, The Royal Dutch Natural History Society) recommend the following:
1. The foraged material must be for your own use, be safe, and not poisonous.
2. The material must not be from an endangered, threatened, or sensitive species or specimen.
3. You may forage a maximum of one container of food, the size of a 250-gram mushroom container (supermarket size) of food material, such as berries but some areas allow no harvest at all, especially mushrooms.
4. You must leave nature intact and have the utmost respect for both plants and animals.
If you do not comply with the rules, this is strictly speaking a crime in the Netherlands. So make sure you always check where you are and whether you can legally pick from the wild in that place.
Also good to know is that since the middle of 2023, Amsterdam (the entire region) has had a complete ban on the carrying of knives, any size or type of blade. This includes small Swiss army knife types. I harvest almost everything using my bare hands but sometimes a knife blade is handy, fo tougher plant material and sometimes with polyphore fungi, for a cleaner less obvious harvest. However, this is no longer permitted in Amsterdam. The rule does not apply to the rest of the Netherlands. This is due to the rise in knife crime.
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 and park ranger teams are usually easy to contact and should be able to explain the local situation.
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 any 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 favorite rose bushes. 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 Netherlands red list for you. This page also leads you to the red lists for different animal species.
UK Government Protected Plants List linked here.
UK Plantlife website, search threatened and vulnerable plants and fungi by season, month, species, colour, etc. A really helpful website - with images! Good for awareness for those of us in mainland Europe also.
Here is a link to the searchable IUCN International Red List. This is supposed to be the most comprehensive list and it clearly shows the level of threat for plant, fungi, and animal species. Simply type the plant name into the search bar and it will show you the situation. However, I have just searched that site for Plantago media, and that plant doesn't show up at all, and yet I know it.
None of the lists are perfect and they are not updated each year but they are a good starting point. Please let me know if you find other useful lists to add here.
Here is a selection of the plants, which you have a chance of finding wild in NL but which are endangered or vulnerable (of course there are more on the full list linked above):
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.).
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.
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.
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 into 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.