A mindful approach and education are crucial before you embark on any foraging adventure. With the rising popularity of foraging (or “wildcrafting”, as we herbalists say), embracing a role of stewardship ensures wild edible and medicinal plants remain abundant for future generations.
Stewardship and foraging
When you approach foraging through the lens of stewardship, you commit to the sustainable and ethical harvesting of wild plants. Foraging becomes a mindful practice that prioritises responsible care and management of the land and ecosystems you explore.
Looking beyond your own needs makes sure that every action you take contributes to the preservation of the environment and the welfare of the communities that rely on the plants you forage. You too, are a part of the environments you explore, not separate from them.
Build your foraging knowledge by seeking reputable local sources, such as books, online resources, foraging classes, and hands-on workshops. Use this knowledge to build a relationship with the plants you forage and the land/Country to which they are connected.
Acknowledge the deep history of the land/Country you are about to explore. It has, no doubt, been a source of sustenance for countless millennia. Home to First Nations people, they pass down their knowledge and wisdom about the land and its resources through generations, a legacy that influences holistic foraging practices today.
Engage with Traditional Knowledge and understand a plant’s cultural significance. Take a moment of silence to reflect on the land’s/Country’s past, its original caretakers, and your place within this continuum. Express gratitude for the land’s abundance and commit to foraging responsibly and sustainably. A ritual like this reminds us of our existence as part of nature and our responsibility to protect and preserve these connections for future generations.
Before foraging, familiarise yourself with the foraging laws in your state. Remember that national parks prohibit foraging, and you must obtain a permit to forage on crown land.
Do not trespass. Ask for permission before entering private property. Don’t be shy; many private landowners are more than happy for you to pick what you want from introduced and invasive species such as blackberry and St John’s wort. Become an “invasivore”!
Foraging in urban areas
Urban foraging has become popular, but it comes with its own considerations. You should avoid areas you know are sprayed with pesticides or exposed to other pollutants, including verges and land by busy roads, reclaimed industrial sites, railroads and golf courses.
Herbs are nutrient-rich as they can draw nutrients from the soil—the good and the bad. If you are foraging in areas built up and with high human activity, steer away from areas where the soil may be contaminated.
How to forage (with the right tools)
Harvesting plants, mushrooms, and seaweed respectfully and sustainably requires knowledge, the right tools, and a mindful approach.
Take responsibility for your own actions while foraging. Be prepared for the outdoors, learn how to handle plants safely, and understand the risks involved.
Essential foraging tools
Using the right tools will help minimise damage to plants and the environment. Essential foraging tools include:
- Scissors – are the best choice for harvesting delicate herbs.
- Secateurs are handy for hard and fibrous branches.
- Kitchen shears – choose the variety that breaks down into two knife-like sections. My favourite tool is a cross between scissors and small secateurs.
- Gloves protect your hands from spikes, prickles, pigments and skin-irritating sap. A must for stinging nettle!
- Wide bottom baskets – provide a large surface area to collect delicate herbs and mushrooms, preventing overcrowding.
- Buckets are used for hardier or juicy fruits that leak through a basket.
- Plant identification books, preferably with photographs written by local authorities in the foraging world.
I keep all my gear and favourite plant identification books in a basket in my car. I can then jump to action when I spy roadside riches!
Finally, don’t forget to clean your tools and hands after harvesting to prevent the spreading of diseases and pests.
Before harvesting any plant, it is essential to positively identify it to guarantee your safety and avoid depleting endangered species. Some toxic plants can look very similar to edible ones. This is where self-education is crucial, especially in relation to mushrooms. If in doubt – don’t pick it. It is not worth losing your liver or your life!
- Select healthy, robust plants.
- Pick leaves and stems before plants have flowered.
- Collect seeds/fruit when they are ripe.
- Dig up roots in early spring or autumn when the leaves and flowers are not present.
- Foraging plants that are abundant and can sustain harvesting.
Ethical foraging entails taking only what is needed and leaving enough for the plant to thrive and for other foragers and wildlife. A general rule is to take no more than 5-10% of edible plants in a given area; the exception to this is invasive species, in which case you can harvest more.
A knife with a sharp blade and a brush is ideal for mushrooms. The blade allows for precise harvesting, while the brush helps remove dirt and debris without damaging the delicate mushroom caps. It’s also recommended to practise selective harvesting, focusing on mature mushrooms that have already released their spores and leaving some behind to ensure the sustainability of the population.
The best (and most sustainable) time to harvest seaweeds is during their growing season, which is usually in late summer and early autumn.
When harvesting seaweed, use a knife or sharp scissors to cut the seaweed from the rocks. It’s important never to pull the root from the rocks, but to cut about the top third of the plant instead. This allows the plant to regrow. You should harvest during the lowest tide of the month, when the seaweeds are most accessible.
Researching and understanding the plant’s growth and reproduction patterns before foraging is important to ensure that the plant species can sustain the level of harvesting. Some species can handle larger collections, while others cannot.
Spread the harvesting over a large area rather than concentrate on one spot. This helps minimise the impact on the ecosystem and allows the plant populations to recover.
Removing food from an area adds pressure to a limited resource and can harm less-mobile populations of animals, as well as cause ripple effects higher in the food chain.
Never take more than you need; always leave enough for the plant to reproduce and for wildlife to feed on. Don’t harvest over 10% of a plant population in an area unless it is an invasive species, in which case you can harvest more.
Show active care for the land and remedy the negative impacts you come across. For instance, if there is rubbish be sure to remove it. You can also promote faster plant regrowth by helping to distribute and scratch seeds into the soil. Join your local Landcare group and get involved with conservation and habitat restoration.
Respect endangered species
Harvest no protected, endangered, or threatened species. Always check the conservation status of a plant before foraging.
Also, respect endangered animals that might be in the landscape, insects in leaf litter, on the underside of leaves, etc. Ensure you are not robbing animals that live on the land of their food. Give everything a gentle shake to dislodge insects.
Over to you
Taking on the role of stewardship provides a holistic framework for foraging, emphasising the interconnectedness of our actions with the environment and promoting responsible behaviour that ensures the continued health and abundance of wild plant populations.
Sharing your knowledge with others will promote responsible foraging practices within your community.
Just remember these rules of thumb:
► Take a little and leave no trace.
► If in doubt, don’t put it in your mouth!