Food foraging is the latest foodie trend. Off you go into your backyard, harvesting dandelions and garlic mustard for your evening meal. There’s nothing wrong with harvesting plants in a perturbed environment like that, one where few of the plants are native anyway, but things can be a bit more iffy if you leave the city and go off into a less disturbed environment: a forest, a marsh or a peat bog. Foraging for plants in the wild is also trendy, but, if you want to harvest or consume wild plants from nature, you have to learn how to do so while respecting the environment.
The sad truth is that harvesting plants from the wild has in the past often led to serious ecological degradation. Shouldn’t this be something we humans avoid this time around?
Wild Leeks: A Case in Point
When I arrived in Quebec just over 40 years ago, wild leek, also called ramps (Allium tricoccum) was an extremely abundant woodland plant in the St. Lawrence Valley hardwood forests. It has since completely disappeared from many forests and is in decline or barely maintaining itself elsewhere.
It’s simple enough. Wild leeks fell prey to overharvesting.
In the mid-seventies, a few articles on wild leeks appeared in local newspapers, then were taken up by local TV and radio, and boom! Suddenly this modest understory plant had become a hot commodity. Entire families set out to harvest it, many with stories about great-grandma having harvested it in her youth, which somehow seemed to make the harvest legitimate. But you have to remember that the province’s population had exploded in the intervening years, from barely 1 million in 1871 to over 6 million by 1971. This influx of foragers, harvesting every plant they came upon, had a disastrous effect on the wild leek. Foragers had to go further and further into the woods to find any at all.
In addition, people began harvesting not just for their own use, but to sell as well. Again, these were largely mom-and-pop operations, families supplementing their incomes with by selling fresh and marinated bulbs in public markets. Bottles of pickled wild leeks even began to show up in supermarkets. As leeks became harder to find, poachers began invading public parks and private reserves, sometimes emptying them of leeks in a single weekend.
This harvest was all on the back of a very slow-growing plant. A seed of wild leek seeds take 2 to 3 years to germinate and then 7 to 10 years before reaching full blooming size. And where were the seeds to start new generations to come from? Many spots had been literally emptied of all wild leek plants.
The Quebec government intervened just in time, passing its very first plant protection law in 1995, prohibiting commercial trade in wild leeks and limiting the harvest by individuals to 50 bulbs per person per year, a law that is still in effect. Plus there are programs to reintroduce the plant into its former habitats. Even so, wild leek has shown little sign of recovery in the province and some colonies continue to decline. Poachers continue to harvest them illegally, selling them in Ontario where the harvest of wild leek is still allowed.
Wild leek populations are declining throughout its Eastern North American range, but it is not yet protected in any other jurisdiction.
Not the First Time
Unfortunately, there is nothing new about this story. Whenever a native plant or animal becomes commercially valuable, humans have tended to exploit it excessively, continuing until it is simply so rare that it’s no longer commercially viable. Entire species have been pushed into extinction by overharvesting, either locally or throughout their entire range. The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is, of course, the poster child of overharvesting. Once the most numerous bird in North America (some even say the world), it was hunted to extinction. Even the North American beaver (Castor canadensis) was nearly wiped out by overhunting, but fortunately the market for beaver pelts crashed before it was extirpated entirely.
Getting back to plants, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), formerly abundant in eastern North America, underwent overharvesting way back in the 18th century, when its roots were harvested massively and shipped to China as a medicinal plant. The market eventually crashed, but not before the plant disappeared entirely from many areas. It remains very rare today in most localities, despite full government protection in many areas. Like wild leek, it is an extremely slow-growing plant and continued harvesting, whether legal or illegal, is preventing it from fully recovering. The order among botanists who know where local populations remain is to keep the location secret, otherwise unscrupulous foragers will likely eradicate it in short order.
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense), formerly widely used as a medicinal plant, is another plant that was almost wiped out by overharvesting in the past. It lost favor as the pharmaceutical industry began turning towards manufactured drugs and that may well have saved it. A faster-growing plant than wild leek and ginseng, thanks to its spreading rhizomes, it has recovered in many areas, but remains protected in Quebec and Maine.
The Situation in 2017
Foraging for edible and medicinal plants comes seems to become trendy about once every generation. It’s presently very hot, with nearly a dozen new books on the subject having come out in the last few years. And there is no problem with foraging, as long as it is done correctly and on a modest scale. The real danger to any plant’s survival often comes when it becomes commercially valuable, leading to teams of poorly formed harvesters picking the environment clean.
I’m becoming very concerned about Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum, anc. Ledum groenlandicum), which has suddenly become a very trendy both as a beverage and as a medicine. A local peat bog where this plant used to grow abundantly now only contains a few straggly specimens struggling to recover from being cut back several years in a row. No one seems to know who did the harvesting and the owner of the bog has never caught the poachers. They’ve certainly moved on now: there isn’t enough Labrador tea still growing there to make harvesting viable. But if this scenario is repeated more and more often, the plant could really go into decline.
Guidelines for Sustainable Harvesting
I must emphasize that I am not against foraging for wild plants, but believe it is vital to do it in an environmentally respectful way.
Here are some guidelines:
- Verify and comply with applicable plant protection laws.
- Respect private property. Always ask for permission from the land’s owner before foraging. Note that harvesting is forbidden, even for non-threatened plants, in most parks and reserves. Always check with local authorities before even harvesting raspberries in a state park.
- Learn to correctly identify plants that can be harvested: take a course on foraging, go into the wild with a botanist guide or bring an identification book with you when you go foraging. In addition, this will help avoid accidental poisoning, as some edible or medicinal plants have very dangerous look-alikes.
- Harvest only plants that are abundant in a given area.
- There is no need to limit harvests of plants that are considered weeds, such as dandelion, sorrel, garlic mustard or nettle. Most are introduced plants and removing them will only give native plants more room to grow.
- Collecting the flowers, fruits or seeds of a long-lived plant (perennial, shrub, tree, etc.) is rarely very harmful, as long as you leave at least 10% of the fruits or seeds on the spot. So you can harvest small fruits such as blueberries, blackberries or serviceberries practically to your heart’s content.
- Be selective when harvesting annual plants. They need to renew themselves annually from seed, so always leave at least one third of the plants in place.
- If you’re harvesting the foliage of long-lived plants, remember that they get all their energy from their leaves. You’ll need to moderate your harvest enough to allow them to recuperate and that means looking into the individual plant’s specific situation. For example, it’s wise to harvest no more than 3 fiddleheads per ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) per year. More than that can put the plant into decline. In the case of Labrador tea, commercial harvesters often harvest that season’s shoots because they’re at the top of the plant and are therefore more readily accessible, making harvesting easier, but that will eventually kill the plant, as it prevents any new growth. To ensure the survival of this plant or other very slow-growing shrubs, consider picking only the lower leaves, which will soon fall off anyway.
- Put even more thought into harvesting entire plants or plant roots, bulbs or rhizomes. This will likely kill the individual plant, so it’s best to harvest no more than one plant in five, even when the plant is locally abundant.
- If you want to buy native plants or products derived from native plants, if possible question the vendor about their harvesting methods to try and determine whether they have applied sustainable harvesting practices.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the generosity of Mother Nature, but we should limit ourselves to harvesting her surpluses, not digging into her reserves.