Ever walk down the street and spot a particularly delicious-looking weed growing in a parking lot? Or walk through a park and think to yourself, “Those dandelions would make some dang good fritters!” No? Then maybe it’s time to rethink the way you interact with the (surprisingly edible) species that make up your urban landscape.
Urban foraging is the practice of identifying and collecting wild foods (think tree nuts, plant roots, mushrooms, and even flowers) growing freely around your city. It might also be one of the easiest ways for consumers to start engaging with larger discussions of environmental land use, food justice, and the effects of climate change. The practice is accessible to everyone and doesn’t require leaving your neighborhood. You just need keen senses and a brave stomach.
Marla R. Emery, research geographer for the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, has documented the practice of urban foraging in various communities for a decade and has studied its role in Baltimore, Black communities in Atlanta, and immigrant communities around the world.
“Foraging is basically a universal and ubiquitous practice,” Emery said. “And that includes foraging in cities. We’ve identified [foraging] basically on every continent.”
More recently, urban foraging has found its way onto the pages of young social media users. On TikTok, videos with the foraging hashtag have accumulated more than 72 million views, and are tied to the growing #cottagecore and #goblincore trends that emphasize the aesthetics of old American homesteads. Many users have also embraced the practice as a supplement to their diet, and share tips to thousands of followers, from learning how to process yard acorns for eating, to spotting edible mushrooms under pine needles, to using wild seaweeds as a gelatin substitute in the pudding. Take urban forager and TikTok creator Alexis Nikole Nelson, also known as BlackForager on Instagram, who teaches her cumulative 479,000 followers how to find, process, and cook wild, edible food found around her home in Columbus, Ohio. Another user, TikTok user Gordon Walker, aka FascinatedByFungi, shares mushroom identification tips to more than 238,000 followers. Then there’s Clueless Bushcraft, an account that shares both foraging and outdoor survival tips to 247,000 followers.
“Wildman” Steve Brill, a foraging teacher and decades-long enthusiast, explained that all foraging takes is “basic common sense and care.” At 71, Brill teaches socially-distanced foraging classes around the New York City area, runs a blog, and has published books on foraging best practices. “I’ve been doing this for over 38 years and interest has been steadily increasing,” Brill said. “It’s very, very diverse people of all ages and all ethnicities.”
Whether out of nutritional need, curiosity, or the desire to become more environmentally attuned, foraging is an accessible way to start thinking about how and why we eat the foods we do. Here’s how you can get started.
Research your local flora and fauna
Emery and Brill stress that prior research is the most important step to successful and safe foraging, and suggest foragers consult multiple sources when learning how to identify plants.
Read regional field guides about wild, edible foods in your state first. For something more accessible while you’re on the go, try a foraging app (but double-check your finds with another source, like a second field guide or fellow forager, if you’re unsure). Brill released his own, Wild Edibles, which offers a catalog of common edible plants, identification tips, and recipes. The California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society created the iNaturalist app for broader information on local flora and fauna, as well as a companion app called Seek for identifying species (both recommended on the FascinatedByFungi website). Forager’s Diary is useful for identifying and keeping track of the names and locations of foraged finds.
Foraging classes or guided tours are great for more hands-on learning. While many of these classes have associated costs, free (and donation-based) classes are perfect for learning the basics of local edible plants, Brill says. Classes are sometimes offered by city park departments, depending on local regulations, as well as environmental organizations and independent foraging experts like Brill. Do a google search to find them, or join a foraging group on social media to connect with those offering lessons.
Brill also suggests beginner foragers start collecting plants that have easily identifiable characteristics and no poisonous lookalikes. “Everything from dandelions to Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, violets,” Brill said. Learning the Latin names of plants, versus colloquial names, can help you distinguish plant varieties and lookalikes. For mushrooms, which can be trickier to identify, stick to the “foolproof four” — chicken of the woods, chanterelles, giant puffballs, and morels. They might sound like things you can only find in faraway forests, but many grow freely in public parks, front yards, and other urban green spaces.
Emery’s research has shown that some of the most commonly foraged plants across cities are “weedy” varieties — resilient plants that grow alongside buildings, sidewalks, and in city brush. Dandelions, for example, are frequently eaten raw in salads, brewed into tea, or battered and fried like pickles. Other plants that might not seem appetizing uncooked — leaves, bark, flowers, or hard berries — might work for teas, syrups, or other medicinal properties.
Location, location, location
Don’t forage in areas that might be prone to high levels of pollution — areas next to heavy car traffic or near sources of agricultural runoff like farm fields, orchards, and factories — or on lawns that might be treated with pesticides, especially golf courses, says Brill. He also recommends foraging in habitats with diverse foliage, like large parks, thickets, or wooded (but not too dark) forests. Emery has observed foraging in vacant lots, along fence lines, and in areas surrounding hospitals, playgrounds, and schools — places where she says hardy and sustainable foliage have proven to withstand urban disturbances and will not be affected by active foraging.
Check out this interactive, community-generated map of foraging spots, created by the foraging nonprofit Falling Fruits.
Start foraging close by your lawn, neighborhood streets, and other public spaces. Be aware of local regulations and pick foliage with discretion. Avoid picking plants on private property or near government buildings, and research regulations through your state’s Department of Natural Resources or land management website. Brill, who started his first foraging tours in 1982, has run into his fair share of angry park officials. In 1986, after an “undercover operation,” Brill was arrested for picking foliage in New York City’s Central Park (he was released shortly after and continues to forage without trouble).
Be aware that the current accessibility of forageable land has roots in systemic racism, and the act is in many ways a privilege — early anti-foraging laws were frequently used to limit the rights of Native American and formerly enslaved people from accessing nutritional foods on colonized land. While some indigenous communities have recently won the right to forage some federal land, there are still restrictions. Take some time to learn more about the work of food sovereignty activists fighting to maintain culturally significant food systems, like the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Bring the right tools
Brill suggests that every forager carries these basic items:
- Large reusable bags or a basket to carry greens
- Small containers or jars for berries (so they don’t get smushed)
- Paper bags for mushrooms (plastic makes them rot faster)
- A pair of shears or a pocket knife for cutting foliage and digging roots
- A pen to mark your picks — try to keep each plant separate. Mark your bags with the name of the plant species and where you found it (this can come in handy if you eat something disagreeable)
Any other equipment depends on your local environment. If you’re in a large, urban city — parks, streets, or yards — you won’t need to prepare as much. If you plan to forage in suburban, wooded areas, or in dense forests, make sure you wear closed-toe shoes and long pants to keep off bugs and irritating plants. Bring water, a map (if there’s no cell service), and a whistle if you’re lost (or just find a cool mushroom). Brill also suggests foraging with a group in isolated areas.
Use ALL your senses
Identifying plants isn’t always easy. Look for visual markers and feel for special textures, according to your foraging guides. Feel for ripeness to help deduce if a plant is edible (in the case of the common elderberry plant, unripe or uncooked berries are toxic, while its flowers and cooked ripe berries are not), and search for signs of rot or pests before eating. If you’re devoted to the mushroom hunt, you’ll need to look at all parts of the mushroom — cap, gills (the fleshy underside of the mushroom cap), and stem — to properly identify the species. Forage different parts of a plant at different stages of growth for the best tastes. If you’re confident the plant isn’t toxic, you can even take a small bite to explore its flavor.
The Universal Edibility Test, a 6-step process used by outdoor survivalists to test a food’s toxicity, is useful if you’re uncertain.
Most importantly, Brill urges, use your nose. Take a good sniff for any identifying features (many plants look similar but have very distinct smells). “Members of the onion and garlic family smell like onions and garlic, while similar-looking poisonous lilies are odorless,” Brill explained. “Wild carrots smell like carrots, while similar-looking poison hemlock smells foul.” If you think something is mint, but it doesn’t smell minty, then you probably have the wrong plant.
Forage in moderation
According to Emery, foraging for local plants in urban environments isn’t proven to have any negative environmental impact — foragers won’t have a greater effect on wildlife than cars, bikes, and pedestrians. She says that most plants that withstand urban environments are extremely adaptive to these disturbances and quickly regrow. “Mostly these are things that are pretty darn good at spreading themselves around,” Emery said. Still, urban foragers should be aware of possibly spreading any invasive species if they’re picked and discarded frequently.
If you are foraging off the beaten path in forests, wooded areas, or in large city parks, however, experts agree it’s important to pick only what you need. That’s because plant species are often food sources for animals, Emery explained, and over-picking foliage could also add to soil erosion. Brill calls this “intelligent foraging.” He recommends foragers to “take common renewable species where they’re extremely common and, on the rare occasions that you find something rare… leave it alone.”
The Sierra Club, a nationwide environmental organization rooted in conservation and climate solutions, also recommends only picking portions of plants to keep the practice sustainable. If the entire plant is edible (leaves, stems, roots, and all), harvest one part at a time or leave behind the portions the plant needs to regrow (like roots or bulbs).
And when it’s time to eat, moderation is key. Introduce foods into your diet a little at a time to protect yourself against possible allergies or toxins.
Know foraging’s broader impact
Urban foraging is about more than finding cool plants and living the #cottagecore aesthetic — it’s an opportunity to reassess how we access food in a world defined by a climate crisis that equally affects natural environments and global food production. The practice may not be top of mind when discussing our food’s impact on climate change, but as Emery explained, urban foraging rests at “the intersection of climate change, climate justice, food security, and food sovereignty,” as it highlights the need for socially-conscious urban planning, urban green spaces populated by local plants, and universal access to nutritional foods.
The practice doesn’t promise an overarching solution to global climate change, which demands corporate accountability and government action. Individual action alone isn’t sufficient enough to alleviate the problems of climate change and food insecurity.
Still, “hyper-local” practices like urban foraging could offer temporary solutions for communities waiting on large-scale changes and encourage individuals to consider their connection to the food, land, and community around them. “Foragers who forage the same species and, in particular, the same species in the same location year after year, observe at a very fine scale the effects of climate change on the landscape,” Emery explained.
The local practice also has global implications — studies have shown that continued climate change will exacerbate food insecurity around the world, and disproportionately impacts global communities of color.
Foraging offers a way to address the local repercussions of failed resource allocation, like food insecurity (the lack of nutritious foods to maintain a healthy diet) and food apartheid (unequal access to healthy foods and supermarkets, created by systemic barriers on poor neighborhoods or communities of color). And it makes a case to reassess how land is used in city “greening” initiatives. When cities consider repurposing what Emery calls “impervious surfaces” (like former industrial spaces) into environmentally friendly green space, “there’s a real opportunity to think in terms of species that can provide food to people,” Emery said. Reintroducing native plants helps preserve biodiversity, and prioritizing those that are edible can help feed growing populations.
While waiting for needed policy changes to address food apartheid and chronic undernourishment, foraging could help as a needed nutritional supplement, according to Emery. “If you’re in a food desert, for example, calories are not what you’re lacking, what you’re lacking is nutritious food… foraging is certainly one way of increasing both the variety in a diet and the nutritional quality of a diet,” Emery said. “The kinds of foods that people obtain through foraging tend to be very micronutrient dense foods.”
With all that in mind, while foraging, be conscious of your community’s access to these benefits. If you already have a diverse, nutritious diet and an abundance of forgeable plants near you, seek out local food justice organizations or community gardens to distribute your extra stores of foraged food. If you struggle to find nutritionally rich food in your area, reach out to a foraging group or food pantry that can connect you to further resources in your area. If you’re concerned about your safety while foraging, make sure you are aware of local laws and forage with a group — if you are privileged enough to not worry about legal repercussions, offer to help others forage.
The practice of foraging is both practical and human-centered. “There’s this very universal quality to it,” Emery observed. “The act of foraging… satisfies something basic about being human.”