If going to your local grocery store doesn’t sound exciting enough or you’re simply looking for cleaner, more organic foods (real organic, not the kinds sold at Whole Foods) then urban foraging may be for you.
When you’re urban foraging, you’re essentially gathering wild food (mushrooms, native plants, edible weeds, etc.) growing in a city or suburban area. This means you don’t need to be living near a forest in order to hunt and gather your food and can be a fun way to get more natural ingredients into your diet.
Let’s take an even closer look at what urban foraging is and explore how you can get started in your local community.
What is Urban Foraging?
Like we mentioned above, the term refers to gathering food — such as edible weeds, native plants, ornamentals, etc. — that grows in a suburban area or city.
While this sounds simple enough, there’s actually a lot to learn about the process, including rules and regulations to stay safe when foraging for your next meal.
Urban Foraging Safety Tips
Use these tips to keep yourself and others safe when foraging for food in your community:
- Never eat anything unless you’re 100% positive of what it is.
- Urban environments are full of chemicals (including pesticides and herbicides) and pollutants, so be aware of these poisons as they may get into the plants you’re foraging for. Wash all of your finds before eating them.
- Be sure you’re on public land when foraging. Trespassing on private property is unlawful and you could be shot on sight.
- Bring a buddy with you to ensure your safety. You should also bring additional gear (we’ll get more into this later).
What Kind of Food Can You Forage?
If you know what you’re looking for, you can find a plethora of edible plants and weeds, and other natural foods in an urban or suburban setting. Here are a few examples:
Chickweed — a plant with mohawk-like hairs on one side of its stem — can commonly be found in backyards, cracks in pavement, vegetable gardens, and backyards.
Its distinct look separates it from another edible weed that looks similar called petty spurge. Chickweed can be added to sandwiches, salads, and other dishes you want to add a light green too.
Many people plant trees without realizing they are actually edible. This is the case with hibiscus.
Hibiscus flowers can typically be seen in salads and sometimes even in champagne syrup, however, hibiscus leaves are edible as well.
Mushroom foraging is actually one of the most popular subsets of urban foraging. Some forage mushrooms to eat, while many collect mushrooms for scientific purposes.
These are called mycophiles, and they’re typically very careful and discreet when foraging for mushrooms as they usually don’t want to give the location away to others.
Fruits & Vegetables
It’s less common to find fruits and vegetables naturally growing on public property. However, you may come across plums, asparagus, apples, and more.
How do I Get Started?
A vast majority of the food we eat today comes from grocery stores and is produced on a commercial farm somewhere halfway across the globe.
If you’re looking for organic food sources that can be found closer to where you live, then you may be surprised to find out there is an abundance of edible weeds, plants, and other wild foods available to you, no matter where you live.
Here are some tips to get started urban foraging today:
1. Check Local Bylaws & Regulations
Before starting your urban foraging adventure it’s crucial to check (and double-check!) your local regulations and bylaws.
Foraging on city property — such as ravines or parks — is forbidden by some municipalities throughout the U.S.
For instance, New York City is pretty restrictive when it comes to foraging for wild food on NYC property. Punishments for doing so can be anything from a fine to jail time.
These laws were put in place on the state and local levels through the 19th century and early 20th century.
The intent behind them was to make it harder for indigenous people (and people in general) to live off the land by foraging in traditional ways. Sadly, they’ve worked for the most part.
While some of the laws put in place have been repealed, remnants of them can still be in effect depending on your location.
Once you find out whether or not foraging in your area is permitted, it’s important to research whether your city sprays herbicides, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals.
This will help you figure out which areas you should avoid — to prevent eating contaminated plants — or whether you can eliminate any chemicals with a rinse.
Regardless, you should always wash your harvest before consuming it.
2. Understand What You’re Foraging For
Ensure you always know what you’re harvesting.
A wide variety of mushrooms, fruits, and plants can make you ill, so be cautious and always be 100% certain what you’re foraging is safe, edible, and in season.
You should also have a solid idea of how you will harvest, store, and use the edible treats you find when foraging.
You can always use an identification book for your local trees and plants to help you create a harvest plant.
#3. Harvest Wisely & Responsibly
When foraging, you may be able to find a bevy of edible plants in your city, but you should remember to harvest them responsibly.
There may be other foragers in your area, so a good rule of thumb is to only take about one-third of anything you find to give them the opportunity to harvest it as well.
This will also ensure the plant has the opportunity to regrow too.
Overharvesting can be detrimental to food resources for certain wildlife and can make foraging for others impossible.
When you’re looking for wild food in your city, you should ensure the property you’re on is public land.
Sometimes, private property owners will allow you to harvest things (edible plants, berries, etc.) in order to keep rotting fruit and vermin away from their property.
With that said, you must ask permission before foraging on private property. Failing to do so could get you in trouble with the law (for trespassing) or, worse, shot on sight.
4. Join a Group of Foragers in Your Area
If you’re ready to take on urban foraging, then you should find other foragers in your area with experience to help you get started quickly.
You can join local foraging groups on social media sites like Facebook as well to learn from seasoned foragers who know the best local areas to explore for edible plants, trees, and more.
Not only will this help you forage quicker, but you can make friends in the process.
Urban Foraging Gear You Will Need
Now that you know what to expect and how to get started with urban foraging, it’s important to learn what you need to bring with you when exploring and harvesting edibles.
You might not be aware, but most of the things we consider weeds in our yards are actually medicines and foods brought here from overseas and planted deliberately.
Since these ‘weeds’ didn’t have natural predators to eradicate them, they multiplied substantially.
For instance, mallow (which is the marsh mallow plant’s cousin) can be seen invasively growing just about anywhere. Not only is every part of the plant edible, but it’s incredibly tasty too.
This is why you should own a guide that helps you identify wild food to harvest and also preparation guidelines. I recommend The Forager’s Harvest, which can be purchased on Amazon.
Shears and a Foraging Bag/Backpack
Shears, utility knives, or even swiss army knives can come in handy too when harvesting your finds.
Just be careful when using these items and always wear gloves to protect yourself from cuts.
Source of Sodium (Salt or Salt Tablets)
A lot of the foods we consume on a daily basis — whether from a restaurant or the grocery store — are chock full of sodium.
However, this isn’t the case with wild foods. When you’re foraging, you’ll probably soon realize you aren’t getting enough sodium in your diet which can lead to:
- Low blood pressure
- Frequent urination
- And dehydration
Salt is a necessity to survive, not just an additive for taste, so adding it to your wild foods (either with table salt or salt tablets) is a wise move.
When exploring for wild food to harvest, it’s easy to get cut or scraped along the way. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee.
In this case, something like Neosporin will be of use to avoid infections. You should also have a basic first-aid kit on-hand.
Systemic antibiotics can also be a lifesaver if you happen to contract an illness while foraging.
Gloves & a Sturdy Pair of Boots
Foraging in your city, no matter how clean and suburban it may be, means you’ll be trekking outdoors.
Unfortunately, there could be things like broken glass, needles, and other sharp objects lying around that you could step on and either get a nasty injury or infection, as a result.
This is why a sturdy pair of boots should be worn at all times to prevent you from stepping on things you shouldn’t be. Gloves should be worn for the same reasons.
While some think of Ka-Bars as a fighting knife, they are used frequently as a utility knife, and for good reason. They come in handy in a variety of situations, especially when foraging.
You can hit, hammer, pry, or cut just about anything with this tool. You can even use it to ax down small branches.
The best part is, Ka-Bars only weigh about a pound and a half, so it won’t be adding too much weight or taking up too much space, in your backpack or survival bag.
Pepper spray can be an essential tool for a wide range of scenarios when exploring your city for wild foods.
For one, you could encounter a stray or wild dog, which can run in packs and be feral. You may also encounter other dangerous animals, such as coyotes.
Just be mindful not to spray wildlife if you’re encroaching on their territory. This shouldn’t be an issue in an urban setting, though.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is urban foraging legal?
Generally, it’s legal to forage for wild foods in your city if it’s on public land. However, the lines can get blurred for what is considered public and what is city-owned or private property.
This is why we recommend you check your local bylaws and regulations as it pertains to harvesting plants, leaves, and other resources in your area.
Are wild foods safe to eat?
Not everything you encounter while foraging is going to be safe to eat. Some things are inedible while others have been sprayed with chemicals (such as pesticides).
It’s crucial you know exactly what it is you’re harvesting and putting in your mouth. This is why you should have an identification book handy at all times.
You should also check with your municipality to see if you can figure out what kinds of chemicals have been sprayed recently. This will let you know whether food can be safely eaten after a rinse.
Regardless, you should always wash anything you find before eating it.
Explore the World of Urban Foraging
Urban foraging can be the ideal way to explore your city while sourcing your own food and saving money in the process.
As human beings, our natural instincts are to hunt and gather for our own food, which is one of the reasons why foraging is such a fun experience. You’ll be able to connect with like-minded people along the way as well.
Just be mindful when foraging to ensure you’re safe and you aren’t breaking any laws or trespassing on private property.
If you have any other urban foraging suggestions, please let us know by leaving a comment below.