Today’s New York Times had a front page article on foraging, or rather, on why the Parks Department may be starting to take a sterner approach towards foragers than it has in recent years.
Part of the reason is the increasing popularity of foraging. The concern is that rampant foragers will decimate plant populations. I have seen no signs of this. As I am quoted in the article as saying, the majority of the plants I forage in the parks are invasives that are actually crowding out some of the potentially threatened native plants. And when I teach foraging, I always emphasize sustainability issues such as factoring whether a plant is abundant or rare into the decision of whether or not to harvest.
In many cases, I may actually be helping the less plentiful native species by removing some of the invasive alien species that are out-competing them.
Why is foraging becoming increasingly popular? Blame it on a bad economy (free food) or celebrate it as a sign of the ever-growing interest in local food systems, there’s no question that foraging is no longer considered the freakish fringe activity it once was.
And what about the idea of getting food from city parks? Is that really so new? In some other countries, and in the U.S. in past eras, city parks were a commons intended to provide nourishment as well as scenic greenery to city inhabitants (the dairy in Central Park was really a dairy, for example).
One piece of news in the article that I found distressing is that apparently some people are poaching turtles and fish from the parks (fishing is allowed in some parks, but you’re supposed to release, not keep, the fish). Just as distressing is that those of us who forage plants and mushrooms in the parks responsibly and with an awareness of sustainability issues are being lumped together with these poachers.
Another objection to allowing foraging that Parks is rumored to have is that if someone ate something poisonous while they were doing a Parks approved activity, they or their family could file a lawsuit against the city. You tell me: does that sound like a reason for less education about which plants are edible vs. poisonous?
I would like to invite anyone working for the NYC Parks Department to come on any of my foraging tours. Come unannounced and do not identify yourself as being from Parks unless you want to. Experience firsthand how what I am teaching not only does not threaten park ecosystems (including the plant, fungi and animal populations), but actually increases the tour participants’ knowledge of environmental and sustainability issues.
The Parks Department and I have in common that we want the city parks to thrive. I know all of my fellow responsible foragers share that intention and desire.