Foraging is here to stay: from prehistoric times, to 2012 and today

Through an expedition and conversations with experts, we find out why 2012 saw a boom in foraging and why it lives on today.

Advika Reddy Participants picking lady’s smock or cuckoo flower plant leaves

Storm Eunice ravaged London on Thursday, February 18, with up to 70mph gusts causing several trees across the capital to fall to the ground. Braving these conditions, around 15 Londoners stepped out the very next day, passionate to gather and engage with wild food in the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. The cold and rainy Saturday afternoon giving shivers to the spine did not deter these amateur foragers from wanting to connect with nature and enjoy the bountiful food it has to offer.  

Foraging, or the gathering of food in the wild, was widely practiced in prehistoric times for the survival of our ancestors. Agriculture boomed since the neolithic era and foraging became a more regulated practice in the form of harvests. In the recent decades, urban foraging which is foraging for wild food in urban areas has become a major trend, so much so that it continues to be a legitimised practice with its own laws like Section 4 of the Theft Act of 1968 and Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Kenneth Greenway, manager of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and foraging guide for Forage London (an organiser of wild food walks, courses and workshops), has been teaching foraging for 10-12 years. As he leads Saturday’s forage, he briefly speaks of the legal aspects of foraging. “Check in with whoever manages or owns a particular site and let them know who you are, what you’re doing, the quantities you’re taking and then ask for permission. Tower Hamlets has bylaws that prevent picking of any part of a plant, in part or whole, but it can be done as part of an organised activity,” Kenneth says, advising not to forage more than once a week and take no more than 150 grams of a plant.  

Foraging with Kenneth Greenway at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Foraging with Kenneth Greenway at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

A decade ago, in the year 2012, foraging gathered a lot of interest in urban areas like London with Nick Saltmarsh, a foraging pro, taking city dwellers on a day-long Food Safari giving talks about free food available around them. Robin Harford, plant forager and author of Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants of Britain and Ireland, and creator of eatweeds.co.uk, running foraging courses; Andy Overall, field mycologist (person concerned with recording of fungi and taxonomy) teaching Londoners about varied mushroom varieties through his organisation, Fungi To Be With; publications like We Heart and BBC writing about how urban foraging is becoming a popular pastime; and popular restaurants like North Road London using foraged wild berries, herbs and flowers as ingredients. “Come 2012, you’ve got people and chefs looking for cool, hip, new ingredients. Initially the boom happened, because of people like Hugh Fearnley. He did a show called Cook on the Wild Side that was all about foraging not just for plants but even game. Then, you got Ray Mears come in with his bushcraft and survival TV shows. And that really helped lots of people get very interested in the outdoors and camping. And part of that is – what do you feed yourself when you’re camping? Foraging then came in,” Robin Harford says.  Andy Overall is of the opinion that “the 2012 ‘boom’ in urban foraging in some way was a response to the economic situation but it was something that had been brewing for a while, with individuals cropping up here and there, setting up their own forage businesses.”    

While Robin and Andy speak of foraging brewing for some time and then booming in 2012, Kenneth says, “in 2012, maybe people were still struggling with the banking crisis (of 2008 when the investment bank, Lehman Brothers, collapsed and caused major shocks in the global and UK’s financial systems). It made us feel quite powerless from people who made money and they seemed to be getting away scot-free much like what we experienced with Brexit and the pandemic and I think foraging really fits in with that. It has given people some autonomy, some control over their lives. We all felt so powerless all the time, with politics, with food – when we get it, how we get it, what’s available in the shops.” Undoubtedly, foraging gives people a means to gather food from their own urban environments free of cost and it continues to be a trend even today as people live with the pandemic in their own ways. Robin suggests, “We have an abundance of food but it’s not feeding us, it’s not nourishing us enough. And when you think of that, a lot of health issues come about as a result of lack of nutrition and processed and hybridised foods, taking the good stuff out of them and often making them sweeter, so they appeal more to people. With the pandemic, people want to maintain their immune system and eat well. So, wild foods are fresh, local and organic, assuming you gather in the right place. Deep, clean nutrition, right?” 

Kate West, a participant in Saturday’s forage, echoes Robin’s thoughts as she says, “I once had something called mermaid’s hair that had been foraged and delivered by a food box scheme called Farm Direct. I’ve been trying to eat locally grown plants that have a low impact on the planet, and are not subjected to supply chain shortages. In the pandemic as well, we’ve had a little more time to think about these things and go out to open spaces. So this is a novel experience, there’s so many different tastes, it is kind of empowering and I feel confident.”  

Kate West picking juniper berries

Kate West picking juniper berries

For about ten years, we have been increasingly realizing that we do not have to travel far distances to have a say in what we eat and when we eat it. Kenneth, through foraging expeditions, taps into nurturing such an urban foraging experience. “I want people to enjoy nature in the city and realise that they don’t need to go to this place called the countryside to see nature. It’s right there outside your front door, in the cracks of the pavement, the walls outside your house, in your drain pipes.” 

Just beside the shelter that we stand under, Kenneth shows us heart-shaped leaves, part of the cabbage family, growing beside the tiles on the ground. I would have easily dismissed it as a weed. “This plant is called honesty,” Kenneth says. He says honesty is a biennial plant, one which takes two years to go from seed to flower and which in two months’ time will grow bigger to have large purple and/or white four petal flowers with flat silver dollar disks and black seeds in them commonly called “purses” because they look like ‘coins in a purse.’ “The only edible part is the roots, so when you’re collecting this plant, you’ll see that it has long roots that taste somewhat like radish so you can use it even as a substitute,” he says. He goes on to show another plant that looks and smells a little bit like chives and is called crow garlic, an allium or member of the onion family. “You can use this like who you would use chives. You can stir it into cream cheese, put it in soups, salads, sandwiches, pesto, whatever you fancy,” he says. “It’s almost like this bluish-green colour, with tubular, almost grass-like leaves but they’re not flat, they’re spherical. The best thing about crow garlic is that in June or July, it grows these almost basket-like bulbs on top that can be used like cocktail onions. You can pickle them, use them as an onion substitute.” I snap the end of the green crow garlic stem and smell the freshness to get the taste of a garlicky onion, mild at first with a bite as I chew on.    

“When you’re out collecting plants, always make sure you’ve got a sharp pen knife, secateurs, scissors and a little hand trowel.” These tools are especially important so that as foragers we only take parts of the plant that are needed, typically two-thirds, instead of pulling out the whole plant. Doing so would allow the plant to recover and be available for wildlife and human beings in the future. “This is the leave-no-trace attitude. So, just be mindful and considerate when foraging,” Kenneth encourages the group. He advises that the good, young leaves are usually the 6-8 leaves on the top and anything below that tends to be yellow, already eaten or spoiled. “When you’re picking, don’t just go eating [whatever you find]. Ask – does it look nice? Is it yellow? Is it spoiled? Would you buy something like that from the supermarket?”, he says. 

As we head further along the expedition, we come across lady’s smock or the cuckoo flower plant which is called so because it flowers when the cuckoo begins to call. During this time, the leaves are heart-shaped and small. “By April, it will have small, light pink, almost white four petal flowers and have needle-like leaves, all of which are edible. It’s hot like wasabi and you can put in cheese, cream cheese and if you’re going to put it in a salad, you have to treat it like salt and pepper and put a little bit in because it is very overpowering,” he says. The cold weather leaves me with a blocked nose but my taste buds capture the pungent, spiciness of a small portion of the leaves, causing me to scrunch my face, enjoyably. “You need to get to know the plant, what it looks like over winter when it’s waiting to flower before spring and then how the plant completely changes when it flowers,” Kenneth advises. 

We move ahead while looking, smelling and tasting a huge variety of leaves and flowers, most of which often go unnoticed, including goose grass, cow parsley, juniper berries, primrose flowers, leeks, garlic mustard and wild garlic. With a guide such as Kenneth, there is confidence in knowing which plants are edible. When out foraging on your own as a novice, he offers a few tips such as keeping your smartphone and foraging books on hand. He suggests an app called iNaturalist which allows you to take photos of a plant to offer suggestions of what it might be. It also has an ‘explore’ feature, using which you can go to any area and filter for ‘plants’ to see everything that people have recorded of plants in that area. These can be coupled with foraging books, by chefs like Jamie Oliver, which Kenneth says are like “recipe books” that tell you if you can eat a particular plant or not, and also where you can find it. Along with this, botanical books can be used. “I prefer hand drawn botanical books [over photobooks] only because a botanical artist will focus on the features that help identify the plant whereas a photo doesn’t actually do that,” he adds. 

Kenneth Greenway picking garlic mustard leaves

Kenneth Greenway picking garlic mustard leaves

The act of foraging itself is very immersive and engaging, but one must be careful while putting a plant in the mouth because some can even kill you. To really know a plant intimately, you need to engage all your senses – sight, smell, sound, touch and only when you’re 100 per cent certain that it’s not poisonous, then taste,” Robin says. “For example, there’s a plant called hemlock and there’s a plant called cow parsley. Hemlock is deadly poisonous, will basically give you cardiac arrest and can put you in hospital, and most probably kill you. Cow parsley is completely safe, but they grow right next to each other. And to the untrained eye, they are almost identical. The way that you can discern very quickly is the smell of the plants.” Hemlock has a somewhat unpleasant smell, almost ammonia-like, while cow parsley imparts a fragrance like parsley when crushed. “Hemlock tends to be very blotchy and cow parsley leaves and stem are not,” Kenneth says, reinforcing the power of our senses. 

More and more people continue and will continue to forage in increasing numbers, after 2012 and the ongoing pandemic, because celebrity chefs are doing it, restaurants like Native are “bringing back ethical and sustainable cooking.” It also helps with mental and physical well-being, there is tons of information available all over social media as the trend keeps living on. “People are generally thinking about their footprint on the planet and foraging fits into the mindset of having a lighter [carbon] footprint – not adding to food miles, eating more seasonally and preserving things. People are just trying to be better humans and live better on the planet,” as Kenneth says. 

“Foraging teaches you a lot of principles, it teaches you that kind of awareness of others, your actions and the reactions of the community around you,” Robin reiterates. “I don’t see foraging dwindling anytime soon.”

Featured image: Advika Reddy