Does anything beat the experience of finding a wild mulberry and stuffing a handful of fresh juicy berries in your mouth? Have you ever roasted potatoes with a sprig of rosemary from a bunch of overgrown nature?
COVID closures have encouraged more people to explore their neighborhoods and enjoy their local green spaces, where edible plants often grow freely. Along with the joy of eating something freely harvested, foraging can help us learn more about plants, become better stewards of the environment, and bring communities together.
It can also help us notice changes in seasons, weather and climate. So, with spring upon us, how do you feed yourself safely, respectfully and legally?
Wild and edible plants thrive in cities
The Sydney and Melbourne locations were chosen by the settlers, in part because they are in large food basins. Many edible species existed long before colonization, thanks to the favorable climate, the shape of the coastline and the protection of the country.
Edible native plants, from the war greens covering the ground to the towering canopies of Illawarra plum trees, still grow naturally in every town in Southeast Australia. Further north, macadamias, lemon myrtles and lime trees thrive, and pig face is common on sand dunes along coastal towns.
Today, edible plants thrive despite soil and water disturbances caused by urbanization. Fruit trees, for example, emerge spontaneously at the edges of parks, in vacant lots and in residents’ gardens.
In some cases, urbanization is actually responsible for the growth and distribution of edible plants.
Birds, rats, bats expand the paths of mulberry, medlar and papaya seeds by eating them and expelling the seeds elsewhere. This is also how mulberry trees, which European settlers brought to Australia, now grow in most Australian cities.
Kumquats, citrus fruits, and fig trees are also very common in tropical and temperate climates. And keep an eye out for the blackberry vines. They have created a huge environmental problem, although the fruit is delicious and grows best in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
Think before you choose
But foraging is not free for everyone, and doing so safely and with respect is important.
First and foremost, in Australia, wherever you walk you are on Country. Take a moment to remind yourself that while urban foraging may be new to you, Indigenous people have always gathered native plants while taking care of their country.
Foraging also carries potential risks to your own health. Some plants in urban areas are poisonous, such as castor bean and many gum trees. Plants could also be contaminated by air, water and soil pollution, and by chemical sprays.
Always start by considering the past and current uses of the land where you are foraging for food. Was the land formerly zoned industrial? Do dogs urinate there? Make sure to always wash picked foods.
Legally, plants are the property of whoever owns the land on which they grow. This means that foraging for food on private land is legal, as long as you own the land or have the owner’s permission.
Read more: Our land is full of natural strips – surely we can do more than mow a third of urban green spaces
But if the food is accessible on public land – like lemons or bananas hanging over a fence, or rosemary and parsley planted as ornamentals in a park or street shoulder – you can harvest it. Just take what you need and leave plenty for others.
There are different cultures around growing and sharing food, depending on the region. For example, many neighborhood natural strips are technically owned by the council, but are planted and maintained by residents.
Community gardens and even streets with natural strips may have their own harvesting rules. Some groups like The producers of the green square encourage spontaneous harvesting. Others, like Sydney City Farm, carefully document volunteer hours, then allocate income accordingly.
Since 2016, we have been working in different Sydney suburbs for to conduct research on urban gardening. We have found that people often work with plants to develop a sense of belonging that goes far beyond what is visible in their gardens.
We found that networks of neighbors were growing with plants on the edges of the streets, exchanging cuttings, seeds, tips, stories and products. Walking through a row of trees laden with olive trees on a natural strip may seem like a lucky find, but these plants are likely watered, pruned, and whitewashed for the winter by one or more gardeners.
For someone who carefully mowed a fruit tree to protect it from bats and cockatoos, or who patiently tended a vine for three years before their first passion fruit appeared, there is nothing more infuriating than a foreign crop.
On the other hand, using a fragrant feijoa tree weighed down by ripe fruit makes sense, as the fruit would fall, rot and be lost.
Whenever possible, ask residents about plants growing on or around their properties. Conversations about what grows in neighborhoods build what is called “civic ecologies”- actions that bring together environmental and civic values, building neighborhood links around common interests and mindful of shared places.
Learn from celebrities foraging for food
In Australia, a handful of “foraging” celebrities have drawn attention to this age-old practice. They see foraging as an opportunity to learn what grows, where, and why.
Read more: Are supermarket shelves exposed? History can teach us to ‘do with’ food
In Sydney, Randwick Council sustainability educator Julian Lee created a Scrumper delight participatory card which records edible plants growing in public spaces. Sydney artist and activist Diego Bonetto – aka The bad – brought a wealth of plant knowledge from Piedmont, Italy, Australia in the 1990s, and since then his passion has evolved into a public pedagogy on respectful foraging.
Permaculture Milkwood even offer advice on foraging for algae. The Melbourne Forager on Instagram is making urban food searches trendy. And a growing number of Indigenous businesses, such as Indigrow, share indigenous knowledge by selling plants that people can recognize outside their gardens.
Searching for food in cities is fun, it helps us remind ourselves that we are part of ecosystems and that we have a responsibility to take care of our country. So keep the principles of reciprocity in mind and go ahead and find out what is developing in your city.
Read more: Growing the Suburbs – Why Can’t We Grow Food Where We Want?