By the time you read this, I’ve been blessed with another year of foraging in my secret spot for wild blackberries. In July, just after dayspring while the Mourning Doves coo and grass is still wet with mid-summer dew, I steal a few minutes away from my modern life to forage for these essential berries. I call them essential not just for their nutrients but for what they represent – nature’s resilience in a destructive world.
Later in the day, my stained fingers would give away my secret to those who pay attention to my efforts to wrap myself in the cloak of nature, to leave the omnipresence of now and be human in its simplest form for mere minutes of my 21st century day. Maybe the thrill of foraging is knowing a secret that no one else does. Maybe it’s the simple sensation of being alone, by yourself in the quiet when our days are encircled by a busy, noisy, invasive world. Whatever the reason for this retreat from our modernity, foraging has become fashionable. What was once a necessity has become a hobby, a passion and, for some, a necessity once more.
If we are to extract our nutrients directly from the natural world because we are drawn to it, and because we enjoy it, it would only make sense to forage responsibly and leave the plants able to produce and flourish for years to come. We as humans, have a terrible track record when it comes to sustainability. Look no further than the over harvesting of the Chesapeake if you need a reminder of the locust like ferocity of human hunger. We can and must do better.
While the word foraging can be supplanted by the simple terms of hunting and gathering – its definition I believe is quite interpretive. Do we forage when we gather from our garden? Or is it only when we wander through the wild for some edible surprise discovery? One can “gather” ingredients from a grocery store, and one can “hunt” for bargains there too. Let’s say foraging is done “out of doors.” Is foraging always a surprise or is it the art of learning where and when plants grow, or animals migrate and putting that knowledge to use? Or can we create our own foraging experiences by being less constrictive on our own patches of earth?
It’s hard to say when I became aware of my beginner level ability to forage, but I suspect it has been with me my whole life. From wild roadside blackberries and chokecherries to ditch asparagus, soft crabs hiding in the sea grass, dandelion greens, winter cress, wild persimmon and so on; from a young age I have always been on the look-out for edible treasures. While I know where a few Eastern Shore wild edibles grow, instead of bothering them too much l like to foster my personal foraging experiences in my own space by encouraging plant volunteerism. We are so busy carving our lawns into geometrical works of art that when nature gets in the way we discard it – often ruthlessly.
I’ve made it a practice to encourage volunteerism in my yard, even if it doesn’t fit in symmetrically or even make sense at the time. Mind you, if you choose to promote this kind of “wilding,” it is very important that you identify the plants you are letting grow wild, learn what is edible, and make sure to remove any invasive plants (see website below for identification).
This is the time of year when I evaluate my plant volunteers that I discovered earlier in the season. Random “pop up” plants serendipitously appear every spring and force me to stop, investigate and make decisions. Every year I am always surprised at how this experiment turns out. Sometimes my volunteers are whispers of their parents; they may be leggy, not as strong or if the seed was from a hybrid, the spitting image of a grandparent. Or, in many a case, they are a child prodigy, vigorous and brawny. I can usually attribute where the seeds came from as they are often from plants grown the year before, left behind by their parent plant to do what seeds are supposed to do – grow. However, on occasion I have had surprises. A few years back, a pumpkin plant began to grow among my string beans. At first I thought it was a squash plant as they have similar leaves. I had not planted pumpkins in several seasons, so I found it odd when the plant bore fruit and the most beautifully elegant white pumpkins appeared.
Other volunteer surprises include a hickory tree that popped up in my driveway. Once we identified it, we transplanted it to a more suitable spot, and I would venture to say it is about 20 feet tall now and doing quite well. My purple coneflowers like to spin off babies and I often transplant them to another part of my yard or give them to friends. Other examples of plants that proliferate in my yard include lemon balm, oregano, Black Eyed Susans, dandelions, rose mallow, yard lettuce, phlox, catnip, mint, holy basil, white yarrow, and elderberry. Mind you, I don’t encourage everything. I control my mint and a few others by weeding. The dandelions don’t bother me a bit. I think of them as constellations on my lawn. They really do no harm, and are actually a medicinal plant. (See link below for an article I wrote on dandelions).
The FAO or “Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations” leads international efforts to defeat hunger. Their goal is to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. With 195 members – 194 countries and the European Union, FAO works in over 130 countries worldwide.
Plants, which make up 80 percent of the food we eat, and produce 98 percent of the oxygen we breathe, are under constant and increasing threat from pests and diseases, climate change, human negligence and ignorance. 2020 was designated by the FAO as the International Year of Plant …but it didn’t exactly make front page news. Why is that, when plants are paramount to our survival?
I believe we are seeing the foraging movement gather strength for several reasons. For some it is a necessity, for others I speculate an inner need to reconnect with our planet. There seems to be this drive to re-teach ourselves critical survival skills that are fading away with each boxed meal we microwave. It is hard to start from scratch, and that is why connecting with Indigenous people is so important right now. Plant knowledge doesn’t all come from books, it comes from generational experiences handed down and direct tactile contact with plants and place. It is an immersion that cannot be read about, it must be experienced, it must be intrinsic. Humans’ deepest knowledge of plants is inherent, and it is fading fast.
I believe some of our control of nature within our own yards stems from a lack of understanding and appreciation for plants. The way I see it, we humans rarely mind our own business when it comes to sculpting our yards: we assume that nature is our canvas and we’re mucking up the canvas, but each season gives us an opportunity to recreate our own patches of dirt. Can we create our own successful foraging opportunities? As a gardener and a mom, I believe creating an environment where I could tell my children to go outside and find a snack would be amazing. Sugar snap peas in the spring, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, blackberries, and figs in the summer, red raspberries in the fall. Did you know chocolate mint tastes like Andes candies? Do we want to create this experience for ourselves, for our families, for our communities? If we do then we need to get busy because now more than ever it is paramount to protect, preserve and proliferate plants. Plants provide us with nutrients and air without which we cannot continue.
Today I took my eldest daughter to show her where the wild blackberries grow, and we enjoyed a few and left some for the birds and other animals. I hope when I am long gone, she will still be able to enjoy this summertime treat on occasion. Yes, I have a secret, I know where the wild blackberries grow, and it’s not where you think. Wild blackberries grow within all of us, they are at the root of our existence, and they are essential our humanity.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Normandeau, Sheryl. Summer 2021. Rewilding the Herb Garden. Herb Quarterly, Issue 167, pages 52-55.
Normandeau, Sheryl. Spring 2022. “Unlawning” the Front Yard. Herb Quarterly, Issue 170, pages 29-33.
Saladino, Dan. Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2022.