Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Foraging for trouble

I have to admit I was a bit gobsmacked by this radio interview about the latest trendy food thing called "foraging". This is where people pick edible herbs, flowers, fruits etc from local suburban (and inner-urban) nature strips and waste ground areas.

The host, Annabel Crabb, interviewed the head chef at a very well regarded Sydney Restaurant. I've dined there and the food is delicious, the staff lovely too. 

The chef seems an ethical, decent fellow in every way, and he certainly can cook. If there is fruit to "forage" growing inside a person's yard, he knocks on the door and asks permission from the owners. He is also aware of the health risks of foraged food (listen to the audio link).

However, I am afraid that as an organic gardener I think the whole idea of "foraging" for food in urban areas is about as risky as asking people to go looking for wild mushrooms in the forest. It can be done by experts, but I wouldn't encourage beginners ... there's toadstools in those forests, as some have discovered the hard way, and I think there are health dangers on those grassy suburban verges, too.

So, what's my beef with foraging for things like fruit, flowers, herbs and, sometimes, vegies in our streets? Three main ones.

1. Cats and dogs marking their territory on urban and suburban nature strips. They do that rather a lot ... I wouldn't want to eat food tainted with their signature dish.

2. Weed spraying activities over the last few decades by local councils have probably rendered the soil in many nature strips into a toxic brew which might take decades or more to break down. As far as I am concerned, no food plants should be grown on urban nature strips, unless the soil has been thoroughly tested and passed as healthy. Even if councils have adopted eco-friendly spraying policies now, what did they use in the 1980s, the 90s and the early 2000s?

3. This goes back to the mushroom harvesting analogy, plus that modern expression: "What could possibly go wrong?". Well, lots (such as harvesting something that is inedible, or worse). So encouraging inexperienced foragers to get out there and harvest their own foods from roadsides ... it's not something I'll ever encourage. 

To me, it's ironic that with everything "organic" being so trendy, these days, that something so diametrically opposite in its healthiness as foraging could also be trendy... with the same crowd.

And so folks, I think this is my first ever blog posting without any pretty pictures. I don't want to encourage any more foraging, you see.


Padaek said...

I agree! I like the idea of safely foraging from known healthy safe sources with informed experienced foragers, eg: private safe properties or farms. But foraging pretty edible things from public city places and roadsides is way too risky.

Diana Studer said...

add a nice layer of fallout from passing traffic! The roadside verge is not a place I'd want to eat from.

Lanie at Edible Urban Garden said...

I agree Jamie!

Jamie said...

Thanks Padaek, Diana and Lanie.

I usually don't like to do anything controversial on my blog – I try to be positive and encouraging as much as possible – but that radio interview with the restaurant guy just jolted me into action because these trendy, idealistic inner-urban foragers just encourage unsafe practices.

I'm happy for foragers on farms or any generally "healthy" rural environment to go for it and learn how to forage, but in big cities it's just stupid.

Paul - Pip Magazine said...


Found your blog whilst piecing together a list of possible recipients of a review copy of the upcoming issue of our Australian permaculture magazine, Pip Magazine. There is a story on mushrooming in it. Then I read this.


You raise some interesting points, to be sure. The animal wee argument - I got that from mum as a kid. "No, you can't pick that rosemary. A dog might've wizzed on it". As I drop the sprig I picked from above my short 7-year-old height. As for weed sprays - look into Patrick Jones and Permapoesis and Artist As Family. He is 20% of a family of five who recently cycled up the east coast foraging as they went. He is a bit of an unofficial expert on foraging and shares plenty of useful information where knowing what is safe to pick is concerned.

If you would like to receive a copy of the magazine, email me at

Jamie said...


Thanks I'll email you regarding the new mag, sounds interesting.

Having worked on gardening magazines for many years, my main fear is what I would describe as the "amateur mushroom forager syndrome".

In the case of mushrooms, the risks are obvious and the sad tales of misadventure too common, but the same principe is the problem with foraging in general, even if we're only talking herbs and flowers.

It's not the expert foragers (such as your Patrick Jones) who worry me (humankind has been foraging successfully for millennia, as has Patrick in recent years), it is the ditzy, ill-informed urban folk inspired by romantic tales of foraging that are the ones likely to either come unstuck, or at least do themselves some mild harm with their ill-informed foraging.

I just think publicising the exploits of expert foragers encourages clueless foragers, and that is just plain silly.