Should You Forage for Wild Edibles in Cities?

Most folks who have a little bit of wilderness lore and experience under their belts know that nature provides us with countless edible plants, berries, mushrooms, nuts, and other foods if only we know where to look and what to pick.

two wild strawberries ready to be picked
two wild strawberries ready to be picked

Foraging for wild edibles is a great way to get outdoors, enjoy some fresh air and sunshine, and fill your belly or pantry with free food at the same time.

Easy enough in rural or wilderness areas, but what about foraging for wild edibles in cities? Should you?

Yes, you can forage for edible plants in cities, but you must be alert for chemical contamination, and avoid trespassing. Careless foraging could see you wind up seriously sick, or even criminally charged.

Like pretty much every environment, cities too offer plenty of natural resources for clever folks who know where to look.

However, compared to foraging in wild and remote areas there is more to consider when delving into a city. Keep reading and we will tell you what they are.

Urban Foraging For 'Wild' Edibles - 35 North American Species

Do Wild Edibles Really Grow in Cities?

Yes, they sure do. Even the most built-up and busy cities have parks, gardens, riverbanks, railway lines, and other areas of greenery where edible plants can be found- even sidewalks if you know what you are looking for!

Anywhere that an edible plant will grow, an edible plant can be found, and this means that knowing how your edibles grow is just as important as where and what they look like when city foraging.

Also, it is important to remember that just because a plant is growing in a city does not mean it is safe to eat.

Some people seem to be lulled by the idea that since you are surrounded by an ocean of concrete and human habitation that the really nasty stuff won’t be growing there.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and the onus is still on you to positively ID any foraged plant prior to eating it, wherever it comes from. Making a mistake could be painful, even fatal!

What are the Benefits of Foraging for Wild Edibles in Cities?

The benefits are many and varied, but essentially it all comes down to this: free food!

Not only is foraging a great way to get some exercise and fresh air, but you can also fill your belly or pantry with wholesome food that didn’t cost you a penny.

If you live in or near a city, this can also help you stay just a little bit more prepared for any supply chain problems or disasters.

Of course, foraging isn’t just about filling your stomach. It is also about reconnecting with nature, getting outside, and enjoying the environment around you.

Even in the concrete jungle there is teeming plant life! There is something still very primal and satisfying about finding an edible plant in the middle of the city.

However, urban foraging has challenges associated with it, and even some unique obstacles to overcome. We will talk about them in the following sections.

You Must Be Especially Cautious of Chemical Contamination

The single biggest issue associated with city foraging compared to rural or wilderness foraging is the abundant chemical contamination.

Fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are all used extensively in urban landscapes, and this means that you must take extra care when foraging for wild edibles in these areas.

Depending on the plant in question and where it is found, contamination might be entirely certain in the case of herbicides and pesticides on nuisance or ornamental plants or incidental in the form of runoff from ditches, culverts, gutters, and the like.

Neither is good, and can have serious health consequences.

Avoid Gathering from Any Runoff Areas

One of the most fruitful and also riskiest areas in your average city zone is the roadside ditch and other areas prone to hold or channel water.

These areas generally have high levels of contamination from all sorts of chemicals used on the streets and in yards that find their way into these waterways.

Oil and fuel spills will also be washed into these spots, as will anything lost or broken in the countless auto crashes that happen in cities.

It can be very tempting to forage in these areas as they are usually chock full of all sorts of wild edibles but think twice.

If you notice yellowed, browning, or abnormal-looking plants, the chemical contamination is probably significant. On the other hand, if there is minimal trash and the foliage looks healthy, it is probably okay.

Maintained Medians, Planters, and Similar Places are Often Treated

Another tempting but troublesome area will be maintained planters, pots, beds, medians, and other cultivated or decorative spaces.

With few exceptions, they will be treated with some combination of herbicides (to kill nuisance plants), pesticides (to save the plants that are supposed to be there), and fertilizers (to make them grow faster or look healthier).

These can all persist in the environment for a long time, and will likely find their way into any plants growing there.

While it is sometimes possible to wash off these contaminants, it is not always effective at eliminating chemical components the plants have absorbed.

The only way to know for sure is to ask the caretaker of the space what they use on the plants, and if you have to do that they are going to run you off.

Remember: That Plant Might Belong to Someone

Speaking of gathering from cultivated spaces or installations, do keep in mind that those plants belong to someone, even if it is “the taxpayers”.

That means that it is technically stealing to take them without permission, and since “technically” stealing is absolutely a crime you could get in a lot of trouble for it.

In most cases, the offense might be considered minor, but if you are caught taking fruit from a tree or taking cuttings from the wrong plant you could end up with a much bigger problem on your hands.

Try to ascertain who owns the space and what, if any, the law is regarding gathering.

Always stay on the side of being a good citizen and don’t take anything you are questioning without specific permission from the owner or caretaker.

Weeds and Nuisance Plants are Almost Always Fair Game

On the other hand, if you are after a specific weed, like dandelions, or nuisance plants like an invasive species you will virtually never get in trouble for removing them wherever you find them growing so long as you are not overtly breaking things or trespassing.

In fact, many municipalities will actually hire people to go out and do just that as part of their efforts to control these problem species.

If you are interested in this sort of work it is worth checking into as it can be a great way to make some extra money while getting your hands dirty in the great outdoors.

But just a reminder, even if the plant is a weed it might still have been sprayed with something to try and kill it so use the same caution you would use when foraging for anything else.

Watch for Litter and Hazards!

This is another risk attendant with foraging in a city, though not totally unique to it. You must be cautious of any sharp objects, broken glass, or other litter that might have been discarded.

Of course, you should always be on the lookout for these things when foraging in any environment, but it is especially important in an urban one where there is a greater likelihood of running into them.

Reaching into a stand of grass to extract a plant only to get stuck with a used hypodermic needle is going to ruin your day, and maybe your life.

The best way to avoid these hazards is to pay attention and take extra care to watch where you step and what you grab for.

Never Trespass in Your Quest for Plants

It should go without saying that you should never, ever trespass in your quest for plants.

This is a great way to get arrested, or worse, and it is just not worth the risk. If you want to get on someone’s property to gather plants simply ask them.

More often than not they will say no, but occasionally you will find someone who is happy to let you do it so long as you are respectful and take only what you need.

Of course, if the plant you are after is growing on public land there is no need to worry about trespassing, but that does not mean you can take the plant as mentioned above.

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