by biodiversity intern Alaine Janosy
Foraging, the practice of gathering wild foods for their nutritional or medicinal value, is something humans have done since the beginning of time. It is the “gathering” part of the hunter/gatherer communities from whence we all came; before humans learned how to cultivate the land and agriculture became the norm. Today, as people search for new and creative ways to eat local, seasonal, and sustainable, there has been a resurgence of foragers in the forest. The practice, regarded by most as ‘naturally’ sustainable, requires prudence and precaution to be truly sustainable, without which, foraging can jeopardize the future of wild foods.
Traditionally, the collection of these wild edibles was limited; foragers were focused on subsistence, primarily gathering what they or their families would consume. As wild foods have increased in popularity and North American gastronomy has exploded, however, foraging has become a livelihood. Those with knowledge of the natural world harvest what they find in the forest to help pacify the ever-increasing demand for wild foods among chefs and foodies nationwide. Hailed for their organic origins, wild fruits and vegetables are featured on the menus of many high-end restaurants and can be purchased at Greenmarkets around the country, but the proliferation of wild foods comes with a price. Certain plants, such as ramps (wild leeks), have become so highly prized that they are being over-harvested; their numbers have dropped so drastically in Quebec that the provincial government categorized the species as endangered and passed a law banning all commercial harvest and import.
Ramps are particularly vulnerable to over-harvest because when you pick a ramp, you pick the entire plant, including the bulb, removing the possibility of perennial re-growth as well as creating aesthetic and ecological damage. According to Russ Cohen, professional environmentalist and wild foods enthusiast, this ecological damage can include an increase of invasive species, which can inhibit the growth of native species and negatively impact the forest’s existing mycorrhizal associations (symbiotic relationships between fungi and plant roots). He suggests confining primary ramp harvesting to just the leaves, allowing the bulbs to remain in the ground with at least one leaf attached. This way, the bulb can grow new leaves next season and the leaf can flower, release seeds, and spread the species. He argues that, since ramp leaves are just as usable, and delicious, as the bulbs, nothing would be lost gastronomically by implementing this more sustainable harvest method.