How urban foraging became the new way to explore a city

Can’t travel far? Then travel deep to find nourishment in your everyday surroundings.

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Wross Lawrence, a professional forager, collects mugwort at a park in East London. The plant has an aroma similar to sage and can be found growing throughout summer.

For travelers stuck at home, the world is a wonder to contemplate—alas from afar. But one of the key goals of sustainable travel—to eat local with a mitigated environmental impact—might not require much more than a walk around the block.

Urban foraging is an intimate study and interaction with the living world around us, singling out a flower or a berry, learning its name and properties, what it tastes like, when and where it grows, how to cook with it or preserve it.

Foraged foods are increasingly visible. In the fine-dining world, chefs have been crafting menus that are not only sourced locally from agricultural producers but, in some cases, sourced in the regions around a restaurant. There’s an appetite for it: According to a new Morning Consult/National Geographic poll, a third of Americans—especially those ages 18-34—say they are preparing more meatless meals because of higher prices and limited meat options at grocery stores.

Travelers have likewise been turning to foraging as a way to experience a destination, with guided tours growing in popularity.

No Taste Like Home, a 25-year-old foraging ecotour company based in the Appalachian town of Asheville, North Carolina, offers guided experiences for “modern hunter-gatherers.” Some of the collected bounty can then be savored at a local restaurant.

Foraging fundamentals

With scientists estimating that we’ll need to feed two billion more people by 2050, the question of which diet is best has taken on new urgency. The foods we choose to eat in the coming decades will have dramatic consequences for the planet.

Instead of looking to futuristic solutions, we might try looking to the past. Before agriculture was established, foraging helped feed our ancestors and heal their ailments. As a result, researchers are increasing efforts to learn what they can about foraging cultures, such as the Tsimane in the Amazon and the Hadza in Tanzania, before this way of life disappears.

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Lawrence forages wild food for Michelin-starred restaurants, markets, breweries, and supermarkets in London.

I am now celebrating my 10th year as a forager, and I can tell you the yield is bountiful. On my shelves at the moment are sloe gin (infused with sloe berries, a fruit of the blackthorn bush), acorn schnapps, elderflower cordial, nettle pesto, rosehip ice cream, blackberry jam, dried wild mushrooms, and wild hop beer—all homemade and hand-picked from the streets, parks, and waterways of London.

Foragers in the U.S. find an equal bounty—mulberry in Pennsylvania; loquats and kumquats in California; apples, pears, and plums in Wisconsin. Foraging can be both superlative and extreme. Florida-based environmentalist Rob Greenfield, for example, spent a year foraging or growing everything he ate, from grapefruit plucked from a neighboring tree to daikon radish cultivated in his own garden.

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With its distinctive aroma, Britain’s wild garlic can be found carpeting the floor of woodland, cemeteries, and parks in springtime.

I have not always spent my days rifling through hedgerows, long grass, backstreets, and woodlands in search of wild food for Michelin-starred restaurants, markets, breweries, and supermarkets in London. For many years I worked as a deep-sea fisherman in my hometown of Tenby in southwest Wales. But after years of getting up in the middle of the night to head out into the dark, frigid Irish Sea, I decided it was time for a change. Back on land, I trained and worked as a tree surgeon for three years—which opened my eyes to all things wild and foraged.

In my opinion everybody should be able to experience the benefits of foraging, especially now at a time when panic buyers often empty local supermarket shelves and stay-at-home orders limit travel. Foraging connects us with nature in a way that is healing mentally and physically in times of stress and anxiety. With fewer cars on the roads and people rushing past, and less noise pollution, now is the time to become more familiar with your natural environment.

The joy of simple acts

Heading out on a forage, you’ll experience new smells, tastes, colors, textures, patterns, and a satisfying sense of achievement. It can be done by anyone almost anywhere, and it doesn’t cost a dime. Wandering the streets, you start to see new areas of the little nook in which your life takes place. You notice things you used to walk past every day without acknowledgement, now seeing them in a different light, and discovering whole areas and communities you never knew existed before this new habit of meandering with purpose took ahold of you.

I derive endless joy from this simple act and have found that it becomes involuntary and addictive once you start. There is so much to learn and all of it surprising and interesting. Take yarrow, for example, a plant that the Greek hero Achilles is said to have used to treat his soldiers’ wounds during the battle of Troy. Or mallow, a plant that a French confectioner used to create the world-famous fireside treat in the 1800s. Or a walnut tree, which produces a hard-shelled nut that people pay good money for at the grocers—probably shipped in from overseas. And it’s dangling right there above your head.

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A rowan tree, the berries of which make a tasty jam, grows outside an apartment block in East London.

If you do venture out without a guide, be sure to triple-check your finds with multiple sources, and eat what you’ve collected only if you’re completely confident in your ID. Useful guidebooks include Richard Mabey’s Food for Free.

Why forage?

These plants are all high in nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, far better for you than almost anything you will find at the store, and without the pesticides. They also serve medicinal purposes. A few leaves of mullein—a large, hairy-leafed plant that looks like sage on steroids—produces a tea that soothes sore throats. The bluish-green needles of the white pine tree can be steeped in hot water and honey to make a cough syrup that alleviates chest congestion.

Wonder plants like these can be found growing all over cities and towns, pushing out of the cracks in concrete, climbing a park fence, overhanging a cemetery gateway, edging a waterway. Once you begin to notice them, you start to see them everywhere.

I believe foraging and botany should be introduced to us from an early age. Growing up learning about all the different plant genera, families, and species sparks an interest and connects children to nature. These children will grow into the architects, bankers, and politicians that will shape our cities and living environments in the future.

My worst fear is that when this pandemic crisis is over things will go back to “normal”—even though normal wasn’t working, as the planet and its wildlife became secondary to economic and technologic priorities. Perhaps during this period, as we find ourselves keenly aware of our restricted access to the outdoors, we’ll take the time to think more about our vital relationship with the natural world.

Foraging, no matter where you are, is a good place to start.

Wross Lawrence is a professional forager and cook. He recently released his first book, The Urban Forager: Find and Cook Wild Food in the City. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.