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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sustainable Living: Foraging for Native Plant Foods in Your Own Backyard

Sustainable foraging for native dye plants in the garden

Interest in the edible, medicinal and other uses of native plants has grown dramatically in the past five years. Mother Nature’s Backyard has played a role in this. Our ‘California Gourmet’ and ‘Garden Crafts’ series specifically promote the use of California native plants.

Native plants play an important role in living sustainably.  They furnish habitat, create shade, improve the soil and provide edible and craft materials.   To put it simply, California natives are remarkable additions to the garden ecosystem. But it’s important to remember that these plants are also critical components of natural ecosystems.

The increased interest in edible and medicinal native plants creates several unintended consequences.   Most important is the overuse of natural stands of native plants growing in the wild.   This is not just a problem in California; over-collecting of native plants is a critical issue world-wide, leading to the extinction of entire plant species.

While some California native plants are still common, others are rare – even endangered - in the wild.  Humans have played a key role, primarily by destroying habitat (building houses, roads, etc.).  Global climate change is putting further pressures on wild plants and animal populations. 

To stress wild populations further by wild foraging is unsound.  In fact, there are legal, health/safety, practical and ethical/stewardship reasons to limit wildland foraging.  For a thoughtful article on this see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-novick/forage-in-the-garden-not_b_10211746.html.  

We urge that you consider foraging in your own garden rather than in the wild.  A thoughtfully planned garden can supply many edibles and loads of materials for garden crafts.  In fact, you may have an excess.  Consider swapping ‘produce’ with others to increase the variety of materials available to you.  Get to know which weeds are edible or useful; knowing that a weed is edible can turn a chore into an interesting adventure.

There are many reasons to forage your own garden rather wild foraging.  Here are just a few:

Legal reasons

  1. You own the resource. Collecting on private property or on protected government land can be risky business, particularly without the proper permits.   Trespassing and stealing can lead to fines – even jail time.   Safer to forage in your garden.
  2. Rare species, purchased from reputable sources, are legal to own and plant in your garden. Wildland endangered/ threatened species are often legally protected.  They cannot be taken, removed, destroyed, collected etc. in the wild.  You can harvest (responsibly) the rare species you grow in your garden.  Just be sure to purchase plants from reputable sources only.  Don’t risk the legal consequences of planting a plant that’s been illegally harvested.

Health & safety reasons

1.    You know you are using the correct species. Field foraging can result in mistaking a toxic for a safe species.  Poisonings – even deaths – from eating wild foraged plants occur each year.  Purchase and clearly label garden plants, making sure that proper precautions are taken with hazardous species.   You wouldn’t want to feed your family something that might make them sick!

2.    You know how the resource has been managed. Pesticides, herbicides, pollution, etc. can affect the safety of plants ingested as food/medicines or used in craft projects.  You can manage these exposures in your garden; you have no clue about them when you wild forage.

Practical reasons

  1. Ease of access. It’s so much easier (and sometimes safer) to harvest plant materials in the garden than the wild. 
  2. You can pick edibles, medicinals and craft materials at the ‘peak of freshness’.   The taste, appearance and effectiveness of many materials varies with the season and the weather.   Grow source plants in your garden, where you can easily monitor them and harvest at the optimal time.
  3. You can grow enough of the species you enjoy.  We all use our plants differently.  By planting just the species you use, you can make best use of your garden’s space.  A natural dyes enthusiast will plant different plants from someone with an interest in medicinal plants.    Choose plants for their useful properties in addition to their beauty.
  4. Useful plants provide added value to your garden.  Berry bushes, vines and trees can provide habitat and shade in addition to food.  Dye plants and edibles can be pretty and water-wise.  Useful native plants can stabilize a slope and improve soil nutrients and physical properties.  Useful native plants provide these ‘added services’ in the wild; why not in your garden?
  5. Harvesting home-grown materials gives purpose to your garden.  There’s nothing like the satisfaction of growing your own food and other useful products.  Working in a useful garden provides purpose to all who participate.  Gardening – and garden foraging – are good, wholesome family activities!     And they are often fun as well!

Ethical/stewardship reasons

  1. You don’t over-tax rare natural resources.  Even when we each take just a little, if there are many foragers, scarce wild plants can disappear.  Wild resources are the sacred heritage of us all; they are a gift to pass on to future generations.  Admire plants in the wild; observe them, photograph them and enjoy them.  But forage California natives in your own garden; it’s the responsible – and ethical – thing to do.
  2. You can manage garden plants using sound ecological principles.  Since you control the resources, you can manage them wisely.  You can harvest just enough, at the right time, to sustain the plants. 
  3. No need to waste time & gas getting there.  If you worry about scarce resources and air pollution, garden foraging is the most economical and earth-friendly option.
  4. Passing along an ethic of sustainability to the next generation. The planet is getting more crowded – that’s obvious.  To adapt, we need to adopt and promote sustainable living practices.  Be an inspiration: live sustainably, grow sensible plants (like local natives) and forage in your own backyard.   Your children, grandchildren, students and others need to learn these skills.   Be a teacher of sustainable life skills – that’s important!

Wild greens foraged sustainably from Mother Nature's
 Backyard garden.



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



  1. Excellent! Thank you for such a thoughtful article.

  2. Well, this is exciting. I think we are moving beyond the, "Oh, by the way, this is edible..." phase to the point where we want to know specifically: what plants would make a good combination of foods for year-round, how many of each we would need for the average "family of four," how much land would we need to do this, and if that works out to be impractically large for a suburban dweller, what is the best complimentary strategy - for both Northern and Southern California. I look forward to learning more from you on this topic.

  3. Susan introduced me to this blog via the CNPS listserv. The current blog on the buckwheats is very good, so I have cruised around the blog some more and just arrived at this one.

    While I agree with your sentiments, you (whoever you are--the anonymity strikes me as odd . . . ), you might have stressed the fact that some alien plants are quite edible and SHOULD be harvested.

    Black mustard, for example, grows on disturbed sites, even dominates them for years. I prefer to collect them on sites I suspect have not been contaminated, which is true of many lowlands (I avoid collecting native plants in such places, especially if they are downstream from urbanized areas). Black mustard on hillsides for example, are plentiful. You can collect the emerging plants in the winter/spring; they pep up a salad wonderfully. Later, the flowers can do the same thing when the leaves have turned tough. Then, the seed pods can be collected and eaten until they become too tough, and finally, the seeds can be used to make a wonderful condiment--use the entire seed, crushed or milled. There is another native mustard that is only a few inches high that grows at high altitudes that provides the most exquisite flavor. This would be an excellent choice for growing commercially (though harvesting and processing costs would be quite high, making it a product primarily for the idle rich).

    Of course, there are many other alien plants that could be collected that are real problems in disturbed ecosystems like cardoon or wild artichoke. Others, like "goosefoot" or Chenopodium album that are not invasive of ecosystems but are fairly common in waste places--however BE VERY CAREFUL where you collect this one, as it is an accumulator of certain heavy metals like iron (a little bit'll do ya; a little too much can kill ya, and selenium (a tiny bit'll do ya; a tiny bit too much'll certainly kill ya). However, this plant is highly nutritious, especially in iron and vitamin K, so little bits and bites should suffice. I have eaten this plant most of my life, but can't now because I'm on warfarin and the vitamin K content is too high for me. Do your own research and come to your own conclusions, maybe after consulting with your physician and/or a reputable researcher.

    Happy foraging!

    Wayne Tyson

    PS: While I agree that depredation of wild populations should be avoided, it the Native American procedure of passing up the first plant or animal you're collecting and taking only the second, fourth, and so on, minimal harm to the environment should occur. Of course, given our outrageous overpopulation, if the practice ever became common, we could end up, theoretically, with one plant. However, given the difficulty (by definition) of finding some of the rarest, there is a self-limiting aspect to foraging. Pick only the low-hanging fruit. And after eating them, defecate in the wild, covering the stool with a bit of dirt (and pick a spot that is already disturbed).