|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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Ease of access. It’s so much easier (and sometimes safer) to harvest plant materials in the garden than the wild.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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