Why eat wild food? Since I started foraging more than five years ago, I’ve gotten asked this question many times. As the wilderness on our planet shrinks and ecosystems change because of human development, it may seem like the right thing to do is to leave the wild places alone. But I am a passionate believer in wild harvesting. The simple act of collecting our own food from the forest, field or stream can be a tool for personal and collective transformation.
First and foremost, wild harvesting creates a relationship between harvester and harvested. Once we begin to know even a couple plants, the roadsides and woods are no longer a “wall of green,” but a gathering of friends we recognize.
Being able to identify plants, trees and flowers is a great first step, but developing reciprocity with the wild by literally bringing it into our bodies takes this relationship to a much deeper level.
When you spend hours harvesting cattail shoots with your feet in a cool creek, or stain your hands red picking mouthwatering blackberries, you experience the natural world in a richer way, through the engagement of the senses. And when you create a relationship with nature like this, the desire to take care of it arises naturally. This is one of the reasons I love to teach foraging as a wilderness ethic.
This sense of reciprocity ties in beautifully with the Jewish principle of l’avdah ul’shomrah, which roughly translates to “working and tending the land.” Often we think of tending the land as the act of gardening or farming, but wild harvesting can be an amazing way to tend to the environment around us. Indigenous cultures around the world, including our Jewish ancestors, used practices of “tending the wild” as a way to work with nature to ensure good harvests and healthy plants.
I enjoy continuing these ancient wild-tending practices in a respectful and healing way. I encourage people to take no more than one-third of what is available, to thin crowded plants when harvesting to support further growth, to scatter seeds if possible and to take abundantly (and use) any invasive or non-native plants. This last practice is especially cool to me!
So many invasive plants in our region are useful or edible. I recently made a delicious pesto with garlic mustard, which is a common invasive in our local woods. We can be grateful for the abundance of invasive plants if we’re using them to make pesto, tea, jam or even baskets. In wildcrafting these delicious and helpful products, we are helping the forests come back into balance and making space for native plants to return.
Beyond using foraging as a caretaking and creative practice, wild food has so many health benefits. Many wild greens like dandelion and chickweed have more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than so-called superfoods like kale.
There are also a multitude of medicinal herbs that grow right outside our doorsteps. From painkilling willow bark to nervous system-relaxing mimosa flowers, wild plant medicine is all around us. And that’s not even counting the inner joy and peace that comes after an afternoon spent on hands and knees searching for wild strawberries along the shoreline or picking honey locust flowers to decorate a salad.
I’ll end with one more Jewish value that ties into foraging: the idea of shmita. In this biblical practice, which is still upheld in Israel today, every seven years Jewish farmers would let their fields go fallow and allow the wild plants and animals to come back in to enrich the soil and greater ecology. I have some farmer friends who took a shmita year several years ago, and for that entire year, instead of planting and tilling, they focused on foraging as much of their food as possible.
Not only did they learn so much about their ecosystem, but they also allowed themselves, and their land, to rest and be rejuvenated by the wild. They took their sustenance into their own hands and increased their self-reliance. More than that, though, they developed their sense of interdependence and connectedness, which, to me, is what foraging is all about.
Join us on June 4 at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland, to learn how to enjoy the delicious wild bounty nature provides! Our expert teachers will offer an introduction to the principles and techniques of wildcrafting and foraging, and will share insights into how these ancient techniques connect to Judaism. Then they will lead a wild plant ID walk through the Temple’s backyard. We will end with a “plant happy hour” with wildcrafted “mocktails” and dishes featuring foraged ingredients.
This two-hour event event is for ages 13 and up and is intended for nature enthusiasts of all levels. We will hold the event rain or shine. Space is limited so please register by May 28 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 301-942-2000. Email email@example.com with any questions. This event is supported by a grant from the Jewish Food Experience®, a program of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. It is presented by Ifshin Gardens, a business with the mission of connecting communities to nature through gardening, wilderness and regenerative programs.
Top photo: Some wild chanterelle mushrooms Tori harvested.