The environmental, nutritional and moral case for eating wild foods
Perspective by Gabriel Popkin
August 15, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. EDT
On a crisp fall day in 2019, I found myself on my hands and knees in a dreary office parking lot, feeling somewhat self-conscious, picking up acorns. The person responsible for this strange turn in my life was a lanky, gregarious landscape architect gone rogue named Lincoln Smith — who is one of the very few people in the Washington area making a full-time living growing, selling and teaching people about wild and native foods. I had joined him on this quixotic scavenger hunt to understand what it means to eat wild in the 21st century.
Over a couple of mostly pleasant hours, Smith, one of his colleagues and I partially filled three plastic bins with meaty nuts of red oaks that lined the nondescript commercial strip. The haul was auspicious — but acorns don’t give up their goods easily. Sometime later, I met Smith at his home, where, over several hours, he painstakingly shelled the nuts, ground them, poured water over them again and again to leach out bitter chemicals called tannins, and eventually produced an actual food: acorn flour. “I could sell as much acorn flour as I can make for $25 a pound to chefs and curious bakers,”he told me.
I realize this whole exercise may come off as strange. For much of human history, however, acorns have been a major food source for people; at least one book has argued that oaks gave rise to modern civilization. Every year, oak trees shower us with a nutritious, tasty and completely free feast — a feast that now, with the exception of a few groups of people such as Koreans and Native Americans of Northern California, we almost entirely spurn.
“We were born to eat wild,” writes journalist Dan Saladino in his recent book “Eating to Extinction.” Our bodies are built to consume nature’s bounty and turn it into more of ourselves. According to researchers at Kew Gardens in Britain, humans are capable of finding sustenance in more than 7,000 species of plants, each packaging its own unique amalgam of flavors and nutrients.
Yet if you are American — or, increasingly, a resident of any other country — you probably subsist on a tiny fraction of those: corn, wheat, soy, rice, potatoes and a few dozen standardized supermarket vegetables. The rejection of 99 percent of the world’s edible plant biodiversity is part and parcel of much of humanity’s recent rise to extraordinary wealth. While much of the tropics still consumes a diverse, partly wild diet, eating wild has become “taboo” in the so-called developed world, where parents have “taught their kids that this is poor people’s food,” says Alex McAlvay, an ethnobotanist at the New York Botanical Garden. In short, we convinced ourselves that the more we could separate, physically and psychically, from trees, weeds and soil, the better off we would be.
But are we really better off? Industrial food, while amply feeding us, is not exactly nourishing. Only 10 percent of Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported. More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese; diabetes is at epidemic levels. As the so-called Western diet colonizes the world, such Western diseases spread with it.
According to researchers at Kew Gardens in Britain, humans are capable of finding sustenance in more than 7,000 species of plants.
Our environment’s health is in no better shape. Agriculture now accounts for 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, a quarter globally. Fertilizers and chemicals wash off farm fields and pollute our waterways. Industrial food is gobbling up much of what’s left of the planet’s wild land, helping to drive what scientists warn may be the sixth mass extinction of life in Earth’s history.
Wild foods offer a potential off-ramp from these disastrous trends. The oaks whose acorns Smith and I gathered were probably planted at some point, but now they just grow, asking nothing of us, while also pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, thereby helping to slow climate change. And under the oaks’ canopy, a plethora of other native and edible plants can share the space: a human- and wildlife-nurturing polyculture. What’s more, wild foods are available to everyone, at least in theory. No need to strike out for remote wilderness: Edible plants thrive in yards, pocket parks, fallow fields, cracks in the sidewalk.
So rather than ask what’s up with the weirdos scavenging in the parking lot, it might make more sense to ask: What’s up with the rest of us? We’re surrounded by healthy, abundant, free food. In an age of grain shortages, inflation, environmental anxiety and a general feeling that everything could collapse at any time, why aren’t we all eating it?
Before the pandemic, I was at most a casual, opportunistic, somewhat lackadaisical forager. But the year the world shut down, two things happened. That spring, inspired largely by Smith, some neighbors and I turned a small, desolate public park in D.C.’s inner suburbs, where I live, into a food forest, filling it with edible plants. We had already been planning the project, but the act took on new meaning during a scary and isolating time. The food forest became a community hub — a place of hope when hope was sorely needed.
Then that fall, on one of innumerable walks on by-then-painfully-familiar neighborhood streets, my partner and I came face to trunk, on National Park Service land, with a tall, gangly tree that had bark like small charcoal briquettes. My brain’s pattern recognition machinery whirred and clicked: American persimmon. I looked up. The tree, which I’d surely passed a dozen times and never noticed, was laden with small, round orange fruits hanging like so many ornaments, just starting to ripen. I reasoned that another tree must be growing nearby, to provide pollen for this one’s flowers, which is usually necessary for persimmon trees to produce abundant fruit. I scanned left, and there it was — a second tree at least as large, at least as laden, all free for the taking. Up to that point, I had only ever found a few persimmons at a time. This felt like a biblical moment: manna from the neighborhood park.
As we weren’t prepared with bags, we gathered all the persimmons we could carry in our hands and clothes. (The front pocket of the sweatshirt I wore that day is still stained with dried pulp, despite many washings.) We returned several times a week. This ritual became an obsession; the thought of missing even one of the candy-like fruits became almost unbearable, though we lost many to deer and insects. At home we got out a long-neglected hand-crank food mill and pressed our hauls through it to strain out seeds, yielding pulp for breakfasts and desserts. (An annoyingly large seed-to-flesh ratio is a common characteristic of wild fruit.)
In case you’re wondering, rules governing foraging on public land are all over the map and can cause debate and confusion. While we didn’t give it much thought at the time, it appears that, on this particular parcel, the Park Service bans collecting of plants but not necessarily fruits, which can generally be taken without harming the tree; indeed, our activities likely helped the trees disperse their seeds. And if you’re wondering whether foraging is safe, the answer is mostly yes. For wild mushrooms, an accurate ID can be a matter of life or death, but few wild plants are fatally toxic in normal quantities (though some can cause serious indigestion, and you should always be sure you know what you’re eating — and what parts of it are safe to eat).
American persimmon is one of those “secret” foods that were once staples — the name derives from an Algonquin word for dried fruit, indicating a likely Indigenous use — but that have been largely forgotten. (By contrast, cultivated Asian varieties, which produce much larger fruits, can often be found in stores.) As persimmon entered our diet, I thought of my father, who used to serve my brother and me orange juice made from store-bought concentrate each morning to ensure we got our daily dose of life-sustaining vitamin C (and who still enjoys his daily OJ). American persimmons pack far more vitamin C than the insipid oranges whose juice we drank; how much more interesting and nutritious could our mornings have been had we been attuned to what was growing wild around us?
During a hike a few weeks later near the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, it seemed like every other tree we passed on the trail dripped with pawpaws — yet another common but largely forgotten fruit native to this part of the world. We shook the trunks, making it rain. We stuffed fruit into jacket pockets and backpacks and carried more in our hands. These, along with fruits from the park trees and a small persimmon tree in our yard that produced a surprisingly large haul that year, fed us all fall and into winter. We made pawpaw pies, persimmon puddings, mousse. When you start planning your outings around gathering wild food and your grocery bill starts going down, it’s time to admit: You’re a forager.
Because eating wild was proving so easy, so fun and so rewarding, I became intensely curious about whether it could be more than a hobby. So I struck out for various corners of the Mid-Atlantic to meet some of the people reweaving the connections between humans and the plants we live among.
One of these places was a small cornfield in the exurbs of Philadelphia. One day early this spring, a group of five — McAlvay (who’d driven in from New York for the occasion), professional foragers Tama Matsuoka Wong and Derek Carty, a Post photographer and me — gathered at the field, where Wong had a long-standing agreement allowing her to forage. We were looking for Brassica rapa, which you have almost certainly eaten: Over centuries, farmers and plant breeders have selected varieties that eventually became familiar vegetables, including turnips, bok choy and the napa cabbage used to make kimchi. But we were after what botanists call a “feral” variety, a plant that has “jumped the fence,” as McAlvay put it, and become a weed rather than a crop. Weedy brassicas thrive in fields and along roadsides from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Many farmers hate it, but eaters love it. “There’s something about this plant that people around the world can’t get enough of,” McAlvay said. He then pulled out his phone and read us a Peruvian poem waxing ecstatic about it.
Wong, who is based in New Jersey and runs the wild food business Meadows and More, forages for restaurant chefs based in New York City and elsewhere, and for online grocery businesses like FreshDirect. When we met, she giddily showed me a text conversation in which she had told one of her chefs that she was headed out for brassica that morning, and he replied with a meme of a jubilant Oprah, which Wong interpreted to mean, “I’ll take as much as you can bring me.”
In the field, Wong sought out tender, green inner leaves and shoots that hadn’t developed purple edges. “You need to get it at just the right moment,” she explained. “If you wait too long, it gets woody.” I grabbed a few leaves and bit into them. The taste was intense — bitter and complex, like eating mustard greens or broccolini, but concentrated and amplified. Wong and her chef clients were in on a secret: Part of what has been tamed in our domesticated crops is flavor. And wild food is the antidote: a wake-up call for the senses.
The work was slow. After a couple of hours, Wong and Carty had gathered just a few small crates of greens; granted, we had spent some of the time gabbing about brassica lore. I pondered how many tractor-trailers full of corn one farmer on a combine could have harvested out of an Iowa field in the time we’d spent scouring this patch.
Foraging is hardly an efficient way to get calories, and if we were simply calorie-consuming machines, it would make little sense in the modern world. But we’re not. We’re complex bundles of needs — nutritional, yes, but also physical, emotional, spiritual and cultural. As if to prove the point, about an hour into our visit, we spotted two people ambling through the field after us, looking for the florets the brassica plants send up when they’re getting ready to be pollinated and set seed. Gary DiBerardinis and his son Nick told me they do this every March, and then blanch and freeze the florets for use throughout the year. “There’s a lot of Italians who do this,” Gary said. “It’s like, you don’t want anyone else to know about your field.”
I thought about everything happening here. People were getting outside, spending time among plants and among each other. A familial bond was being strengthened; several cultures and a small business were being sustained. Restaurants and the freezer of one family were being supplied with a food that demanded no fertilizers or chemicals. Amazingly, a little wild vegetable that nobody had even tried to grow was accomplishing all of this.
Every generation, it seems, has its wild foods moment. During the Depression, people ate wild-growing weeds such as dandelions out of necessity. In the 1960s and ’70s, wild foods were embraced by hippies heading back to the land; they were also popularized by Euell Gibbons, who wrote books such as “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”and evangelized about foraging on TV. In the past few decades, a sort of elite foraging movement has emerged, most notably in Scandinavia, where celebrity chefs like René Redzepi have ridden it to global fame.
The irony is that while a few people, mainly reasonably well-off White men, have gained recognition for “rediscovering” and teaching others about wild foods, countless Indigenous people, immigrants, and rural Black and White Americans — men and women — have carried on foraging traditions, both by choice and by necessity. Often they had good reason for staying out of the spotlight.
Disconnecting Indigenous people who lived in what is now North America from their food traditions, including ones based on wild foods, was part of the colonial project. “It separated us from our traditional knowledge and lifeways, the bones of our ancestors, our sustaining plants,” the Indigenous ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her best-selling book “Braiding Sweetgrass.”By 1622, just 15 years after the settlement of Jamestown, members of the Powhatan tribe of Virginia found themselves excluded from parts of their traditional hunting and foraging grounds. As colonialism picked up steam, so did the assault on Indigenous food traditions, including the forced relocations of entire peoples to faraway regions with unfamiliar flora.
Similarly, efforts to keep Black people from foraging their own food became wrapped up in America’s racial oppression infrastructure. Anti-trespassing laws were virtually unknown before the Civil War, when enslaved people often hunted, fished and foraged to supplement meager food rations, but such laws proliferated afterward. As property law expert Brian Sawers wrote in a recent Atlantic article, they were often explicitly intended to prevent Black people from accessing free food.
Class also became a factor. In the late 1800s when elites concerned about resource depletion began creating nature preserves, rural White farmers who were used to foraging herbs and other wild plants suddenly found their rights curtailed. “Supporters of restricting foraging rights,” food policy expert Baylen Linnekin wrote in the Fordham Urban Law Journal in 2018, “typically grounded their efforts in racism, classism, colonialism, imperialism, or some combination of these odious practices and beliefs.”
Those legacies have been formalized in modern times in regulations that prohibit or restrict foraging in parks and preserves. “We have public lands that are managed for all sorts of outdoor activities,”says Samuel Thayer, a forager and wild-plant expert based in Wisconsin and author of several popular books on foraging. “But virtually nothing is managed for foraging.”
Private land is also generally off-limits. That may go without saying, but it reflects a peculiarly American — and peculiarly recent — notion of privacy: In much of Europe, for example, foragers gather mushrooms in privately owned forests, no landowner permission needed. Here, the woods teem with “no trespassing” signs.
Given how much of wild-food culture has been driven underground, it’s perhaps not surprising that no one seems to have hard data on its popularity. But about a year and a half ago, in the depths of the pandemic, I became aware of the Black Forager, a TikTok account started in early 2020 by Alexis Nikole Nelson, a Columbus, Ohio-based forager. The now-30-year-old Nelson makes videos about magnolia blossoms, maple leaves, dandelion fritters, even invasive species like Japanese knotweed. The entertaining videos are fast-paced and feature cheeky jokes, fashion asides and snippets of Nelson singing. Yet they are packed with information and an engaging immediacy largely lacking from deadly serious foraging manuals and websites. And they are extremely popular. Across platforms, Nelson has close to 5 million followers, and she has been profiled in many major media outlets. “There hasn’t been someone since Euell Gibbons with that kind of fame,” says Thayer.
Nelson has been explicit about wanting to reclaim foraging for people who have been historically excluded. And she says she is seeing an explosion of interest in wild foods, including among people of color. “I remember being in junior high school talking to my classmates about wanting to spend time outside and eating wild plants, and some of my classmates … being like, ‘Girl, that is not for Black folks, that is not where we are supposed to be, that is where bad things happen,’ ” she told me. Now, things are beginning to change. She recalled a day last summer when she was hiking in the woods around Columbus and met two Black teenage girls who recognized her and told her about plants they had foraged thanks to her videos. “I definitely have seen more people who look like me out in the woods foraging,” she says.
Many Native tribes, having seen the health-damaging effects of Western food, are also reviving their wild-food cultures and have regained foraging, hunting and fishing rights on lands where they had been excluded. In 2019, after several years of negotiation and an environmental-impact statement they had to pay for, the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians secured permission to forage sochan — a wild-growing green better known today as cut-leaf coneflower — in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was Cherokee land long before it was seized by White settlers and eventually the U.S. government. In 2020, only 11 tribal members sought foraging permits, Desirae Kissell, a natural resources coordinator who manages the tribe’s program, told me; this year, demand was so strong that she handed out all 36 foraging permits allowed under the agreement and had to start a wait list.
Native Americans who grew up shopping at grocery stores may not have connections to wild foods like sochan. But when Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef from Pine Ridge, S.D., started visiting Native communities to seek out traditional edible plants, he found that “there’s still a lot of elders and community members in these diverse Indigenous communities who hold a lot of that knowledge.” In 2021, Sherman opened a restaurant in Minneapolis based on Indigenous foods — from bison to wild rice to turnips to crickets — and his team recently won a James Beard Award. Sherman applauds the renewed interest in native and wild foods — with a caveat. “The most important piece is for people who are interested in wild foods to not treat it as a trend, or fall into extraction mode,” he says. “Take the time to learn how the plants work.”
A few years ago, during a visit to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, my partner and I learned about the yaupon holly, the only plant native to North America that produces a chemical many of us cannot live without (or at least, don’t want to live without): caffeine. I filed the find in my brain as probably worth investigating at some point, but being habit-bound, I stayed hooked on the globalized commodities coffee and “true tea.”
This spring I ran out of tea and dug yaupon out of my mental file drawer. My partner and I went online to see if we could order some; it turned out several small yaupon purveyors have sprung up in the Southeast. I ordered several bags and wrote to Crystal Stokes, the head of the one nearest to me, to ask if I could come visit.
I arrived on the second day of spring at a tiny farmlet in a corner of Richmond, where I was welcomed by Stokes and her business partner, Adam Weatherford, the founders of Project CommuniTea. The two friends had just shuttered a vegetable operation they had labored over for several years and, with evident relief, were pivoting to a business based on yaupon.
They invited me into a small geodesic dome lined with plastic where they hope to revive yaupon tea culture, which has been all but dormant for at least a century. As we sat around a circular table, they took me through four yaupon preparations: green, medium roast, dark roast and smoked. The taste of yaupon is both familiar and strange. It is a tea in the broad sense — an infusion of a plant — but it has unique floral and tangy notes, and as we proceeded toward the darker roasts, caramel entered the equation. I recognized this as an example of that ineffable concept of “terroir”: a taste that expresses the place a food comes from.
I desperately wanted to believe that here in the Virginia Tidewater, I was witnessing the infancy of the biggest story in caffeine in a century.
As we drank, I felt as though my brain was expanding. We laughed more. Stokes and Weatherford called this getting “tea drunk.” If coffee is a sledgehammer blow to the brain — admittedly sometimes useful — yaupon was more like a gentle neural stroking. I could have sat all day drinking.
What intrigued me about Stokes and Weatherford is the space they’re carving out in the food economy. They mostly don’t forage yaupon themselves but obtain it from someone who does; they’re also starting to grow it. In one light, theirs is just another food start-up trying to get off the ground. But Project CommuniTea is a rare venture grounded in ecology and tradition — one that seeks to elevate a plant that’s from here and plays nicely with others, rather than an outsider that demands that local ecosystems be wiped out. And let’s face it: Foraging, wonderful as it is, has its limits. If wild and native foods are going to play substantial roles in our food system, we will need businesses to carefully cultivate them and bring them to market.
The next day, the pair drove me to Virginia’s Tidewater region, where we pulled off the road at a modest house and met Vickie Shufer, a small firecracker of a woman who has become Stokes’s and Weatherford’s mentor and supplier. Shufer led us to a circular patch of about a dozen yaupon trees that she mysteriously called the “chicken coop” and went after a few of the trees with clippers. She had soon harvested a decent-size collection for the two entrepreneurs to take home and sell.
Yaupon once grew abundantly here, in part thanks to people. Shufer says she can identify abandoned home sites from old yaupon plants that have outlasted the buildings. But today, she is the only person she knows of in her area cultivating it for sale. As we sat down at a picnic table and clinked tea cups, she joked, “We’re the secret society. Don’t tell anybody!”
Yaupon is an odd thing to be secret about, considering that caffeine is by far the most popular psychoactive substance in the world; 4 in 5 Americans consume it daily. You probably drink coffee or true tea (Camellia sinensis), but you almost certainly haven’t tried yaupon, even though it may grow in your neighborhood. “It’s American tea,” Shufer says. “It’s been pushed under the carpet.”
As Shufer described in a 2016 article in the journal HerbalGram, yaupon’s disappearance is a crime of both botanical and cultural erasure. Indigenous Americans drank it in ceremonies before making important decisions. Early colonists got addicted to it; it was sold in Europe. Then a Scottish botanist who never even saw the plant in the wild gave it a derogatory Latin name, Ilex vomitoria. Some speculate this is because Europeans saw Native people vomiting during ceremonies that included yaupon and mistakenly blamed the plant, but there may be a more sinister reason: to establish the dominance in America of so-called true tea, which was already a heavily marketed global commodity. Yaupon tea was further derided as “poor man’s coffee” and almost totally lost from the American cultural and culinary landscape, persisting only in isolated spots like North Carolina’s Knotts Island, a few miles down the road from Shufer’s place, where thickets of the stuff grow to this day.
To Stokes, who is Black, yaupon’s erasure evokes multiple injustices that she wants to make right: the forced removal of America’s Indigenous people and the plants they relied on, and the story of her own family, who also suffered land loss. But she recognizes that to sell yaupon, she can’t just appeal to nostalgia or social justice; she has to convince modern consumers to try an unfamiliar food. She has labored over her roasting technique and spent much of our visit thinking aloud about how to market yaupon to Richmondites. Some of her customers, she’s found, are attracted to yaupon’s story; others just like the tea. Gen Z, a generation that is into health, has proved to be a natural customer base for a product that contains not only caffeine but also theobromine, an anti-inflammatory compound most closely associated with chocolate, and a potpourri of antioxidants. Stokes has learned that young people also often gravitate toward blends rather than pure tea, so she’s been perfecting mixtures of yaupon with various herbs and flowers. “If most people knew what it takes to sell and get people to like yaupon, they wouldn’t last a day,” she told me.
Stokes and Weatherford have gotten their product into a few stores, and a local restaurant has featured it in a cocktail. Walmart recently started carrying another yaupon company’s items. But the road to making the plant profitable is long. Stokes has so far been able to pay herself only a “stipend,” she says, and holds down a part-time job as a social and mental health worker.
Still, a yaupon revival seems obvious, even inevitable. Yaupon is about as hardy and undemanding as a plant can be, and the warming climate should help it thrive in areas north of its historical range, which peters out around Shufer’s place. “Yaupon can handle anything,” says Stokes. Meanwhile, the United States imports some 260 million pounds of tea annually, nearly one pound per American adult. Why not produce at least some of those pounds locally, using a plant that’s part of the native ecosystem? I desperately wanted to believe that here in the Virginia Tidewater, I was witnessing the infancy of the biggest story in caffeine in a century, the emergence of an all-American rival to tea and coffee.
In my immediate habitat, Lincoln Smith may be wild food’s most influential popularizer. Like Stokes and Weatherford, he is trying to build an agricultural venture that enhances nature rather than harms it. And similar to them, he’s found it to be a long road.
On a chilly but sunny early spring day, I met up with him and a few staff and volunteers at a 10-acre “forest garden” he maintains. The garden is on the property of the church he has attended since childhood in the outer reaches of Maryland’s Prince George’s County (and near the office parking lot where we foraged for acorns). Smith and his colleagues were pruning fruit and nut trees and generally tidying up for the coming growing season. Everything looked full of potential and ready to burst; various herbal aromas wafted through the air. Smith gave me one of a half-dozen or so tours I’ve taken of the site over the years, pointing out some of his newer and more surprising plantings: true-tea plants native to China (he’s also growing yaupon), a monkey-puzzle tree that is native to Chile and prized for its nuts. He’d recently gotten access to a new area with a pond and a stream and was experimenting to see what edible plants would grow there.
Smith launched the company Forested a decade ago, burned out by high-end landscaping work and inspired by Martin Crawford, director of the U.K.-based Agroforestry Research Trust. “I found it to be the most hopeful idea I had come across in the environmental movement,” he says. On an old field, he built garden beds, planted native and food-bearing trees and shrubs in complex, multilayered arrangements, infused wood chips and logs with fungal material that would eventually grow mushrooms, and invented various low-tech hacks — a composting wood-chip pile warms water from a local hydrant to sustain his ducks and geese in winter, for example. He sought out permutations the local climate and soil favored, rather than fighting them. If a patch seemed to want to grow persimmon or pear trees, he let them grow, then grafted onto the fast-growing stems the highest-yielding and most delicious varieties he could find.
When I first visited several years ago after discovering the project online, I envisioned someone popping out of the woods saying bizarre things like “Ever eat a pine tree?” — one of Euell Gibbons’s famous lines. Smith instead proved to be, if perhaps slightly quirky, a practical, serious and welcoming ambassador for wild eating. “Forest feasts” that Smith has thrown — featuring acorn-flour pancakes, elderberry cocktails and other delicacies, and prepared by high-profile chefs like Zaytinya’s Michael Costa — have attracted hundreds of people paying up to $300 apiece for tastes that can hardly be found anywhere else.
Admittedly, Smith has produced relatively little actual food compared with a conventional farm. He attempted a small community-supported agriculture project through which people could pay in advance for a weekly box of food, but abandoned it after it proved more trouble than it was worth. Though each of his feasts have sold out, they are so complex to produce that he’s been able to hold only two per year (and none for most of the pandemic); they haven’t generated much profit, either. And despite increases in the land’s carbon stores and biodiversity — two goals promoted by a wide range of environmental groups and the federal government — few programs exist to compensate small landowners or managers for such ecosystem services. The first five years, Smith lost money. His income derives mainly from landscaping for public and private clients and a course he teaches on permaculture, a sustainable agriculture system based on growing a mix of trees and perennial plants, rather than monocultures of annual crops.
That’s partly because he had to rebuild the ecosystem from a degraded state, a situation describing most of our land today. “Food forests take a sustained, long amount of attention,” he says. Smith is excited that the forest is entering its second decade, the one in which the first decade’s work will literally bear fruit. Fruit and nut trees have had time to put down their root systems and grow tall. He’s gotten his first handfuls of pecans and groundnuts, a legume native to eastern North America that grows underground. Over time, he says, the forest’s productivity could begin to rival that of conventional farms; he has calculated, for example, that mature red oak trees can churn out as many calories per acre in the form of acorns as can wheat. For those willing to wait, “the forest works,” he says. “This ecosystem is incredibly productive … and there is a tremendous amount of yield potential there that we can tap into.”
Whether or not Forested ever becomes profitable, it has certainly attracted some perhaps surprising followers. Very mainstream, non-hippie-ish organizations such as the governments of D.C. and various Maryland suburbs have hired Smith to create at least six food forests on public land, with more to come thanks to new funding. Smith’s mantra has long been that food forests “should be as common as basketball hoops and playgrounds.” The culture, it seems, may be catching up with him.
As Wong, Stokes, Smith, Thayer and Nelson all point out, there are myriad reasons — practical, nutritional, environmental, cultural (and countercultural), pure fun and joy — to eat wild. There are, of course, also many reasons not to. Eating wild requires constant attention, and not just for reasons of safety: When something leafs out, blooms or ripens, you have to get out there, or you may miss it for the year. And it takes work: evenings pressing fruit or processing nuts instead of, say, ordering DoorDash and watching Netflix. Is it worth it? For me, most of the time it has been. For others? Maybe not.
Some argue that wild plants need protection from ravenous, irresponsible humans and that foraging is acceptable only on one’s own land, which cuts out renters, condo owners and anyone else without a sizable yard. My social media has started to feed me regular admonishments about foraging without permission. “Any foraging requires the permission of the landowner (if it isn’t you) and/or park system. It is best to be done on your own property,” one commenter wrote recently on a popular local Facebook group. (Is there anything more American than the constant demand for permission to do things — and the constant chiding of our fellow citizens to obtain it?)
A few wild plants, such as ramps, white sage and ginseng, have indeed become swept up in fads and are at risk of overharvesting in places. It’s important to understand the growth habit of what you’re harvesting and take only the parts the plant doesn’t need for regeneration, and in moderate amounts. Kimmerer describes the ethic of foraging, what she calls the “honorable harvest”: No matter how much you desire what you’re gathering, take only what you actually need and will use; never take the first or the last of anything.
But the vast majority of wild edibles are nowhere near threatened by foragers. In fact, Thayer argues, many are in greater danger of disappearing through neglect, because without people having a reason to cultivate and care for them, they risk being overrun by faster-growing invasive plants or paved over for the next strip mall. Kimmerer writes about how sweetgrass grows better when it’s harvested responsibly than when it’s ignored, because harvesting some stems gives the remaining ones more light and space, which they quickly fill with new shoots. Similarly, research led by Cherokee Band members has revealed that traditional harvesting of sochan boosts the plant’s seed production. “The plant actually needs to be harvested in order for it to flourish,” says Kissell. “It wants to be harvested.” When we engage knowledgeably and respectfully, we can improve rather than destroy.
Forested provides another case in point. If Smith hadn’t done his thing, the place would have remained a corn and hay field or perhaps become the next housing development. Instead, it has become a site for hundreds of plant, fungi and animal species and, over the past decade, well over a thousand humans, who can encounter one another and begin to stitch back together long-frayed bonds. Studies have even found higher insect diversity in forest gardens than in native forests allowed to grow “on their own.” While we might imagine we can protect nature by staying away from it and making the occasional donation to an environmental organization, initiatives like Forested show that we may be able to do even better. We can actually enhance nature by engaging — asking what it needs from us and what we need from it.
As I’ve been working on this story, I’ve been bothered by a question: What Wong and Stokes and Smith are doing is inspiring, fresh, provocative and lately maybe even hip, but it also feels tiny, indeed marginal compared with the behemoth that is our corporate food system, the one that fills the nation’s grocery stores. Can wild foods truly scale?
The entrepreneurs all speak of the need for specialized equipment and facilities, ones that would speed the harvesting and processing of a wide diversity of plants and products, not just a few mass-produced commodities. Smith has a business plan ready for anyone wanting to fund the construction of an acorn-processing facility that he feels could unlock the potential of the abundant nut. As it is, the entrepreneurs do nearly everything — roasting of yaupon, leaching of acorn tannins, harvesting of brassica — by hand, which means, by today’s standards, slowly and, in economic terms, inefficiently.
But I’ve also realized that I may be asking the wrong question. We are not going back to a forager society. There are far too many of us; we live too densely; most of us have other priorities. Maybe I — we — need to ask instead: Is potential to become the next billion-dollar company really the best way to measure value? Wild foods can quietly change lives, one by one, in ways that skirt rather than depend on the consumer economy. They certainly have changed mine. I’ve mostly switched from imported tea to yaupon and don’t see myself going back. During peak pawpaw, persimmon and serviceberry seasons, I often virtually stop buying fruit. Greens may be next. This year my diet has included chickweed, dead nettle, bittercress, dock, garlic pennycress, wild onion, brassica, wood sorrel, cleavers, dandelions, lamb’s quarters, day lily shoots, sochan, purslane and poke (amply boiled to remove toxins).
The sochan I planted a few years ago to restore native plants to my yard grew so aggressively that I got irritated and started digging it out. Only this past spring did I learn, thanks to one of Thayer’s books, that it’s a food — and a once-prized one at that. (Nelson also recently featured it in a video, pointing out how colonialism and forced removal of most Cherokees led to sochan being forgotten.) This information has transformed my relationship with the plant; I now want as much of it as possible. Meanwhile, as I wrote this piece, half a bunch of kale languished in the crisper drawer of my fridge. Nothing against kale, but I’ve eaten so much of it in my life; how can something so familiar and predictable compete with the new tastes I’m suddenly awash in?
After 40 years of eating, I had, without fully realizing it, begun to feel a bit trapped in a closed ecosystem that limited me to combining and recombining the same few handfuls of species. Eating and drinking wild has opened up almost limitless flavors and possibilities. We all have wild eating in our ancestry. It might be obscured by a lifetime of exposure to marketing and grocery-store shopping, but it’s there. You just have to crack open a window in the edifice of modernity where we spend our lives — and let a bit of wildness in.