Exploring the opportunities and responsibilities of foraging on the West Coast

by Jennifer Foden

JUST OVER A YEAR AGO, I left Toronto and moved to B.C.’s south coast. I wanted to embrace the mountains, mild weather, and coastal vibes. I often have moments, when I’m outside in the vast, lush West Coast forest, where I think about how grateful I am that I was able to relocate here.

Recently, while in deep conversation with Lori Snyder, I had a similar feeling of gratitude. Snyder was sharing her knowledge about the medicinal and edible plants surrounding us. Based on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples, Snyder is a Métis herbalist, storyteller, and educator who leads a number of wildcrafting workshops and walks in urban landscapes.

As we walked, she pointed out the bounty around us—rosehips here, dandelion root there. Oregon grape, pine tips, to name a few. She offered me a taste of honey and apple cider vinegar, which she had infused with plants she’d foraged nearby. We were standing in front of a beaver dam; birds played in the melting snow. And we weren’t deep in the forest of Squamish, where Snyder grew up. We were in Hinge Park, at the corner of Columbia Street and West First Avenue, in an increasingly developed area of urban Vancouver.

“For most people, foraging is not about exotic plants and going out deep into the forest,” Snyder said with a smile. “It’s about finding what’s in your own backyard.”

Foraging, or wildcrafting, is a practice that has been around in most cultures, including the Coast Salish, since time immemorial. However, searching for wild food in this city—where residents shop in bulk or order food from their phone—is something most people aren’t accustomed to. And this practice goes beyond just mushroom picking. We’re talking edible plants, berries, teas.

However, the times, they are a changing. While there are no hard statistics on the growth of urban foraging in B.C., searching for wild food in an urban setting appears to be rising in popularity. The amount of resources, tours, workshops and experts available is increasing. In Canada, the search term “foraging” on Google has increased over the past five years. (The province that googles that term the most? B.C., of course.)

Camille Flanjak, a B.C.-based wildcrafter and the founder of MuseumEats (a company that conducts workshops on understanding local food sources) suggests the increase in urban foraging is an intentional move to re-engage with the food system.

“I think humans are intuitively supposed to be collecting and eating wild food and are tired of being told what is appropriate,” she said. “It’s an act of defiance, as well as empowerment, to identify and collect food away from institutions like money or industry.”

Flanjak also talked to me about how “foraged” has become a buzzword and when a product is affixed with a sales label it is “ advertised to a specific kind of hipster.” However, she maintains that the appeal of foraging is growing. “It’s not just superficial,” she said boldly. “Foraging is an exciting, inspiring, satisfying, and delicious activity.”

An illustration of local plants drawn by Lori Snyder
Illustrations: Lori Snyder

With a quick search, I could have found “the benefits of foraging” on the Internet, but I wanted to hear what local foragers thought of searching for wild food in southern B.C.

Because of B.C.’s rich forests and outdoorsy culture, the region is teeming with knowledgeable and kind people who have been sharing their foraging practices for some time. Alongside both Snyder and Flanjak, we have Andy MacKinnon, author of Plants of the Pacific Northwest and the vice president of the South Vancouver Island Mycological Society, Kyle Pearce, the founder of Spirit Quest Adventures, a meditation and nature tour company, Dr. Michelle Nelson, a Bowen Island-based scientist and author of The Urban Homesteading Cookbook, and Nature’s Chef Tom Kral, a private holistic chef based in Sooke on Vancouver Island, on the unceded territory of the T’Sou-ke Nation.

“Foraging is an excellent way to get to know the environment that you live in, and to better understand the seasons and what is available when in your local landscape,” says Nelson. “It improves food security and self-sufficiency, and can be a great way to meet your neighbours and build community.”

Other thoughts from the group include time spent outdoors connecting and appreciating nature (especially for those foraging in an urban setting), removing and eating invasive species, accessing nutritional and medicinal properties, knowledge, and gaining access to foods that aren’t often available.

Identifying the bounty that can be found in the parks, backyards, alleys and forests of B.C. can feel overwhelming, so Snyder recommends picking two or three items in your backyard or on your street that resonate with you. (See her beautiful hand-drawn list for ideas.)

“Learn them really well and know their lookalikes. From there you can find new things on a new street, and learn them really well,” Snyder says. “It’s a lifelong learning process.”

Despite the benefits of urban foraging there are a number of complications. Indigenous land rights and sustainability are major concerns. If wild foods and medicines continue to increase in popularity, will foraging practices negatively impact plant abundance and existence as well as the Indigenous communities that rely on the plants for their cultural and medicinal purposes? Many argue that foraging already does. The simple answer for individuals who just want to harvest for themselves is to not look far from home.

“I think we should be looking in our own backyard before harvesting elsewhere,” says Kral. “You would be surprised how many things are around you to use as food or medicine.”

However, what about people who want to branch out of their backyard into urban parks and forests? What about businesses that profit by selling foraged goods to restaurants, grocery stores and at markets?

Beyond sustainability, there are health implications with foraged and wildcrafted goods. “This is a really sticky situation,” says Flanjak. “I’ve come to the realization that it is dangerously unregulated. This means any noob can pick a plant, market it as something delicious, and sell it, unidentified by an expert, to restaurants to be consumed by the masses. The way to get around this is to trust your supplier and buy from experts and First Nations people.”

Again, a simple solution: if you want to forage, you must have a licence. In the interim (since that’s not currently the case in B.C.) people will have to get educated, forage responsibly, and hope others do the same. “Study more,” says Flanjak. “Understand ecology and the role plants and fungi play in the whole system. Learn how to harvest in ways that encourage regeneration and healthy regrowth, possibly even influencing more abundance in the future. For example, pruning wild fruit trees encourages more energy to be drawn toward the buds the following year, which means a healthier tree structure and more fruit.”

There’s also concern that settlers are foraging on unceded Indigenous territories under stewardship of First Nations. Currently in B.C., non-Indigenous people can’t forage in provincial or regional parks, but they can harvest on Crown land (land owned by the government, though it is often unceded). Again, this situation could potentially be regulated with licensing, if the governing body was run by or largely represented with First Nations herbalists and elders. However, before that happens, the solution: ask permission.

“If, like me, you want to learn how to connect with this land, learn from, and eat from it, please ask and pay First Nations people for their expertise,” says Flanjak. “Also, use Google. I know this seems ridiculous, but not everyone has time to teach you why it’s racist to strip the bark from cedar if you didn’t grow up doing it. If you see something that seems remarkable, chances are that it is, and you should learn about it and respect it—there will be lots of information on it somewhere,” she says.

Lori Snyder adds to the conversation. “Everyone should have the opportunity to forage for food, as our ancestors once did,” she says. “Just ask for permission.”

An illustration of local plants for foraging drawn by Lori Snyder

One of the biggest potential drawbacks of foraging: accidentally consuming something deadly. In October 2016, a three-year-old boy died after he ate a “death cap” mushroom he found in downtown Victoria, steps from a sidewalk in a residential area. It is the first recorded death in B.C. from a death cap mushroom (one of the deadliest mushrooms in the world, responsible for 90 per cent of mushroom-related deaths). The death cap is not native to B.C. and first appeared in Victoria approximately eight years ago with imported hardwoods. It is more common on boulevards than forested areas.

“There are only a handful of deadly plants and fungi that ruin the magic of wildcrafting,” says Flanjak. “Don’t let fear talk you out of learning.” Education is key here—from municipalities, in schools, on trails, in the media, and self-directed education for individuals, training, and licensing for larger scale ops. Some suggestions from our group of pros? Focus on well-known plants, eat small amounts, join an in-person or online group where you can ask questions, read books, study the most deadly lookalikes of what you’re after, and, most importantly, don’t consume unidentified plants or mushrooms.

With better licensing, policy change, and education reform, could B.C. become a North American leader in responsible foraging and wildcrafting? No doubt there’s a lot of work to do. Members of Victoria’s Gather, a community-based educational resource, want to lobby city council to change policy.

“We hope to form partnerships with local urban farms and community gardens that would allow foraging in mutually agreed designated spaces with appropriate safety measures in place,” says Danielle Prohom Olsen, one of Gather’s founders. “If we can get this accomplished then we will have more grounds—and hopefully support—to move forward in an effort to institute larger change at the government level.”

After an hour or so of walking around Hinge Park, Snyder hugged me goodbye and I thought about that Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I apologize for the idealism—it’s the thankful-I-moved-west vibes talking.

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Learn more about Lori Snyder’s Earth Company.