The Great Food Foraging Feast

Something kind of wonderful happens when you open your mind to finding food outside of the grocery store (or farmer’s market or even local farm stand). You realize that food is all around you. All over the place. And it’s free.  Sometimes it in a neighbor’s or relative’s yard and you just have to bring your good manners and patience to pick and harvest–and likely the courtesy of sharing the bounty. Sometimes it’s in your own backyard and you just have to learn to recognize it and let it grow. Often times, though, it’s in the great “beyond” –that other space that is on some property you don’t know to whom it belongs. Yes, you have to be careful. I don’t advocate trespassing–well, not when you know its trespassing.  I also don’t advocate harvesting in places where it is illegal to do so–such as the forest preserves in my area. However, there are a couple of places you can start. Check out There might be lots of forageable fruit around you just waiting for your clever little hands. Often times these trees, vines, and bushes are found on public or private lands and the poster will let you know whether the activity is condoned.  Also, join groups of people that advocate local food, slow food, foraging and green topics.  What you will often find is people that are willing to share information and, also, their goodies and secrets, be it garden grown vegetables or tree fruit. Finally, just talk about this with friends and family.  They will know a guy who knows a guy… and before you know it, they’ll put you in contact with peach tree ready for picking.

Things I have recently harvested: Sumac berries, wild grapes, apples, pears, purslane, lemons, linden flowers, crabapples and mint.

The sumac bushes were on a vacant piece of property that I walk by multiple times a week. I dried the berries and ground them to be used as a citrusy spice. I also gave some to my friend to experiment with his beer making.

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Apples! I found a lonely apple tree with giant yellow-green apples in front of my local park district office. The apples were just a little higher than I could reach. I found a fruit-picker close by less than a mile from my house on Craigslist (seriously, it was like I was supposed to pick apples from that tree) and went back and picked lots of large, beautiful sweet green apples. I also foraged pears on a vacant lot and made my husband stand by being just a little embarrassed to be seen with me. I made an apple pear sauce that my husband was not embarrassed to eat. However, the crabapples I grabbed off a neighbor’s tree proved too tart for him.  I thought it was pretty tasty, though I did need to add A LOT of sugar.  I made a pretty crabapple, apple crisp.


I picked peaches from a tree hanging over a fence in the alley behind my husband’s office and I found grapes growing along fences and trees in a trail nearby.  I put the peaches in our morning smoothies and made grape jelly with the wild grapes.

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And purslane is just purslane…once you recognize it it is everywhere just waiting to be added to your salads.  Linden trees are planted in abundance as parkway (street) trees in our subdivisions.  I picked some of the fragrant flowers this year to experiment with making my own tea blends.   It is pleasantly sweet and I need to pick a lot more next year!

Also, earlier this spring, I picked mulberries, sour cherries, black raspberries. All of it was FREE.  I found a wild foods class through a local organization and found out how to identify wild parsnips and learned that I could eat (and enjoy) violets, stinging nettles, garlic mustard and curly dock.

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I wrote very generally about foraging a couple of years ago in my post Picky Eaters (yes, yes, it is a very clever title, thank you) and have since made it a goal to expand my horizons in my “wild” food knowledge.  Not only have I done so, but I have slowly brought my friends and family along for the ride.  When you start to open your eyes to this, you will see food all around you. And when you start talking about it, you make it normal and you allow the people that make the decisions about whether to-pick-or-not-to-pick see how foraging can be incorporated into public green spaces.  You can start conversations about creating local food forests, increasing community garden space, encouraging back yard gardening and supporting plant and food education.  Yes… all of that does happen.  It may not happen quickly, but it has to start somewhere.

In Picky Eaters, I pointed out that Illinois State Park regulations allow people to collect “fungi, nuts and berries on Department owned, leased or managed lands where such collection would not be incompatible with resource management activities…and where such collection is for personal use only and not for re-sale.”17 IAC 1/10(a) (3).

Illinois appears to be a bit ahead of the curve on this one.  A quick search did not yield a lot of results for being allowed to forage on State Park property of other states, though I am sure they are out there.  However, it does appear that much of the National Forest system allows it.  This appears under Region 2’s (Colorado/Rocky Mountains) Frequently asked questions:

Can I pick berries in the National Forest? Do I need a permit? Yes, you may pick berries for personal use without a permit. Strawberries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, serviceberries and chokecherries are all popular berries to pick. You may need to get to them before the bears do though!

Though some specific national forest sites within region 2 limit that to what you can eat that day/night.  Many areas of the National Forest allow you forage more than your “daily allowance” with a permit.  For example, in the Mt. Hood National Forest, you can pick up to 3 gallons a year of berries with a free permit, and for more than 3 gallons, you just need to pay $20.00.  You can also pick mushrooms! See this link for more information.  It looks like you just have to explore your region and the rules.

When knowledge about the food around us becomes normalized, great things start to happen.  It is kind of surprising that the National park is on the forefront of this.  In a research paper funded in part by the US Forest Service, researchers reported that in cities like Seattle, which has a vibrant local food culture, the movement has encouraged the city’s park district to not only maintain old, neglected apple orchards, but also to establish a food forest open to all and to change overall regulations to allow foraging in small quantities.  And Philadelphia “has followed a similar path and is supporting efforts by the non-profit organisation, Philadelphia Orchard Project, to establish public orchards in sites throughout the city, including revitalisation of the Woodford Orchard in East Fairmont Park. The re-establishment of fruit picking in Fairmont Park brings the city back full circle to the late 1800s, when the park’s commissioners welcomed thousands of school children every Nutting Day, a local holiday at the time, to the park to harvest chestnuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts.”

In my own little world, I decided to just start talking about it and learning more about the food around me. I was compelled by this  TED talk by Pam Warhurst.  In the video, she talks about how they just did it.  They didn’t wait around for the city or a local board to do it.  They just started doing it.  So I ripped out a lot more grass and started planting edible landscaping right near the side walk where people can see it and ask about it if I am outside.  When I told some acquaintances I was converting my landscaping to edible landscaping, I got three free raspberry bushes! And my husband told me about the peach tree behind behind his office (in ten years he has never noticed it).   I inspired friends to pick mulberries and wild raspberries and even got the fruits of their labor when they made some wild berry jam.  I appealed to my local library to include more education on gardening and encouraged them to think about putting in edible landscaping.  They recently replaced a dead Ash tree with a nut tree and are putting in a permaculture food garden (Food Forest). I helped plant this Bartlett Pear tree yesterday along with ten other fruit and nut trees!  Next spring we will plant raspberry bushes, perennial vegetables and annual root crops!


The library also hosted a Produce Swap and Gardener’s social.   Now, it’s not without its challenges.  My community is not intrinsically about green living and local food. In fact, there is no farmers’ market, no garden club, no restaurants that focus on local foods.  It is an odd mix of large cookie-cutter subdivisions, rental properties and apartments.  We have a high amount of poverty and a large Spanish-speaking population. The first produce swap was a failure.  The second one was also a failure–though an interested person other than me walked through the door and a community partner stopped by and chatted with us. We discussed a local school that had planted a garden and talked about making the event more accessible. So, the third event was expanded to include a social hour and garden discussion as well as a swap of plants and seeds.  We had three swappers and one interested person stop by and even though she didn’t have anything to share, she walked away with fennel seeds to plant for next spring.  I gave away a lot of produce and came home with moss for my flagstone mini-patio and lavender.  We discussed a lot of ideas for next year and started an email list. It is definitely a slow process, but I am exited about the possibilities.

Please, please share your experiences with finding the hidden food around you. Share local projects and your personal knowledge! Also, if you know of a place that allow you to pick from an old apple tree or if you know of a trail with grape vines… add it to!

Oh– and as a precaution, never eat something you don’t recognize and know with 100% certainty is edible.




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