A reader asked recently what I thought of food foraging—picking herbs, edible natives, and weedy species that occur around town on public lands. Sounds fine to me; if you can pick a sprig of rosemary on your way through the park, why not? Harvesting dandelion greens from the parking strip sounds innocent enough doesn’t it? I’d have to agree, but also begin the dialog about moderation. What if every one of the hundreds of visitors to that park plucked some rosemary? Wouldn’t there be a point where too much pruning would damage the plant? Yes, there would. So carefully clipping might be okay, but bringing along a trowel is probably not a good idea.
It is of utmost importance that you know what you are harvesting. Identifying the plant correctly may be a matter of life and death. There are plenty of guides to the more common edibles to be found in our area. Edible and Useful Plants of California by Catherine Bringle Clarke is a good start, and Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West by Gregory Tilford is a classic. Also well liked is The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer. Even better, watch for classes in edible plant identification through SBCC Adult Education or the Botanic Garden.
Another consideration is whether the plants have been grown without pesticides or herbicides. In Santa Barbara, most of the public property is now managed with as few of these inputs as possible. City and county parks are all members of the Santa Barbara County Regional IPM Coalition, but if in doubt, don’t assume that toxic chemicals have not been in use. Public places are also subject to all sorts of public abuse. Pets may be restricted to a particular park or area, but who hasn’t seen a loose dog frolicking (and more) where they shouldn’t. Proximity to major roadways may also affect the healthfulness of this type of produce. Pollutants have been shown to be in higher concentrations near streets and highways.
It was the second part of his question, though, that gave me pause. The reader asked about the ethics of picking fruit that hangs on branches outside someone’s private property. Here, the law definitely is not on the side of the forager. The fruit tree is private property, and it doesn’t matter where it hangs; it and its fruit belong to the owner. Some foragers talk about a legal term called usufruct—“the right to use or enjoy the fruits of an estate or other thing belonging to another.” In this, I think our more militant foragers may have misinterpreted this fairly outdated concept. It does apply to the members of a community who hold property in common, so that all the harvest from that property is also available to each individual. In rural parts of Mexico, villagers may hold an ejido in common and divide both the labor and the fruits of that labor. In urban California, I doubt that any homeowner would find the concept to apply.
A little courtesy goes a long way to satisfying both the urge to forage and the need to respect private property. For example, if you regularly pass by an orange tree whose owners never seem to pick the fruit, screw up your courage, put on your friendliest face, and knock on the door. Offer to pick some fruit for the owner in exchange for a modest portion for yourself. You may be surprised at the reception you get.