Wild foraging is one of the hottest new trends. The delicious wild flavors of white sage, elderberry, walnut, toyon, and other California native plants have been “discovered”, and people are heading into Southern California’s remnant wild lands to gather ingredients with the flavors and aromas many people now crave. Problem is, our wild lands are already stressed from drought, invasive non-native plants, and population pressure from Southern California’s approximately 23 million people. When we forage native plants in our wild lands, we decrease their ability to renew themselves. We also diminish habitat and deprive wildlife of the food needed for survival. Do foragers know that up to 90 percent of all leaf-eating insect species, such as caterpillars of butterflies, can eat only native plants? Do foragers think of their impact on wildlife when they remove acorns, elderberries and other native plant foods? People have other options — wildlife does not.
In a world that is in the initial throes of a sixth mass extinction, this one caused by people erasing habitat and negatively impacting the biosphere in all sorts of other ways, foraging native plants in what’s left of the wild is irresponsible. Healthy functioning food webs and ecosystems depend upon native plants.
Southern California is a biodiversity hotspot: One-third of its native plants are found nowhere else in the world. We should cherish that biodiversity by leaving our wild lands intact and growing the native plants at home or in community gardens. People could also farm the native plants, making hedgerows of various species that yield the desired seasonal ingredients. Elderberry, toyon, and Catalina cherry orchards surrounded by hedgerows of white sage, buckwheat, and manzanita — why not? Agriculture started with the realization that, for a given population, foraging was inadequate and unsustainable. For supplying ourselves with the flavors and aromas of Southern California’s native plants, it is no different.
Southern California is also a megalopolis. If even an infinitesimal percentage of the population takes no more than 10-20 percent of what they find in the wild — one of the foremost rules of foraging — our already tattered wild lands will be harmed even further. We need to respect the nature of Southern California by renewing our urban and suburban spaces with native plants and foraging in our gardens, not in what’s left of the wild. Our best course of action is to landscape with the native plants we crave, creating more habitat, supporting biodiversity, and decreasing our landscape water use. We should convert our urban and suburban spaces from the relatively sterile, superficially green landscapes of mostly non-native plants to native gardens that offer sustenance to bees, butterflies, birds, lizards, and people, among others. Sustenance for all.
In my backyard garden, when my daughters were young, they foraged from our ridiculously fecund ‘Dana Point’ buckwheat, golden currant, and western elderberry. Before we left for a hike in the local mountains, we picked a few elderberry and mugwort leaves and put them in our pockets, just in case we ran into poison oak. Californians must similarly transform their urban and suburban landscapes to supply the native ingredients they desire. Many native plants are suitable for containers – a vast yard is not necessary. Visit a local nursery to purchase the native plants and, if the nursery does not carry them, ask that they begin to keep them in stock.
For native plant ingredients, we must get beyond the extractive mentality that we decry when it pertains to coal, fracking, and petroleum. We must recognize that given the population of Southern California, wild foraging is yet another incarnation of extraction, accelerating loss of species and damaging habitat. It’s not just the big corporations that are the extractors — it’s us, in the wild, in search of native ingredients for our latest recipe.
We must leave our wild lands intact and preserve them for future generations. We need places where people can experience the incredible beauty that is the nature of Southern California. We can enjoy wild flavors, but we must enjoy these flavors ethically. To do so, we must grow local and plant native. We must bring this cornucopia of “new” aromas, flavors, and ingredients into our lives through revitalizing the places we live with the native plants of our region. The foraging movement is an understandable outcome of people yearning to reconnect with the natural world. Let’s become even more intimate with the nature of where we live by cultivating the wild ingredients we desire. Let’s respond to the natural world in a way that is not reminiscent of the rapaciousness of the past. Let’s honor and enjoy the nature of place through cuisine that not only celebrates our terroir but also celebrates the human ability to change and create a better world.
Lisa Novick is director of Outreach for the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Sun Valley, California.