The Art of the Public Forage

There’s something about free food that I am coded to respond to. It must be in my genes–in my family, saying no to food was pretty much the ultimate heresy. So I guess my urge to pick things off trees and squirrel away seeds in my pockets isn’t much of a stretch.

I usually gather my treasures in alleys and back roads, places where no one is likely to come after me with a stick. But this time, I had something a little more ambitious in mind.

Along some stretches of recently developed public walkway, the city has planted large patches of wild roses. As I was biking by the other day, I took note of the hundreds of enormous rose hips beginning to ripen. If you aren’t aware, rose hips are the fruit of the rose, growing when the rose flower has shed its petals. Rose hips are ridiculously high in Vitamin C, and taste something like a cross between apples and guavas.

Now, I’ve seen rose hips before. But these–these looked more like cherry tomatoes than the dry withered things I had come to associate with this fruit. Alluring, juicy, shiiiiny….So this afternoon, on my way home from work, I determined to gather enough to make rose hip wine.

It was an interesting social experiment. I was half expecting someone to yell at me, but the closest I got to that was a mini lecture from a Japanese woman, telling me not to take too many. I smiled, nodded, and told her she was absolutely right. The goal of foraging is to take only what you need, and to leave the plant as if you were never there.

Everyone else who spoke to me wanted to know what I was picking, what the fruit tasted like, or (in the case of two older women) whether I was making jam or tea. Two twenty-something girls thought they might be tomatoes. Two European tourists wanted to know which ones to pick. One woman told me stories about her mother bribing friends to help pick dandelions for dandelion wine, and informed me that you can make wine out of anything, even tea. Perhaps because I was picking something unusual, I was quite the curiosity.

All in all, it was delightful. I’ll start the wine this evening, and possibly, if I have enough bounty, make jam as well.

Have you foraged in public? If not, would you ever try it?

My Rules for Public Foraging

1. Be polite. Don’t trespass or trample over gardens, and if someone asks you to leave, move along.

2. Be friendly. Smile at people who are watching you, and be ready to answer questions about what you’re doing. Also be ready to listen to the marvelous stories of those who have done it before.

3. Be conservative. Take only what you need, and never take all of what’s growing in one particular spot. Try to leave it as though you were never there.

4. Be smart. Check to make sure that the plants you are harvesting haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. Don’t harvest near the road.

5. Be adventurous. Take a walk with an open mind, and see what is out there for you to sample. If you’re not sure what something is, take a picture or a sample and look it up when you get home to make sure it’s safe.

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