A recent article in the New York Times about foraging in city parks is food for thought. People collect mushrooms in Golden Gate Park (Google “picking wild mushrooms in golden gate park). Not sure what else. Here’s what’s going on in N.Y. parks:
“Maybe it is the spiraling cost of food in a tough economy or the logical next step in the movement to eat locally. Whatever the reason, New Yorkers are increasingly fanning out across the city’s parks to hunt and gather edible wild plants, like mushrooms, American ginger and elderberries.
Now parks officials want them to stop. New York’s public lands are not a communal pantry, they say. In recent months, the city has stepped up training of park rangers and enforcement-patrol officers, directing them to keep an eye out for foragers and chase them off.
“If people decide that they want to make their salads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chipmunks,” said Maria Hernandez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages Central Park.
Plants are not the only things people are taking. In Prospect Park in Brooklyn last week, park rangers issued four summonses to two people for illegal fishing. Although officials say such poaching is not widespread, park advocates say taking fish and turtles for food is not uncommon, and some have reported evidence of traps designed to snare wildfowl.
Foraging used to be a quirky niche, filled most notably by “Wildman” Steve Brill, who for years has led foraging tours in the Northeast, including in Central Park. (He now sells a foraging app, too.) But foragers today are an eclectic bunch, including downtown hipsters, recent immigrants, vegans and people who do not believe in paying for food.
Even those who would never dream of plucking sassafras during a walk in the park can read about it. The magazine Edible Manhattan has an “Urban Forager” column (as does The New York Times’s City Room blog). And the current issue of Martha Stewart Living features a colorful spread about foraging on Ms. Stewart’s property in Maine — but at least all those plants belong to her.
While it has long been against the rules to collect or destroy plants in the city’s parks, with potential fines of $250, the city has preferred education to enforcement. “It’s listed in the prohibited uses of the parks, and the simple reason is that if everyone went out and collected whatever it is — a blackberry or wildflower — the parks couldn’t sustain that,” said Sarah Aucoin, director of urban park rangers for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Officials have not gone as far as posting signs in Central Park that foraging is prohibited, for fear they would serve as arrows pointing to the most delectable areas. Ms. Hernandez of the park conservancy would take a reporter on a tour of edible plants only on the condition that their locations not be revealed.
For their part, regular foragers — especially those who write and teach about the practice — say that they are sensitive to the environment and that they focus on renewable items like leaves and berries. Besides, they say, much of their quarry comes from invasive species that squeeze out native plants.
“You’re almost doing the ecosystem in the park a favor by harvesting them,” said Leda Meredith, who wrote “The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget,” which includes a chapter on foraging. Ms. Meredith, who leads tours in Prospect Park, says 70 percent of the plants she collects are nonnative and invasive.
“Japanese knotweed is very invasive, and it’s in season in April,” she said. It can be used like rhubarb, she added.
Marie Viljoen, a garden designer who writes the foraging column for Edible Manhattan, argued that parks officials were overstating the problem. “It’s a little alarmist to think that a park is going to be mowed down like a herd of deer went through,” she said.
Parks officials counter that they are more worried about the novices and say that certain plants, like American ginger and ramps, are especially vulnerable since they are yanked out, root and all. Park managers point out, too, that there are programs to weed out invasive plants.
Then there is the danger of poisonous and toxic plants. “Not everyone knows how to use these herbs and spices,” Ms. Hernandez said.
Some natural areas outside New York City accommodate foragers. Sandy Hook in New Jersey, which is part of the federal Gateway National Recreation Area, limits the harvesting of beach plum fruit, berries and mushrooms to “one quart container per person, per day,” said John Harlan Warren, a spokesman for the recreation area.
In New York’s state parks, the attitude seems more relaxed as well. “It’s illegal, but the occasional blueberry picker is not hauled away in handcuffs,” said Tom Alworth, deputy commissioner for natural resources for the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Aside from issuing summonses, the city has not taken any recent legal action. It did go after Mr. Brill for foraging in Central Park once before: he was arrested in the mid-1980s, and it turned into a public relations debacle for the parks department. The charges were later dropped.
After appearing on television talk shows and receiving sympathetic news coverage, Mr. Brill was actually hired by the department as a naturalist and led foraging tours for a few years. He has since continued his tours privately, and says he is tolerated by Central Park’s rangers. “They usually wave at me,” he said.
Even some fellow foragers look askance at Mr. Brill. One of his tours in 2009 attracted 78 people, an all-time high. “I see him as the vaudeville showman of foraging,” Ms. Viljoen said. “I get nervous when I see that many people storming the park.”