Photo by Brian Kaiser

Food Beneath Your Feet

Foraging is a survival tactic no more.

If farm-to-table was the trend of the mid-2000s, then “forage-to-table” might be this decade’s newest darling of the foodie world. Foraging, the concept of finding edible vegetation in the wild, has been gaining in popularity as a hobby and is now finding its way into the kitchens of restaurants across the country. For those within city limits, urban foraging is the more appropriate term. Either way, it’s a delicate dance of adhering to the local laws and guidelines around foraging, learning to identify what’s safe to eat, and recognizing the importance of sustainability.

Simply put: next time you walk your dog in Goodale Park, resist the urge to start picking leaves for dinner. That’s not to say it isn’t doable for the layman, it just takes a bit of prep before you head out into the wilds of Columbus.

Which is where we picked Kate Hodges and Rachel Tayse, owners of Foraged & Sown, to be our urban garden guide.

Kate and Rachel make it their business to provide safe and sustainably foraged edibles to their customers. They’ve built up enough consumer trust with their regulars that they’ll sometimes show them phone pics to help identify a newly discovered mushroom in their backyard; they might walk up holding a leafy green spotted on last night’s walk around the neighborhood.

Kate and Rachel each came to foraging by their own path.

The former was always a lover of the outdoors and gardening, but it was the desire for knowledge and the security that comes with it that set her off into wild edible identification.  Spotting a berry tree in her new Grandview home’s backyard, identifying it became crucial since her small son would be playing in that backyard. Turns out, it was a serviceberry plant (also know as “juneberries”). Delicious and far from harmful, these berries can be found all over the neighborhoods of Columbus.

Rachel came to foraging by way of long backpacking trips around the United States.

On these trips, you’re limited to what you can carry, and she pointed out that generally means you’re not eating very many fresh foods. Foraging allowed her to take advantage of the environment around her.

“Knowing what you might be able to eat felt comfortable to me, and kind of exciting,” she said. “When you come upon wild blueberries, that’s a big deal. It’s a way to enjoy eating—which is why I eat.”

The best part? You don’t have to be in the wilderness to have that kind of experience—the main mission behind Foraged & Sown.

If you’re surprised that Columbus has much variety in the way of wild edibles, you just have to know where and what to look for.

Serviceberries are a plant native to this area, and they also happen to lend themselves to cultivation—which is why they’re commonly used in landscaping. “You’ll see them around almost any school or library,” Kate said.

Mulberry bushes, on the other hand, while also native to Columbus, are difficult to cultivate and tend to be pretty unruly—self-seeding and not overly attractive. But Rachel points out that they can be found wild all over the city, with Franklinton a particular hot spot.

The pawpaw, which grows on a small deciduous tree, is native to the eastern United States, but it looks like it’d be much more at home in South America, or some far-flung tropical island. Crack one open and you’ll find flesh that’s pale and white, or perhaps a deep orange, depending on its variety and degree of ripeness. When ready to eat, the texture is exceedingly soft and custard-like with an intense fruity flavor.

Both Kate and Rachel are careful to emphasize the unpredictability of flavor. Wild edibles are just that—wild. Sun exposure and rainfall are two factors that play heavily into the flavor within each plant.

Ethical concerns wind themselves through every aspect of foraging, and urban foraging in particular. First, legality.

In Columbus it is illegal to forage anything from public land. Kate points out that you’re safe so long as you stick to your own property, or private property that you have permission to forage. Some state parks in Ohio allow foraging of mushrooms, so long as it’s intended only for personal consumption, not for sale. Best practice? Check out the guidelines and restrictions for the area you intend to explore. That said, our city parks are a perfect place to practice identification—without harvesting—to hone your skills.

Sustainability is critically important to the continued bounty found in our communities. Regarding fruit specifically, “If it’s ripe and edible, you are not harming the plant or the environment in general by harvesting it.”

Rachel points out that wildlife, like birds and raccoons, will always beat us to the best fruit anyway. On the other hand, some edibles, like ramps, are extremely slow reproducers. If you come across a trove of ramps and harvest them all, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find any ramps in that spot the following year.

“We harvest between 5-10% and take mostly leaves, rather than the bulbs—and that’s where the community standard becomes so important,” Kate said. Ramps have become extremely trendy in the food world over the last several years. And that increased demand, coupled with their rarity, means restaurant owners will pay top dollar. It’s crucial that would-be foragers understand their relationship to the environment, and not be overzealous in meeting that demand if we want to continue enjoying ramps in the years to come. “There’s numerous areas in the United States where ramps have been completely wiped out,” Kate said.

Safety, perhaps the first concern to come to mind, is actually fairly simple to master. Generally speaking, with the exception of mushrooms, there aren’t many wild edibles that will do much damage to you. Rachel advises that anyone interested in foraging should arm themselves with three different sources that provide a confident identification. She recommends staying away from the internet as a main source, but does encourage use of the various Facebook foraging groups that exist, explaining “there are a lot of great wild edible identification groups that come back with IDs very quickly and very accurately.”

And our library system has a huge assortment of wild foraging reference books. Likening it to our innate ability to tell the difference between romaine lettuce and green cabbage, identifying wild edibles is no different—it just takes practice.

The other aspect of safety is understanding the environment in which you’re harvesting. Kate and Rachel have an advantage in knowing the people who own the land they forage, so they can rest assured that pesticides and other chemicals aren’t a factor. The safest way to embark into foraging? Check out your own front yard. “All you have to do is stop mowing your lawn, and things that you can eat are going to start growing,” explains Rachel. Give it a couple of weeks, and you’ll find more than just dandelions. Both women site wild garlic, salsify, and chanterelles as sprouting from their lawns when left alone for a bit. You can witness this first-hand by visiting Foraged & Sown’s upcoming open house at Kate’s home on July 16. Visitors will have a chance to see their cultivated areas, but also the wild spaces where they’ve intentionally left the land to it’s own devices.

Swing by their post at the Clintonville Farmer’s Market and you’ll have an opportunity to tap into their incredible wealth of knowledge—and don’t forget to pick up some of their foraged ramp finishing salt or cultivated fresh herbs while you’re there. For information on Kate and Rachel’s upcoming open house, visit foragedandsown.com, or their Facebook page.

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