Foraging fun

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Sorrel! My new favourite leafy green!

One of my favourite things about summer in the UK was the abundance of berries that adorn the paths of Cardiff. When I first arrived in Cardiff last year, I saw some people picking blackberries along the Taff Trail. When I asked them whether it was okay to eat the berries, they looked a bit confused and responded ‘of course!’. (In Australia blackberry plants are considered a horrendous nuisance and are sprayed with poison to prevent their spread. Apparently this is not the case in the UK.) For the rest of that summer, and this year too, I have been making the most of the fact that delicious berries grow freely throughout the city in Cardiff.

But blackberries aren’t the only edible plant growing around Cardiff. I have now been on two foraging walks with Green City Events, and I have learnt so much about the edible plants in Bute Park. (I was on crutches for the first one and missed a lot of the explanations because I was so slow! The second one was much more enjoyable – both because I could hear all the explanations and also because it was berry season!)

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Mystery berries! I can’t remember what these ones were called, but they were quite tasty.

Even after these two walks I am still very much a novice at foraging, but I am a big fan for several reasons:

  • It is about as zero waste as it gets. Probably pointing out the obvious, but plants don’t grow in the wild in little plastic packages. They also don’t have rubber bands around them, or little plastic stickers. And even with my limited attempts to grow my own food, there is some waste generated from packages of seeds or potting mix. While the options to source zero waste food across Cardiff are growing and supermarkets generally across the UK are slowly switching to less packaged food – plucking something straight out of the ground or off a tree is a sure way to know that there hasn’t been any packaging or waste involved.
  • It doesn’t require any inputs (or effort!). Nature does all the hard work of growing the food, without the help of fossil fuels, chemical fertilisers or pesticides. If you are reading this blog then I’m sure you are well aware of the consequences of human meddling in the flows of carbon through the Earth’s systems (yep, climate change, that’s the one!), but we have also been messing with the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus. Both nitrogen and phosphorus are essential for plants to grow, so industrial agriculture uses vast amounts of fertilisers to increase crop yields. However this is happening at such a large scale that we are currently exceeding the Earth’s ability to cope with the increased flows of these elements to the biosphere and oceans. Of course, not all forms of agriculture rely on chemical inputs, but it is sometimes difficult to know.
  • It avoids detrimental impacts along the supply chain. Speaking of things that are difficult to know, as a conscious consumer, it is really difficult to know what the best option is in terms of food choices to reduce the impact on people and the planet. For many years I followed a vegetarian diet and then didn’t think too much more about the ethics or sustainability of my food choices. But it isn’t just meat production that can have detrimental environmental and social outcomes. Recently I had a conversation with work friends about how it is impossible to eat anything without feeling some kind of guilt about the impacts that it has caused. Particularly in the UK, where so many foods come from overseas, there are a myriad of concerns to keep track of – almonds are contributing to water scarcity in California, tomatoes are picked by exploited migrant workers in Italy, avocados are leading to deforestation in Mexico, palm oil is causing devastation to orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia, and apparently we are doing everything wrong! At least with foraging the supply chain only has two stakeholders – nature and me!
  • It promotes connection to nature and mindfulness. I have recently been making an effort to incorporate mindfulness into my day (this is definitely a work in progress, I am terrible at meditation!). I have found even just thinking about foraging promotes mindfulness because it encourages me to pay attention to the plants growing in streets and parks rather than distractedly passing by. Spending time in green spaces like parks is not only a very pleasant activity, but has been shown to have all kinds of benefits in terms of increased well-being and cognitive function. It also promotes a connection to nature in terms of awareness of the passing of seasons. While globalised food systems mean it is possible to eat tomatoes in the middle of winter, foraged foods can only be found at certain times of year. To me this just makes it all the more exciting when berry season rolls around again. 

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Chestnuts! As much as I adore roasted chestnuts, doing it yourself from scratch is an effort, let’s see if we can muster the required enthusiasm this year.

As wonderful as foraging is, I’m not suggesting that it is possible, or even desirable to entirely live on foraged foods. The foraging walks also taught me about the ethics and etiquette to foraging. Our tutor, Michele from Edible Landscaping, also emphasised the essential etiquette of foraging – leaving enough of any plant for nature to regenerate, and for wildlife to eat (as they don’t have the option to go to the local shops if a pesky human has picked all their food!).

I’m planning to make the most of the rapidly disappearing light in the evenings to put what I learnt at the recent Autumn foraging walk into practice. So if you see someone wandering around Bute Park randomly picking berries off trees – come say hi!

Related stories and resources:

  • Planetary boundaries. I mentioned that we are currently exceeding the Earth’s ability to cope with the increased flows of nitrogen and phosphorus to the biosphere and oceans. This is based on research into planetary boundaries by the Stockholm Resilience Institute. It is really interesting research – identifying ‘nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system’, and boundaries beyond which we increase the ‘risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes’.
  • Mothers of Invention. Episode five of the Mothers of Invention podcast is all about food! It is my absolute favourite podcast at the moment – highly recommend a listen.
  • Food freedom. Rob Greenfield is planning to spend an entire year only consuming what he can grow and forage. I’ll be fascinated to see how this progresses.
  • Food-related maps. Falling Fruit is a global directory which maps urban edibles around the world. There isn’t anything marked for Cardiff though – let’s see if we can change that! In one of my first blog posts I linked to Ripe Near Me, which shows the locations of edible fruit around Melbourne. If you are interested in growing food in Cardiff, Mapping Food by Transition Towns Cardiff shows the locations of allotments, community gardens and other foodie-related places around the city.

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Classic berries! One delightful summer morning I stopped on my ride to work to add some berries to what would otherwise have been a very boring breakfast. Such is the excitement of berry season in the UK!
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