Foraging in the Suburbs

Rose hips.
Last fall, I took my children to a small local park and noticed the ground was littered with rotten walnuts, still mostly in their shells. Later, on our walk home, I passed by a house with an old apple tree - surrounded by rotten fruit.

I find scenes like this sad. Both the walnuts and the apples started out as perfectly wholesome and nutritious food. But through neglect, that good food was allowed to waste. Part of me gets a little angry about that; there are plenty of people in the world who would love to have that food. But I'm just as much to blame as my neighbors. So this year, I've made a vow to help eliminate this sort of food waste. You can, too.

Who is the Food For?
It's perfectly fine to pick local food for yourself and your family and friends. But also consider donating some of the food - especially if it was picked on public property - back to the community through a local food sharing organization. Sometimes you may also share the food with a property owner; more on that in a moment.

Where to Forage
Start paying attention to trees and other plants in your area, all year long; it doesn't matter if you live in a city, the suburb, or the country. As you drive, walk, or bike around, notice if there's any vegetation bearing fruit or nuts. Make a mental note: Is the tree or bush on private property or public land?

Crab apples.
If it's on private property, be observant. If the fruit or nuts don't get picked promptly, or if you see them begin to fall to the ground and rot, knock on the door of the owner. Politely tell her you noticed the falling food; would she mind if you harvested it, if you give her a portion of what you gather? From what I can gather from folks who regularly do this sort of thing, the such property owners are frequently elderly and can't harvest the crops easily themselves. Or sometimes the owner doesn't know how to properly harvest the food, or the owner just isn't interested in putting in time to harvest it. Often the owners are glad to have someone harvest the food, rather it make a mess in their yard. (In some small town papers, owners actually advertise "you pick" free food, just to save them the trouble of cleaning up a crop that rots on their lawn.)

If you don't want to knock on doors, you are still free to harvest the food if it's fallen on the sidewalk. 

If the food is on public land, you don't need to ask for permission to pick it - although you might find resistance if you climb a tree.

Identifying Edibles
What if you're not sure the nuts or fruit the tree produces is edible? I suggest taking photos of the plant (including long shots of the entire plants and up close photos of the leaves and fruit) and doing a little research. Ideally, I'd send the photos to my local extension office for a positive I.D., but a thorough Internet search works, too. A great deal of public land food goes to waste because most people don't recognize it as food. For example, some people think crab apples are inedible - although they definitely are not.

Watch for Chemicals
You should use some care when foraging from trees and bushes in your neighborhood. For example, I wouldn't pick rose hips from public land unless I was certain the roses hadn't been sprayed with chemicals. You may certainly ask private owners if they've sprayed their fruit or nut bearing trees or bushes, but typically, if the crop is neglected, the answer will be "no." In addition, it's not wise to pick from plants right near a busy street. Plants tend to soak up the chemical fumes of vehicles.

Making Foraged Food Edible
Sometimes the real trick to making this sort of free food useable, however, is knowing how to harvest it. For example, we have lots of walnut trees in our area and a lot of people tell me the nuts from them aren't edible because they taste so bitter. However, through research, I've learned they are only bitter if the husks are left in place for more than a day or two. To harvest walnuts, you first have to clear away all the nuts that have fallen off the tree, then return the next day and harvest what's on the ground. Remove the husks, then dry the walnuts by putting them in mesh bags and hanging them in a warm (not hot) location for about 3 weeks.

Similarly, one neighbor told me her crab apples were poisonous. Oh contraire! Another neighbor called me crazy when I picked up the sour baby apples that fell from her tree in the spring, making room for the remaining fruit to grow large; but she was happy to learn they are quite useable.

So as you forage through your neighborhood, you may not only be saving food that can feed your community, you may be teaching your neighbors how to do it, too.

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