Where the wild things are: Foraging in Ontario

Harvesting is celebrated as a way to reconnect with nature and food — but does it put wild plants at risk?
By Jordan Whitehouse - Published on Jun 10, 2020
American ginseng is one of the plants listed as endangered in Ontario. (Wikipedia/Drginseng )

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BATH — It’s mid-February, and Ruthie Cummings, along with her dog, a chocolate Lab named Lou, is out scouting. She’s on a farm outside Bath, just west of Kingston, looking for such plants as oyster mushrooms, grapevines, and raspberry bushes. “Oh, and look at that,” she says, pointing to a bull thistle poking out of crusted snow. “When these are still very green, they’re spikey, but you can peel the stalk, and it’s like having artichoke hearts. Really good. I’ll be back.”

Cummings has been foraging — basically, harvesting wild plants — for as long as she can remember. She’d forage with her mother for greens, berries, and fruit. She first found an edible mushroom, a puffball, at the age of six. While American Euell Gibbons is often credited with sparking the modern foraging movement with his 1962 book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the practice has gained mainstream appeal more recently. Long-time foragers such as Cummings say that popular spots are getting ever busier. It’s become both a popular pastime and a signal of high culture — celebrity chef René Redzepi’s foraging-friendly Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, was named the “best restaurant in the world” four times by Restaurant magazine.

Foraging is celebrated as a way to reconnect with nature and food. And it’s serving another role during the COVID-19 pandemic: isolated springtime activity. “I’ve been publishing on my website a Boreal foraging calendar every two weeks as an activity for everyone to do while social distancing,” Cummings says. “I’m encouraging people to forage as a means to supplement their cupboards.”

But, experts say, novice foragers should research before they venture out. All of that picking, digging, and plucking might put plants at risk and decrease biodiversity in some areas of the province.

Verena Kulak, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, conducts research within the school’s Resilience and Environment Stewardship Network. She is particularly concerned about the over-foraging of such plants as American ginseng and wild leeks in the Carolinian life zone — an area stretching from Toronto to Windsor that has more endangered and rare species than any other in Canada. “It’s not that all foraging is bad,” she says. “But when a lot of people are doing it in fragile areas, we have to ask: Is it really worth it to uproot wild plants to get this experience?”

Kulak says that plants have varying ability to withstand heavy foraging. For example, if there are 50 wild-leek plants in an area, and each takes six or seven years to mature, then 10 visitors grabbing three plants a day is potentially damaging. But a lack of research makes the limit difficult to quantify, she says: “Since we do not have studies specifically looking at foraging rates and behaviours at any scales — square areas, province, parks boundaries, etc., it is hard to make a solid argument about what ‘a lot’ means in general terms.”  

Still, some governments have tried to curb the practice. By 1995, the over-foraging of wild leeks had become such a problem in Quebec that the province instituted stringent rules. Anyone caught with more than 50 bulbs can be fined a minimum of $500.

In Ontario, plant foraging is allowed on Crown land unless the forager wants exclusive use or associated occupational authority, for which they would have to apply to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Foraging is prohibited in provincial parks without proper authorization and also in conservation reserves, unless the forager is harvesting for personal consumption. Some municipalities, such as the City of Toronto, ban foraging in city-run parks, forests, and ravines. The province prohibits the harvesting of any plant listed as endangered, threatened, or extirpated.

Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks, says that the ministry is not aware that any of the 75 plant species at risk in Ontario are  categorized as such solely because of foraging. He added, though, that “a number of species at risk are threatened (at least in part) by illegal harvest, collection, or poaching. For example, this would include American Ginseng.”

Cummings says that, on a local level, some areas have been completely stripped of American ginseng and wild leeks and that trees are killed by people looking for chaga mushrooms. “I put it down to greed and lack of education,” she says, adding that some foragers are trying to make a profit and don’t care about plants, trees, or the larger ecology. Others, she says, simply don’t know how to forage safely and sustainably.

Jonathan Forbes, a board member with the Ontario Forest and Freshwater Foods Association and the founder of Forbes Wild Foods, a Toronto-based company that distributes foraged foods, says that, while wild leeks are abundant in some northern areas of the province, that’s no longer the case in such places as the Niagara Escarpment. Parts of Manitoulin Island, Grey County, and eastern Ontario have been stripped as well. “Once people see it, they think it’s free, and they just go after it, so it’s the attitude towards it,” he says. “And there’s not much done by the provincial government to tell people about what should be protected and what shouldn’t be protected.”     

A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry told TVO.org via email that, when it comes to many forageable plants (or non-timber forest resources), “the level of interest and activity (collection for personal and/or commercial use) is relatively low, thereby limiting the potential for environmental impacts, so there are currently no restrictions on the collection of most NTFR for personal and/or commercial use.”

Experts say, though, that this policy is not based on data. Kulak says she has come across very little academic research regarding foraging in Ontario: “And there are a lot of questions. For example, I’m interested in learning about the behavioural side, so: Why and who is foraging for what? And getting actual numbers could help visualize the human action on our area.”

When asked whether the ministry has conducted research concerning the potential environmental impacts of foraging in Ontario, the spokesperson provided only studies involving the plant Canada yew; none of them relates to the scope of foraging damage.

There is some information out there for prospective foragers. The conservation organization Ontario Nature provides sustainable foraging guidelines; for example, it recommends collecting only 5 per cent of any individual patch of a species within a maximum of 25 per cent of an area. Forbes Wild Foods advocates “progressive harvesting,” which involves spreading seeds, removing invasive species, and reintroducing natives. 

But all of these guidelines come with caveats that relate to the plant and the area. That’s why education about forageable plants, their propagation periods, and the area being foraged is so important, Cummings says: “I’d love to see something like graduated foraging licensing happen, almost like a driver’s licence, where you to have to take the classes, follow the books, and get a beginner’s, immediate, advanced.”  

Back on the farm near Bath, Cummings spots a patch of wild asparagus near an old red barn and explains that, if it has only one stalk, you don’t pick it — two stalks, you take one.  “You know, we’re surrounded by these wild plants to forage in this province,” she says. But it might not always be that way, she adds. “You have to treat it as a forest garden, and like any garden, it’s about making sure it comes back every year.”

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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