Sunday, October 16, 2011
"Wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants from their natural, or 'wild' habitat, for food or medicinal purposes. It applies to uncultivated plants wherever they are found, and is not necessarily limited to wilderness areas." -Wikipedia
I had always just called it 'picking berries,' but I learned recently that the act of gathering food in an uncultivated setting is actually called wildcrafting. Of course, humans have been wildcrafting since the dawn of our existence and only in the last century have Westerners forgotten their hunter/gatherer roots. Wildcrafting is now gaining a resurgence in popularity as people are searching for cheaper and healthier foods that are independent of the modern, corporate agricultural system. With rising food costs and an impending food crisis, it is important to scope out wildcrafting sources now in preparation for our uncertain future.
With an open mind and a bit of exploring, urbanites, suburanites, and country folk alike can find wildcrafting opportunities close to home. Although the official definition of wildcrafting includes only uncultivated plants, I consider cultivated plants that are abandoned or unmaintained to be worthy wildcrafting foods. City parks, peoples' yards, streets, near businesses, and uninhabited industrial areas are only a few of the urban spots to find cultivated or wild foods. Since moving to Bozeman, I've been having fun searching both in town and out in the mountains for free edible foods. Last Fall I picked wild rose hips as well as cultivated rose hips from a rosebush in a back alley then made rose hip sauce (high in vitamin C). I plan to pick more soon from the alley bush and dry them for making tea.
When a friend left on vacation during the height of raspberry season, I jumped on her invitation to pick from her bushes. She does nothing to maintain the bushes and the bushes weren't mine, so I consider the 8+ quarts that I picked to be wildcrafted. I also painstakingly picked 2 quarts of sour cherries from a tree in her yard. I froze them and plan to make a cherry dessert sometime this winter. There are sour cherry trees in peoples' yards all over town that I noticed were totally unpicked. If I didn't have my friend's tree to pick from, I think I would ask to pick from someone else's tree and I hardly doubt that they'd mind.
Bozeman has an extensive off-road running/biking path and I've spotted hops, chokecherries, asparagus, and service berries along the sides of the trails. This one popular in-town hill with a running trail on it was loaded this Summer with service berries. I thought that they were huckleberries at first, but was informed that they were service berries (they also go by many other names). We picked about 10 quarts and made two desserts and froze the rest for using in smoothies. Its pretty cool that these delicious berries grow on public land within walking distance of my apartment. Check out that incredible view from our service berry picking spot- that's the public library and the Bridger Mountains in the background.
When I went to Maine for vacation this August, I got back to my original wildcrafting roots. Up at the lake where my family's summer home is located, there were still lots of wild, high bush blueberries ready to be picked. In all of my years of living up there, I had never picked blueberries so late in the Summer, so Mark and I lucked out. We slowly canoed around the lake shore and stopped to pick blueberries from the boat. We also picked a ton of wild blackberries, which grow along the logging roads and in old cut areas of forest. We found one blackberry patch that seemed to go on forever. I'd never seen so many blackberries before.
Now back in Bozeman, I am engulfed in apple season. There are crab apples all around town, many in public places or beside businesses where nobody would mind if they were picked. I picked a big bag from a tree in a park across from City Hall and made my first ever crab apple jelly. Unfortunately, the jelly didn't quite jell and instead is a thick, sweet juice that I've been pouring into smoothies. There are tons of apple trees around town. I picked a bunch from a tree in an obscure corner of a school yard and plan to make apple butter soon. If I hadn't found this source, I think I may have mustered up the courage to ask a neighbor if I could pick the apples from their tree. I see so many apple trees in peoples' yards where the apples just fall to the ground and rot. If I were to ask first, I bet homeowners would let me pick from their trees.
My wildcrafting experiences have been a lot of fun and I am motivated to find new places and types of food to gather. Maybe I'll try picking elderberries and choke cherries next year and make jam. What other types of edible foods are growing in Bozeman or in the woods that I don't even know about? Its exciting to think about and research.
Have you ever wildcrafted? Is there a fruit or nut tree near you that you're tempted to pick from? What types of free, edible foods grow in your area?