Urban foraging: a hyperlocal harvest

27th October 2021 | Alexandra Crosby & Ilaria Vanni

Does anything beat the experience of finding a wild mulberry tree and stuffing a handful of fresh juicy berries in your mouth? Have you ever roasted potatoes with a sprig of rosemary taken from an overgrown nature strip? COVID lockdowns have encouraged more people to explore their neighbourhoods and appreciate local green spaces, where edible plants often grow freely. Alongside the joy of eating something freely harvested, urban foraging can help us learn more about plants, become better environmental stewards and bring together communities. It can also help us notice changes in season, weather and climate. So with spring in full swing, how do you forage safely, respectfully and legally?

Urban foraging: lemon myrtle
Australian native lemon myrtle grows naturally in subtropical and tropical regions.

Food is everywhere

The locations of Sydney and Melbourne were chosen by colonists, in part, because they’re within large food basins. Many edible species existed well before colonisation, thanks to the favourable climate, shape of the coastline and custodianship of Country.

Edible native plants, from ground-covering Warrigal greens to the huge canopies of Illawarra plum trees, are still naturally growing all over southeast Australian cities. Further north, macadamias, lemon myrtle and finger limes thrive, and pigface (a succulent that produces a tangy fruit) is common on sand dunes along coastal towns.

Today, edible plants thrive despite the disturbances of urbanisation. Fruit trees often emerge spontaneously on the edges of parklands, in vacant lots or in people’s gardens. In some cases, urbanisation is responsible for the growth and distribution of edible plants.

Birds, rats and bats broaden the trajectories of mulberry, loquat and papaya seeds by eating them and expelling the seeds somewhere else. This is also how mulberries, which European settlers introduced to Australia, now grow in most Australian cities.

Kumquat, citrus and fig trees are also very common in tropical and temperate climates. And keep an eye out for blackberry vines. They’ve created an immense environmental problem, although the fruit is delicious, and grow best in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

Urban foraging: if it's hanging over a fence, it's legal to pick it.
If it’s hanging over a fence, it’s fair game. But always ask first.

Think before you pick

But urban foraging is not a free-for-all. Doing it safely and respectfully is important. First and foremost, in Australia, wherever you walk, remember you are on Country. Take a moment to recognise that although urban foraging might be new to you, Aboriginal Australians have always gathered native plants while caring for Country.

Foraging also carries possible risks to your own health. Some plants in urban areas are poisonous, such as the castor oil plant and many gum trees. You should also never eat wild-foraged mushrooms unless you know for certain that they’re safe. Plants could also be contaminated from pollution in the air, water and soil, and by chemical sprays.

You can learn about possible environmental contaminants in your neighbourhood here, and there are also services like VegeSafe that test soil samples for metals like lead.

Always start by considering the past and current uses of the land where you’re foraging. Was the land once industrially zoned? Do dogs urinate there? This is why it’s important to make sure that you always wash any foraged food before you eat it.

Legally, plants are the property of whoever owns the land on which they’re growing. Foraging for food on private land is only legal if you own it or have the owner’s permission.

But if food is accessible on public land — fruit hanging over a fence or herbs planted in a park — you can harvest them. Just take what you need and leave plenty for others.

Urban gardening
Lane gardens are now a common sight in inner city suburbs. Ask before you help yourself.

Urban foraging respectfully

You should also understand that there are different cultures around growing and sharing food, depending on the local area. For example, many neighbourhood nature strips are technically owned by the council, but have been planted and tended to by residents.

Community gardens and streets with nature strips may have their own harvesting rules. Some groups like Green Square Growers encourage spontaneous harvesting. Others, such as Sydney City Farm, carefully document volunteer hours then allocate produce accordingly.

Since 2016, we have been working in various suburbs of Sydney to conduct research on urban gardening. We discovered that people often work with plants to develop a sense of place. And this goes well beyond what’s visible in their gardens.

We found networks of neighbours growing together with plants on street edges, exchanging cuttings, seeds, tips, stories and produce. Coming across a row of trees heavy with olives on a nature strip may feel like a lucky discovery, but these plants are probably watered, pruned and whitewashed for winter by one or more gardeners.

For someone who has carefully netted a fruit tree to protect it from bats and cockatoos, or who has patiently tended a vine for three years before their first passionfruit appears, there’s nothing more infuriating than a stranger harvesting their fruit.

On the other hand, helping yourself to a fragrant feijoa tree weighed down by ripe fruit makes sense. Especially when the fruit would otherwise fall, rot and go to waste. But when possible, ask residents about the plants growing on or around their properties.

Diego Bonetto "The Weedy One"
Diego Bonetto has a passion to share his knowledge of what the environment has to offer.

Learn from foraging experts

In Australia, a handful of foraging celebrities have brought attention to the art of foraging. They see foraging as an opportunity to learn about what’s growing where, and why.

In Sydney, Randwick Council Sustainability Educator Julian Lee has created a “Scrumper’s Delight” participatory map. This records edible plants growing in public spaces. Sydney artist Diego Bonetto — AKA The Weedy One — brought a wealth of planty knowledge from Piedmont, Italy, to Australia in the 1990s. Since then, his passion has evolved to see him become a respected educator who teaches the public about foraging edible plants.

Milkwood Permaculture offers tips, even on foraging seaweed. The Melbourne Forager makes urban foraging hip. And a growing number of Indigenous businesses, like Indigigrow, share Indigenous knowledge by selling plants people can recognise outside their gardens.

Foraging in cities is fun. It helps us remember that we’re part of ecosystems, and we have a responsibility to care for Country. So keep in mind the principles of fairness, respect and safety, and go forth and learn what’s growing in your urban environment.

This article was written by Alexandra Crosby, Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney; and Ilaria Vanni, Associate Professor, International Studies and Global Societies, University of Technology Sydney. It was originally published by The Conversation, and has been lightly edited for style, length and clarity.