Wild Leeks and the Ethics of Foraging

Last Saturday, I attended a half-day workshop on foraging local food at the Wallace Museum.  It was an amazing workshop mostly because of the people who were there–there were, of course, people from all over the North Shore, but there were people from the Annapolis Valley and the South Shore, people from Cape Breton, and even people from New Brunswick! Over 50 of us crammed into this tiny room, naming off plants we know to be edible, identifying them by Latin name and pictures (if we could), and then discussing everything we knew you could do with that plant.

Now, I was there to learn more about foraging local food in Nova Scotia (because I’m originally from Alberta, there are so many plants here that I’ve never even heard of! Every year my mind is blown by just how much spring produce is available in the forests behind my house…), but that wasn’t the sole reason the workshop hosts were there. They were there because they actually deeply care about sustaining local foraging sources, and so a large part of the workshop was taken up by talking about seed saving, transplanting, and the ethics of harvesting local foraged foods.

Which leads me to the story of the Wild Leek. My partner Nicole got me a subscription to the food magazine Bon Appetitand in last month’s edition, there was a short blurb about Ramps (also known as Wild Leeks). Billed as packing a garlicky, green flavour that turns mellow with cooking, Nicole was super psyched to try foraging for Wild Leeks in our neighbourhood when Spring actually arrives (we still have a foot of snow on the ground in some places in Denmark…)

The problem, I found out at this local foraging workshop, is that Wild Leeks are actually an endangered species in Nova Scotia (or “threatened” as the government of Nova Scotia puts it), and are a rare and threatened species now in Quebec and Ontario. So what used to be a common springtime root veg for many growing up in these provinces and is now a hip local food for chefs and foodies alike is becoming more and more endangered, due in part to how we’ve harvested our local food in the past and the way wild food is foraged today for supermarket consumption.

This article entitled “Ramps: Hands off those wild leeks” by Jacob Richler really brings it home. As more and more of us begin to want to get in on a “new thing” (in this case, local foraging) in the food world, we also need to pay attention to the consequences our actions bring. Harvesting Wild Leeks before they’ve matured and over-harvesting of patches means that eventually, there may be no Leeks to harvest at all. As the Department of Natural Resources notes:

Fortunately, many of these species are found elsewhere in eastern North America. However, the surviving populations in Nova Scotia represent plants from the northeastern extreme of the range of these species in North America. The populations in Nova Scotia are almost certainly genetically different from other populations. Once gone, they cannot be replaced.

So what this means is that if we are going to harvest wild foods, we must do it ethically so that these plants will continue to thrive for generations to come.  So how do we do that?  Here are some tips I gleaned from the local foraging workshop:

  • Familiarize yourself with the weeds, herbs, bushes, and trees in your area to try to learn as much as possible about the ecosystem of which you are a part.
  • Try to understand these plants as part of a larger ecosystem.  With which other plants does it form communities?  Is it native or invasive?  Does it protect the ground or deplete it of any of its nutrients?  Building this kind of holistic knowledge base will give you a much deeper insight into the nature of a plant and its role within the ecosystem.
  • Familiarize yourself with the plants that are listed on the endangered species list for your area.  Apart from being unethical, it’s also illegal to pick endangered plant species.  Instead of taking rare plants, consider sowing their seeds in the wild. (This is the most well-laid out guide I’ve found for Nova Scotia–just scroll down to the plants section–for other provinces, googling “endangered plants in ____” is a good place to start)
  • Only pick as much as you need, and only take one in ten plants.  Never take all the plants of any one kind in a given patch.
  • After harvesting an area, give the plants plenty of time to recover before returning to the same patch.
  • Be very careful when it comes to harvesting the roots of a plant (this applies to Wild Leeks). Remember that often harvesting the roots means the death of the plant, so before you dig, ask yourself if this plant is really plentiful and if it can sustain a harvest of its roots.
  • Replant small root pieces if you can, or scatter seeds to the wind to enable the plant to repopulate at a later point in time.

My hope is that this will dwell in my heart and yours as we forage for our food this year. May we pay attention to the world that brings forth this amazing glory, and may we treat it with care.

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2 Responses to Wild Leeks and the Ethics of Foraging

  1. Brian Nelson says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking article Penny on the ethics of harvesting wild plants. It opens up discussion of many topics. One is the definition of “Wild”. We need to have a different understanding of this in our time as population becomes larger and denser. One concept is of the “Commons” – land to be used by all versus “Private” or “Wild” land. Too often we think of the Wild as no one owning or caring for it. The Commons is everyone owning and using it. Both can and have led to abuse of the land in the past and present times. Most humans seem to be selfish in nature and only practice true husbandry of the land if it is owned Privately for their own benefit. This attitude must change if we are to practice true stewardship of our land and resources on and in it.
    Brian Nelson

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