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Does Foraging Threaten Wildlands and Native Culture?

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White sage smudging
This sage bundle was ethically sourced. The ones for sale in fancy stores? Maybe not so much. | Photo: Department of Defense

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

Beneath a canopy of drought-stressed oaks, Christopher Nyerges squats over a tender, lime-green plant called chickweed. “I’m not uprooting it,” he says as he cuts the weed with a utility knife, “so it will continue to grow.”

It’s a hot, windy Thursday in October. Nyerges is leading his Lunchtime Wild Food Cooking class in Pasadena’s Hahamongna Watershed Park. The class is one of several Nyerges teaches on gathering and using wild plants, often called foraging.

The class hikes around in search of ingredients. Nyerges gathers seed from a native buckwheat bush, scattering some to encourage new growth.

As interest in native plants and local food blossoms in California, foraging has become trendy. Many nonprofits offer classes and YouTube is awash in how-to videos. So now a debate is brewing: Does foraging connect people with nature or encourage them to pillage it?

For Nyerges, foraging’s not a fad. His extensive knowledge of botany is based on decades of research, stemming from his fascination with “this ancient knowledge all around us, hidden in plain view, that fewer and fewer know.”

Nyerges says Pasadena park employees haven’t discouraged him — rather, they’ve urged him to yank out the weeds. “The overwhelming majority of the foraged stuff in North America are European natives,” he points out. He also thinks careful foraging propagates native plants.

The hike ends at a picnic area. A Nuttall’s woodpecker scoots up an oak; a ground squirrel forages in the leaf litter.

Christopher Nyerges with nopal
Christopher Nyerges with nopal pad | Photo: Ilsa Setziol

Nyerges dices and sautés two pads of prickly-pear cactus. Scrambled with eggs, it tastes a bit like green pepper. The class also whips up a soup of stinging nettle, lamb’s quarters and miso.  The students are avid hikers, mostly interested in snacking on the trail.

The trend isn’t just weeds and campfire fare. Foragers also harvest the berries, seeds and leaves of native plants, and professional chefs, perfume-makers and others are profiting from wild plants.

So far, land managers aren’t reporting serious damage. “We haven’t seen a lot of evidence that things have been denuded or cleaned out,” says John Tiszler, a plant ecologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. 

Professional chefs, perfume-makers and others are profiting from wild plants.

Still, Southern California’s large population can easily magnify an ecological problem.  “If even a small fraction decide to jump on this new foraging bandwagon, we will start to have some real impacts,” says Katy VinZant, a botanist with the Angeles National Forest.

Nyerges advises students to harvest in areas where plants are abundant and obey laws. “I think they’re making up a problem that doesn’t exist,” he says of people who are concerned. “I find foragers to be very responsible.”

Whether everyone is responsible is an open question. Permits are required for gathering in national forests. VinZant says nobody has applied for one for the Angeles National Forest in at least two years, despite reports of people removing hundreds of pounds of acorns and forest products turning up in L.A. restaurants. (Fines for unpermitted harvesting run $250-$5,000.)

In national parks foraging is illegal, aside from eating a handful of berries or mushrooms on-site. With a couple exceptions, California state parks also prohibit gathering.  

Matthew Biancaniello is an innovative cocktail chef and rising star in the culinary world. It didn’t occur to him that he was doing any harm — or anything wrong — by gathering small amounts of walnuts, toyon berries, elderberries and wild currants on parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains. “Where the birds are going to eat them or they’re going to fall on the ground,” he says, “The only things I cut a little bit would be wild bay leaf and some of the sage.”

White sage in the San Gabriels
Hikers encounter white sage and prickly pear, two commonly foraged plants, in the San Gabriels | Photo: Bri Weldon, some rights reserved

“I don’t think people are just openly defying the rules,” says Tiszler, “It just hasn’t occurred to them that these stringent rules apply.” The prohibition on collecting is posted at some, but not all, of the many trails in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“What gives these people the right to take our culture and destroy our plants so they can make a few bucks?”
Nick Hummingbird

​Biancaniello thinks his creations help people appreciate local landscapes. For one of his signature drinks, he soaks cherry-flavored, dried toyon berries (Heteromeles arbutifolia) in pisco, a Peruvian brandy. He also infuses tequila with white sage. “The things in the wild — the aromatics of those things — [make] the Farmer’s Market look like Ralph’s,” he says.

White sage is a particular concern, in part because so much is sold on eBay. The plant is sacred to Native peoples who use it in ceremonies. New-Agers and others buy bundles and burn it. That angers Nicholas Hummingbird, a 27-year-old of Cahuilla descent: “What gives these people the right to take our culture and destroy our plants so they can make a few bucks?”

Drought, invasive weeds, and air pollution are more serious problems than your typical forager. So are succulent collectors and people who cut truckloads of manzanita branches for craft projects and floral arrangements. But VinZant says it’s a “death by a thousands cuts situation.” And even fallen fruit is important ecologically:  “Seeds are not only very important food for wildlife,” she says, “but they are the next generation of plants. If seeds are over-collected it can eventually lead to the elimination of a local plant population.”

In a sad irony, while some people haven’t questioned their own right to forage, many Native Americans still face barriers when they want to gather plants on ancestral lands.

In the backyard of her Pasadena home, Tima Link cradles a large, globular basket. It took her three years to coil dried sumac and basket rush stems into a weave that’s nearly watertight. “Inside I keep things I use for medicines,” she says, “sages, creosotes, mugwort.”

Tima Link with basket
Tima Link | Photo: Ilsa Setziol

The design, which includes the sun, birds, water strider bugs and a prayer, is traditional to her Chumash tribe.

Link also weaves cradles, skirts, houses and boats (from tules). “Our culture is made up of plants,” she explains, “so you’re not weaving a thing, you’re weaving a culture."

Finding wild rushes isn’t easy: 90 percent of California’s wetlands have been drained or developed.

“There’s not that much habitat,” she says, “and we’ve worked very, very hard to have the chance to go out and gather, to keep our culture and our traditions going.” Unfortunately, not all native people are equal under U.S. law. Some tribes are “federally recognized” — their sovereignty acknowledged by the U.S. government, conferring certain rights. But because of ethnic cleansing (genocide) in California, many Indians chose to pass as Spanish or otherwise refused to identify themselves to government agents.  In addition, many tribes were stripped of their recognition during the “Termination” period in the 20th Century. So Link’s tribe (Shmuwich Chumash), one of seven Chumash tribes, can’t take advantage of new National Park Service rules allowing recognized tribes to obtain permits to gather on ancestral lands.

Instead, she relies on personal agreements with private landowners and the U.S. Forest Service. 

For Link and Hummingbird, gathering is about more than plants — it maintains their familial connection to the land.

“In our culture, whenever a child was born, in that place an acorn would be planted,” Hummingbird says. “And that tree would grow into a tree that child would visit and take care of.”

He examines a slender Engelmann Oak, potted up for sale at the nursery he manages, Hahamongna Cooperative Nursery. He says he tries to help elders find traditional food and medicine, but “there’s a fear among a lot of us, if we go into the natural areas and practice our culture, we’ll be harassed.”

Until 2006, when the Angeles National Forest liberalized its rules, American Indians had to apply for a botany permit and some faced skepticism about their indigenous identity.  Today, “recognized” or not, they don’t need a permit.  And, in an effort to keep law enforcement from interrogating indigenous people, forest staff is developing documentation they can carry—if they want.

Elders taught Hummingbird to gather at times and with methods that don’t damage plants. Even so, with the current drought, he’s reluctant: “I know the stresses the plants are under, so I can’t in good faith go out and take what I need.”

He wants foragers satisfy their wild cravings by growing native plants at home or in community gardens.

Many people already enjoy “urban foraging,” collecting vacant-lot weeds and fruit from neglected city trees. Biancaniello recently planted hummingbird sage at home. But he’s still scouting for wildlands where he can forage legally. “There’s just something about it,” he says, “to know that it’s out in the wild.”

Banner: "wildcrafting" creosote. Photo: Latisha, some rights reserved

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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