Foragers build a community of plants and people while connecting with the past

James Beard award-winning chef Alexis Nikole Nelson harvests wild food while building a community of plants and people.

One way that people connect with their heritage is through food, and for some that means eating wild food. While there isn’t an organization that tracks foraging nationally, longtime foragers, and the popularity of online foraging videos, will tell you that enthusiasm for the activity is growing.

Douglas Kent is the author of Foraging Southern California. On a recent visit to Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park, near the Port of Los Angeles, he told NPR’s A Martinez that we are surrounded by plants that can be used in many ways.

“Health and wellbeing, superfoods and digestion, dyes and fibers and painkillers and all kinds of stuff,” Kent said.

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Kent teaches ecological land management at Cal Poly Pomona. But in his spare time he fills his house with dyes, medicines and cordage from local plants that have been used for thousands of years.

“So willow and the fan palm … would have been our roofing, our sides, our backpacks, our sandals. This plant would have been just absolutely essential to early humans here,” Kent said.

For Columbus, Ohio, forager Alexis Nikole Nelson, that connection with the past is part of the appeal.

“It feels like it’s not only serving me in the present, but it feels like I am doing better by a lot of my ancestors,” Nelson told NPR’s Morning Edition.

This is particularly significant for Nelson as a Black person who has immersed herself in the history and politics of foraging in the United States. She talks about the fraught relationship Black people in the United States have to outdoor spaces and wild food knowledge that goes back to times of enslavement, when foraging was an important way for those who were enslaved to round out a meal.

When she goes out, she prefers to wear frilly dresses, lots of makeup and flowers in her hair. While the cottagecore fairy princess look is an expression of her personal style, Nelson believes it also helps keep her safe. Despite having nearly 6 million followers on TikTok and Instagram, she says some people in her neighborhood might not be comfortable seeing a Black person doing an activity they can’t immediately identify.

“I would always rather have someone come up to me and ask what I’m doing before, like calling the police or, you know, calling a park ranger,” she said.

Using the handle @blackforager, the James Beard award-winning chef makes bright and often silly videos that bring together her love of food, environmental science and, as she puts it, “eating plants that don’t belong to me.”

Nelson’s interest in foraging was sparked by the onion grass growing in her backyard when she was five years old. Her parents nurtured that interest and raised her to recognize the leaves, buds and branching patterns of different plants, and track which ones were active in different seasons. She started experimenting with social media videos during the pandemic, when many people were looking for new outdoor activities, and were afraid to go to the supermarket. Her TikTok and Instagram accounts soon went viral.

Her concoctions are unusual and mouth watering – including projects like dandelion flower fritters, American persimmon mug cake, and acorn jelly.

For foragers like Nelson and Douglas Kent, foraging isn’t just about experimenting with wild plants, it’s a way of seeing the world and building a community of plants and people.

Kent forages on his way to the bus stop, and said that walking with him can be frustrating for anyone trying to get somewhere. He wants more people to know that so many of the plants we are surrounded by every day can be used for food, fiber or medicine.

When Nelson spots an interesting plant growing in someone’s yard, she’ll leave a handwritten note with her contact info. This often starts a conversation that sometimes becomes a friendship. Even if those neighbors don’t ever eat what’s on their property, they’ve made a connection with their human and plant neighbors. This kind of community care, for people and plants, is something Nelson hopes to share. She points out that when people eat wild food, they are, whether they’re aware of it or not, making a connection with their roots.

“Every single one of us is here today because one of our ancestors, however far back you have to go, foraged and had that knowledge of the land around them,” she said.

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