Fennel. Brake Fern. Sunflowers. Barley. Sugar beets. Mustard.
All plants with two things in common that can occasionally come into conflict. They are food sources that in addition to being cultivated in some cases can also be wildcrafted, collected from nature by people who are comfortable identifying and eating wild plants. They are also plants that can be used in phytoremediation, a method of environmental cleanup that harnesses plants to do the dirty work after soil has become contaminated as a result of human activities.
Wildcrafting is very trendy at the moment in some regions of the world. Restaurants are featuring wildcrafted foods, people are going on adventures to look for edible plants and writing them up, and it seems to be all the rage in hipster communities to go on a hike and pick your dinner. Which is something that I am kind of into, on some levels, because I think people should be more aware of the edible world around them, but it also kind of irks me because it comes with Foodie Expectations, like, say, ‘everyone should be able to wildcraft’ or ‘gathering your own food is so easy.’
Neither of these things is the case, of course. Some people aren’t good at plant identification. Some people aren’t good at hikes. Some people don’t know what to do with random edible plants; they don’t know how to store them or how to cook them, they may not be able to find guides, they may not have time to seek out information about using edible wild plants. None of these things make people bad people, although some foodies seem to think that this is the case.
It’s important to bear this in mind when talking about trends like wildcrafting, because people often seem to think that anyone can do it and everyone should pick it up, and there’s not a lot of consideration or thinking about how, since not all people are the same, it’s kind of unreasonable to think that something would be easy and attainable for everyone. Yet another one of the small cuts that reminds us that to be different is to be bad, to be not of the dominant class is to be ashamed.
Phytoremediation is fascinating and really cool stuff. In a nutshell, some plants are capable of absorbing contaminants from the soil in very high quantities. These plants will suck up things like heavy metals quite merrily, absorbing them in doses that would kill other plants while remaining quite healthy. There’s a reason that abandoned industrial sites tend to be covered in plants like fennel and wild radishes. It’s not that these plants are hardy, although they are, but that they can actively thrive in polluted environments while other plants cannot.
Use of phytoremediation is increasing in many regions of the world. The idea is that once the plants take up the toxins, they can be removed and safely disposed of. It’s really pretty excellent. At the same time that toxins are being pulled out of the soil, the plants are scrubbing carbon dioxide, they are preventing tarmac and other industrial settings from heating up, they are retaining water instead of allowing it to be lost, they are preventing erosion. These plants are, in other words, hard workers. There are other neat things going on with bioremediation like using bacteria buddies to do environmental cleanup, and the science nerd in the corner of my brain loves reading about this stuff.
However, in conversations with a number of wildcrafters, mostly people who do it casually for fun, I’ve grown increasingly concerned that a lot of people may not be aware of the potential problems with eating plants used in bioremediation. Most people will not cross fencing into areas clearly marked as hazardous and eat things that grow there, but they will eat plants growing wild along trails and other public areas. When these areas are located on or near sites that are polluted, it means that wildcrafters could potentially be bringing home a sickening harvest.
I see some attempts to address this. I notice, for example, that the city of Fort Bragg has cleaned out a lot of the wild radishes around Glass Beach, which I suspect may have been done because people were collecting them for food. I don’t know if the city did that just because1, or if someone thought that having people collect plants near a site contaminated with heavy metals and dioxins and then eating them might, possibly, be a bad idea. Given that the radishes will come back, because they always do, it might be advisable to post some signage clearing the matter up, or to actually test the plants to see if they are contaminated, and if they are, how heavy the contamination is.
Eating some fennel from industrial sites now and then probably won’t be harmful2. But eating a lot of wildcrafted foods from contaminated areas could potentially be a problem, yes? There’s a possibility of absorbing heavy metals and other toxins through the plants that we eat. These things are passed up the food chain. It’s also possible to be exposed by eating animals that live on a contaminated diet. So, it seems to me like some caution might be advisable, as long as we can strike a balance between reasonable concern and scaremongering, which sometimes seems to be a challenge too great for many people and agencies to handle.
I’m not saying that people should promptly stop wildcrafting. But I would like to see some studies on exactly how much plants are uptaking, how much can be passed on to people who eat plants, and where dangerous levels of toxicity start to occur. And I’d like to see some testing of plants in known wildcrafting sites to see if they contain contaminants, because I want people who do like wildcrafting to not get sick by doing so.