Before you pull ... you better know what you're doing

Experts suggest adding invasive plant species to your dinner menu

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It's a special time of year: Foraged ingredients like ramps and fiddleheads are showing up on menus at local farm-to-table restaurants. You can also gather these ingredients yourself and make a delicious meal at home — but before you go out into the woods hoping to take all you find, local preservationists have some words of advice for you.

"We just hope people will be responsible," said Jenny Hansell, president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. "Don't take all of it. Don't harm the plant if you can avoid it."

Before smartphones, social media and geotagging, it may have been easier to keep your favorite ramp patch or mountain blueberry bush a secret. But changing social norms and a burgeoning tourist economy have created some challenges for delicate plants in delicate ecosystems.

Though most foragers are responsible, "there's always that horror story you see somewhere where one person after another keeps coming and taking. That really harms the resource," said Hansell. "The BNRC's goal is to balance conservation — which means conservation of the species and habitat — with public access and public use."

Russ Cohen, a naturalist and wild foods enthusiast who runs foraging workshops and walks all over New England and New York, including in the Berkshires, remembers reading one such horror story — a glowing article about foraging ramps where the writer and a colleague found a large patch and saw "many mortgage payments" in front of them.

This is never the right approach, Cohen said.

"Unfortunately, there has become a gold rush mentality with some people. It's to make a quick buck — people will go on property they don't own without permission and just dig up the plants," he said. "It's like stealing — like cattle rustling, or poaching, or going on somebody's property and cutting their trees without permission. It's not ethical."

As he educates groups about native plants, Cohen advises people to take just one ramp leaf from each plant, which allows the ramps to continue to grow and thrive into future seasons. Taking the whole plant, bulb, root stock, and all, means there's nothing left to propagate.

In general, "I point people toward more common weeds and invasive species," Cohen said. "It's much less likely that any adverse ecological consequences will flow from the picking."

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"Our approach is, if you want to forage for your dinner you're welcome to do so," said Hansell. "We don't want people to forage for any kind of commercial use."

"I share concerns about that," said Drew Jones, who manages Williams College's Hopkins Forest, which straddles land in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, and is open to the public. Jones, an occasional forager, has noticed a decline in some of the ramp patches he knows about.

"We can always justify things," Jones said. "But there are ethical and responsible ways to do things like foraging. And there are ways that aren't. I think eating off the land is great, but as our population gets more concentrated, these concerns are more heightened."

One basic rule to follow: Get permission first. Though Cohen recommends new foragers seek out plants at organic farms and the scruffy lines where field and forest meet, "I encourage them to create a symbiotic relationship with their organic farmer," he said. While the weeds at organic farms are nutritious and lush because of farmers' growing practices, "you need to talk to the managers first and make sure they're cool with what you're doing. Often, they can point you in the right direction."

The BNRC actively works to keep people away from areas like vernal pools so that errant hikers have less chance of accidentally harming something delicate. "If we put in a trail that goes to the right, it's less likely that you'll go to the left," Hansell said. "By creating public access, we're hoping people will develop a love for nature, which will make them better stewards of nature."

Jones echoed the "get permission" best practice, but also thinks foragers should responsibly research local ecosystems and plants before going out. "The informed forager is going to be more responsible and less destructive," he said. "It depends what it is. Is it garlic mustard? Take as much as you want. Cattails? They're pretty prolific. If you know what you're foraging, that can inform your strategy."

But rarer plants? "Ramps often grow on what we call `rich sites,'" Jones said. "They harbor a richer array of flora. They're indicative of the soil type. If you see wild ginger, blue cohosh, spring ephemerals like bloodroot and trout lilies, that's a more nutrient-rich site."

Cohen, who has spent his life educating potential foragers (he first fell in love with the topic after taking, then ultimately teaching, a high school class), said intent is important. Are you here to gather food for yourself, or do you have loftier goals?

"It's the monetization of plants that has me worried," he said. "What is the next ramp? What's going to go viral in the chef and foodie world and cause a stampede? It starts you off on the wrong foot about appreciating nature. It's not `how much can I liquidate this asset for?' It's about how to connect to nature through your taste buds. It's my form of communion."


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