Wildcrafting: Foraging in nature’s garden

JoAnne Dennee holds a bowl of wild blackberries, oxalis and red clover that she gathered from the land around her Charlotte home. photo by Boston Neary.
JoAnne Dennee holds a bowl of wild blackberries, oxalis and red clover that she gathered from the land around her Charlotte home. photo by Boston Neary.

By Eileen O’Grady

Wildcrafting is the practice of foraging for wild plants, herbs, and fungi to use for food, medicine and crafts. It was once the only means of obtaining certain plants that were necessary for survival; today, many wildcraft as a hobby, a job, or as a way of preserving an ancient forest tradition.

Many local Vermont wildcrafters have business arrangements with nearby stores and restaurants. The kitchen at the Inn at Shelburne Farms buys foraged produce from wildcrafters, notably cattails, mushrooms, ramps, fiddleheads, milkweed, wild violets, trout lilies, sumac, spruce roots and pineapple weed.

Dennee uses a solar dehydrator to dry the herbs that she gathers.
Dennee uses a solar dehydrator to dry the herbs that she gathers.

Jim McCarthy, executive chef at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, said some wildcrafters he works with gather their produce directly from the Shelburne Farms property. “We have 1400 acres of land here that have all different ecosystems,” McCarthy said. “We’re trying to use as many local, man-foraged items as we can. It’s just fun to make [our offerings] more diverse.”

About 25% of the wildcrafted produce used in the Inn’s kitchen is harvested by Shelburne Farms chefs. The rest is obtained from local wildcrafters who phone or come to the door offering to sell foraged items. McCarthy said, “sometimes they’ll trade with us, we’ll do some bartering with cheese, or with meat like beef, or lamb, or whatever we’ve got.”

JoAnne Dennee of Charlotte has foraged in the Shelburne and Charlotte area for many years. She seeks herbs and other plants that she uses to make salves, soaps, tinctures and teas.

Dennee does not sell to restaurants or businesses; she collects botanicals for personal use, or for teaching. Dennee has taught kindergarten at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne for 22 years, and she integrates her knowledge of wild food and medicine in her classroom.

She finds that many of her students are accustomed to packaged foods with fancy consumer logos, so Dennee makes a point to introduce them to where food comes from. She practices wildcrafting with her kindergarteners, finding pig’s weed, lamb’s quarters, wild sorrel, and oxalis on the school property.

She shows them how to incorporate these items in a salad, steep them in water, or use them to make healing poultices. “I felt like that was the best way for me to help them make a really big connection,” she said. The main lesson that Dennee hopes her students will realize is that important medicines and foods can be easily found right in their own yards, on the lands where they live.
Although wildcrafting seems to be a simple activity, in reality the trade is quite complex and has larger ecological and ethical implications. It’s important that a wildcrafter practice sustainable harvesting, taking only what is needed.

“It’s very important to not be a consumer when you’re out in nature,” Dennee said, “but to be in partnership with maintaining a healthy balance in a rigorous and vibrant plant community.” Dennee’s practice is to take just a quarter or less of what is in her immediate vicinity, so as not to overharvest. Sometimes she will pick just the leaves or the blossoms from a plant without harvesting the plant itself, leaving it to regenerate.

Not all wildcrafters are as respectful as Dennee. For this reason, Healthy Living Market in South Burlington carries only a very small amount of wildcrafted produce. Ashley Fuentes, the market’s category manager, said, “As I see it, there’s an ethical issue at hand when people take plants from wild populations,” she said. “How do you know if they are harvesting in a way that does not harm the population? How do you know if the wildcrafter harvests and stores their produce safely? As a store, we have the potential to sell very high volumes of such produce, but I’m not convinced that we should.”

During fiddlehead season, Healthy Living’s produce department receives calls offering to sell hundreds of pounds of fiddleheads at a time. Fuentes always declines these offers. “I don’t believe it to be safe or sustainable, and I don’t trust that the dozens of people calling me are stewarding the wild population. I believe them to be damaging it,” she said.

Chef McCarthy at the Inn at Shelburne Farms addresses these concerns by working only with trusted suppliers. “That’s when the trusting and the vetting comes in with our wildcrafters,” he explains. “The folks that we use care about the wildlife, and generally have a good sense of nature.” He added that the Inn kitchen has a percentage rule for harvesting that all their wildcrafters have to adhere to. For mushrooms, foragers aren’t allowed to harvest any more than 50% of what is on the ground, and for ramps and fiddleheads, no more than 10%. “Those are the numbers we like to use and make sure our foragers stick to,” McCarthy said.

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