Some people are surprised to learn how much can be foraged in urban areas. Berries and fruits, nuts, greens, and mushrooms often abound in cities. Below are recommendations on where to find urban foraging sites and how to avoid contamination. Some of this information is specific to the Twin Cities area, but the general principles can be applied anywhere.
Where to Forage in Cities
Start in your own yard (if you have one)! Even if you live in an apartment, your building may have some green space that holds edible weeds, shrubs, or trees. Then do some exploring in your neighborhood. It may contain yards, business landscapes, or community gardens that hold delicious foods and healthful medicines. In these cases, you need to ask permission from the property owner, renter, or manager before picking. Most people are perfectly fine with friendly strangers harvesting their weeds or dropping fruits. Four Season Foraging founder Maria Wesserle has even held urban foraging workshops at these kinds of locations.
Depending on where you live, you may have to search farther from your area of residence. Some cities have wilderness areas that are quite accessible. For example, Fort Snelling State Park and Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge are just outside of Minneapolis, and reachable via the blue line light rail. At Fort Snelling and other Minnesota State Parks and Forests, it is legal to harvest edible fruit and mushrooms as long as it's for personal, noncommercial use. It is legal to harvest up to one gallon (per family) of berries, nuts, and mushrooms from Minnesota Valley as long as it's for personal use.
Finding foraging sites can be as easy as searching the internet! Falling Fruit is a database of over half a million food sources around the world, primarily in urban areas. They have complied nearly 2,000 different types of edibles, mainly plant species. They're not all wild species per se, but it's still an excellent resource.
Twin Cities residents can also explore the Midtown Greenway for wild edibles and medicines. The Midtown Greenway is a bike corridor in south Minneapolis that runs east-to-west between 28th Street and Lake Street. It was converted from railroad tracks and is owned by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. Foraging along the Greenway isn't illegal, but it isn't sanctioned either, due to concerns over soil contaminants from the railroad, which include arsenic and petroleum products. However, there are ways to work around soil contamination; see the section below for more information.
Many people express surprise when they learn that foraging is completely illegal in most city parks. In Saint Paul “the intentional removal of any natural resource from within the park system without prior written permission from the Director is not allowed. This includes but is not limited to: trees, plants, shrubs, flowers, water, soil, wildlife, stones, and turf." (source: Ch.4/Section 13) Until recently, foraging in Minneapolis parks was completely illegal. (source) Getting caught “molesting vegetation" (as they call it) resulted in fines for many people. At Four Season Foraging we actually know a few people who have been ticketed for this.
On November 29th, 2017, the MPRB rule regarding "molesting vegetation" changed. It is a lengthy read, but basically states that the general public may harvest certain fruits or nuts from certain areas within the park system, as long as it's for non-commercial use. Here is the document detailing where and what you can forage in the Minneapolis Park System.
Soil contamination can be a big risk in cities. Roadsides, railroad tracks, industrial sites, and golf courses are major sources of contamination. Furthermore, there are superfund sites and toxic spills to worry about. On the micro scale, even the space along sidewalks can be a concern from dog feces.
Humans typically become exposed to contaminants by inadvertently eating soil and dust that's covering plants. Reduce the risk of exposure by washing what you harvest, peeling roots, and removing the outer layers of leafy foods. Fruits tend to absorb less contaminants than leafy vegetables or root crops.
Mushrooms vary depending on the species and the type of pollutant. Simply put, some absorb pollutants and become dangerous to eat; others break down certain pollutants and remain edible, or break down certain other pollutants and become toxic. Here is a scholarly article about the role of mushrooms in bioremediation and their value as a food product.
Here is a guide from the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture about soil contamination in urban areas and how to best avoid it. For Minnesota residents, here is a database of toxic sites compiled by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Also for Minnesota residents, here is a list of Superfund Sites on the Minnesota Permanent List of Priorities.
Minneapolis residents should also be aware of the CMC Heartland Partners Lite Yard site. This is an area near 28th Street and Hiawatha Avenue that was found to contain dangerous levels of arsenic, due to production and storage of arsenic-based pesticides. The EPA declared it a Superfund Site in 2007 and provided additional funding to aid in the clean-up process. However, over the years, arsenic had spread throughout the neighborhood. Here is a map of the South Minneapolis Arsenic Contamination Zone. It includes properties within a 0.75 mile radius of the original plant site.
When harvesting aquatic plants, take steps to prevent contracting Giardia, an intestinal parasite that causes cramps, vomiting, and watery diarrhea. This microscopic parasite is passed through feces, and enters urban waterways through sewage and animals defecating in or near the water. The good news is that Giardia is destroyed by cooking, so it's fairly easy to avoid.
Urban waterways also become polluted by runoff from streets, golf courses, and industrial sites. Certain aquatic plants absorb heavy metals from water, with roots absorbing the most, then stems, then leaves. Notably, the Typhaceae family is on this list, which includes the common cattail Typha latifolia- a popular wild edible. It is probably best to refrain from eating the roots and rhizomes of aquatic plants in polluted areas.