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Foraging season is upon us. But as more nature lovers and field-to-table chefs are lining up at nature’s free buffet, we’re putting many species of plants at risk. Take the wild ramp, for example: in the years since this early-spring allium became a sensation among cooks, the plant has been over-foraged, and once-reliable patches are disappearing, prompting tighter restrictions and outright bans, many of which have gone ignored.

While foraging is a great excuse to take a walk in the woods (with the added bonus that you might walk out with a bag of free ingredients), it’s important that we do so in the most responsible way possible, or we won’t have anything to forage. Here are our best tips for sustainable foraging:

Photo: Penny De Los Santos

Know where to pick

A healthy-looking patch of land might be hiding a toxic secret in the soil below. The soil near industrial operations, roadways, and farms is at risk of containing pesticides, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals. Much safer are large parks and protected forests a good distance away from commercial impact.

Exercise restraint

It should go without saying that you shouldn’t pick more than you can eat, but thinning out a patch of plants can prevent it from regeneration (and leaves less for future foragers). A good approach is to follow the 1-in-20 rule—that is, harvesting no more than 5 percent of a population of a plant that’s growing in abundance.

Shoots over roots

With most perennial species, collecting the above-ground parts of the plant—leaves, fruits, and seeds—versus yanking it out of the ground, roots and all, will allow it to regenerate. (In some areas, removing entire plants is illegal). For example, a more sustainable way to harvest ramps is to cut the plant through the bulb, leaving its roots intact.

Weeds are wise

Edible weeds and invasive species are by far the most sustainable option for foraging, and this category includes more plants than you’d think. Here are some common weeds that are delicious and easy to spot: dandelions, stinging needles, chickweed, purslane, wild onion, lamb’s quarters, red clover, Japanese knotweed, wild garlic, stickyweed, and ground elder.

Fruits are fine

Hedgerow fruits and berries are easy to identify and forage, and can be found in abundance (so long as you don’t overharvest). Some species to look out for are: blackberries, strawberries, cherries, sloe berries, elderberries, crab apples, and wild plums.

Let land recover

If you spot an area that’s clearly been foraged (which is common in urban parks), move on to another spot. This way, you’re giving the land and its ecosystem a chance to recover.