Kush Sethi does not remember the day, but he remembers the exact moment when he started paying attention to urban weeds. While following a Bengaluru-based volunteer group on Facebook that worked to clean public spaces, Sethi noticed one vital component missing in the ‘after’ clean-up pictures. Along with removing garbage/debris and painting the walls, the cleanliness drive also involved removing small green patches that adorned the pavements and the roadsides. When Sethi left a comment asking about the plants, he got the response that these weeds became catalysts for further littering, and therefore needed to be cleared out.
Today, Sethi is an educator, ecological gardener, entrepreneur and forager based in Delhi who raises awareness about urban flora. Through nature walks, he is trying to get city dwellers to notice the greenery around them and value plants beyond their recreational benefits. And one way he does this is by introducing them to urban foraging, which is the harvesting of plants, fruits, fungi, herbs and other produce, from formal and informal urban greenspaces such as parks, lakes, unused lands, roadsides and other public areas.
The recent interest in urban foraging stems from a burgeoning interest in urban ecology, according to Seema Mundoli, faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Nature-based solutions for urban ecosystems and the role of nature in cities are some of her areas of interest. “As the interaction between people and nature in cities has increasingly come into focus, foraging becomes one of the ways to understand these transactions,” she added.
The pandemic has elevated interest in urban green spaces, with people observing their immediate surroundings more keenly. “I remember observing pumpkin flowers near my house one day, and they would disappear the next day. I later learned from my domestic help that she would pluck them and use them in her cooking,” said Mundoli.
Who Are Urban Foragers?
A 2021 study that examined patterns of foraging in Bengaluru city across four regions identified 76 species of flora that were collected for food or medicinal purposes. Herbs predominated this list, along with tomato, tulsi or holy basil, various species of Amaranthus and Doddapathre or ajwain leaves.
While the study shone a light on the rich biodiversity of plants available to urban residents, it also showed how foraging in cities is, so far, largely performed by women who belong to socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Across all four study sites 97% of the foragers (people who reported foraging) were women, 81% belonged to a lower social background, and 90% belonged to historically and currently disadvantaged communities that the Government of India classifies as Other Background Communities (OBC) and Schedule Caste (SC) groups,” the paper, by researchers from Azim Premji University, revealed.
Shruti Tharayil, who runs the popular Instagram account Forgotten Greens that educates people about wild edibles, corroborated this observation. After completing a postgraduate degree in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, Tharayil joined an NGO in Telangana where she worked on a food sovereignty project.
“I interacted with farmers from indigenous and pastoral communities and for the first time, I observed people foraging as a way of life. The communities ate tubers one season and tender leaves and greens in another season. I saw them collect plants that I thought were unwanted, which is what got me interested in uncultivated foods,” said Tharayil.
Tharayil observed how women did most of the foraging and had innate knowledge about medicinal plants and edibles. She added that when people migrated to the cities, they carried this knowledge with them, finding green pockets where they could easily collect food for their families. Given that these are free food sources, foraging is an affordable way to add greens to their diets.
Mundoli, a co-author of the Bengaluru foraging study, emphasised that foraged foods also provide nutritional benefits for the communities.
A review paper published in 2017 that examined existing literature on wild fruits and vegetables showed that these foods are rich in phytochemicals and help deliver balanced diets, strengthening food and nutritional security.
Urban Foraging And Climate Change
The increased interest in urban foraging comes at a time when climate-resilient foods have become the need of the hour. Having the ability to grow with minimal inputs, uncultivated foods provide a viable answer for challenging conditions like drought, heat and floods. “With all the changes around, these plants can provide that little edge for households to survive a tough day,” said Mundoli.
While people across the urban strata are not equally dependent on foraging, understanding how foraging works ensures that hindrances to the practice, such as lack of access and health concerns due to contaminated spaces, are more widely discussed and addressed.
Sethi, whose walks cater to people who are not necessarily dependent on foraging for food, says that building the awareness is why he designs his walk in the way he does – after people finish foraging, the greens are then shared with the Perch Wine and Coffee Bar in Khan Market, New Delhi, where they are converted to meals, giving the participants a perspective of the whole process.
“I don’t expect people who come for these walks to pluck a saag (green leafy vegetable) and cook with it every day. But, they will be able to identify these greens, which also changes how they view the common spaces and their own gardens,” said Sethi.
Sethi, Mundoli and Tharayil, all remarked that an increased awareness towards foraging can bring larger changes to urban commons, such as ensuring cleanliness, less use of pesticides in parks and keeping a check on the overall water quality. To further spread the message, Mundoli and a few others at the Azim Premji University are working on a field guide to the greens commonly collected by women in Bengaluru, which will soon be published online.
But Tharayil warned that along with awareness, a pragmatic approach to foraging also needs to be encouraged. “A lot of the wild foods that we see in urban areas come from forests. Once a food gets labelled as exotic, it gets exploited. For example, I hear that spiny gourd, which is originally a wild vegetable, is now being cultivated because it is in demand,” explained Tharayil before she added, “People don’t want to see what grows right next to them. Urban foraging will help address this imbalance to a certain extent.”
The awareness, if leading to conservation and a push for urban green spaces can have multiple benefits. Aside from recreational benefits, urban green spaces facilitate carbon sequestration and also help protect plant species, as revealed by a study, which notes that floral species that do not benefit from human activity are more likely to become extinct.
Understanding carbon storage in urban vegetation can, in turn, help better design urban green spaces. By factoring in foraging, and prioritising biodiversity, these commons can become interactive spaces that aid in food security.
“When you think of it broadly (on a large scale), it may sound impractical. But when you think from a neighbourhood perspective, it does look doable. We can identify a park or assign a plot within a community. The people living nearby can interact with the greenery in the space, maintaining it as well,” suggested Mundoli.