Last Chance Foods: Food In Danger

Go easy on ramps, go nuts on garlic mustard

Friday, May 24, 2013

Seeing heaps of ramps at farmers markets can be a little alarming for anyone who has read about the possibility that the tender spring onion is being over-harvested in the woods. The New York Times took up the issue two years ago. Nonetheless, the desire for ramps continues to gain momentum.

“Ramps right now, in most locations, are not in peril, but they are in decline,” said Dr. Robert Naczi, the Arthur J. Cronquist Curator of North American Botany at the New York Botanical Garden.

A expert studying North American plants, he explained that many native plants have very slow reproductive cycles. “They live in an environment that is very stable and they don’t need to replace themselves very often, so they generate few seeds,” Naczi said. “So be careful about things like ramps, like dwarf ginseng, like American ginseng.”

The over-harvesting of medicinal herbs like native ginseng, as well as goldenseal, serve as cautionary tales. “Those have been in serious decline and their numbers have not recovered from over-harvesting during the past... century,” he said.

That’s not to say that Naczi is anti-foraging. He just recommends foragers keep both the environment and others in mind. That means practicing sustainable and responsible gathering techniques.

“First of all, when foraging make sure that the population is large enough to support that,” he said. “So what I mean by that is make sure there are a lot of the plants out there. My rule [of] thumb is that, when foraging, gather less than 10 percent of what is present.”  

As a botanist, Naczi follows similar rules when gathering specimens. He will take one sample if there are 12 individual plants, or two if he sees 25.

There are some exceptions, though. Garlic mustard, for instance, is an invasive that Naczi says can be gathered without restriction. He said it can be used in salads and serves as a “wonderful spring tonic.”

Dandelions, with their copious and easily dispersed seeds, are also plentiful and edible.

“If [foragers] are going after weeds, especially invasive plants, actually it would help,” Naczi said. “But if they’re going after certain native plants whose populations are already in relatively low supply, it could actually imperil those plants.”



Dr. Robert Naczi

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Amy Eddings


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Comments [5]

JBird from Inwood

I just started taking garlic mustard from Inwood Hill Park, where it is out of control. It is delicious, I wish I had known in previous years. I go to the market to get a box of pasta and, on the way home, I grab a few big plants I sliver the leaves and add them to the cooked pasta with some pecorino and it is delicious.

I would just caution anyone who does the same to watch for poison ivy, which is also out of control, and often grows among the garlic mustard.

May. 25 2013 11:44 AM
"Wildman" Steve Brill from Mamaroneck

Good quick overview of foraging, although the argument: "If everyone did X, it would be bad, therefore X is bad," is specious. If everyone went bike riding in Central Park, it would be a disaster. Should we therefore ban bicycles from Central Park? As the guest pointed out, foraging intelligently and sustainably is good.

The advice of picking a small fraction of wild foods is the way to go. The most abundant wild foods make for the best foraging. They're tasty and healthful, and you usually couldn't collect a significant fraction of them even if you tried. These include species like dandelions, chickweed, purslane, lesser celandine, Japanese knotweed, lamb's-quarters, poor man's pepper, burdock, wild carrots (Queen Anne's Lace), quickweed, field garlic, sow thistle, and many others.

Picking reasonable quantities of common wild fruits such as mulberries, wineberries, blackberries, strawberries, black cherries, cornelian cherries, hackberries, apples, crabapples, and persimmons has no environmental impact, nor does collecting nuts from the ground.

Foraging sustainably is beneficial to the environment. People who forage are much more interested in protecting the habitats where wild foods grow than those who avoid contact with nature. This is especially true of children. I've been teaching foraging for over 31 years, and seen kids who first became excited about nature from my school class trips grow up to become environmentalists and outdoor adventure leaders. A few days ago, I led my first tour where a father who had brought his young daughter on my tours attended one where the daughter, now grown up, brought his granddaughter. Both father and daughter were school teachers who organized class tours for their students.

To learn more about foraging, please visit my site,, or download my iOS/Android app, Wild Edibles.

Happy Foraging!

May. 25 2013 06:36 AM
Mike from NJ

I'm assuming he changed his name from Dr. Mengele.

May. 24 2013 09:24 PM

This interview reminded me of the Portlandia sketch, where the couple insists on driving to the farm, before ordering the chicken on the menu.

May. 24 2013 06:59 PM
Ben from Brooklyn

Dr. Naczi? Are you serious? Can't he at least pronounce it NACK-sy or something? I mean please.

May. 24 2013 05:46 PM

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About Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.


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