Q & A with Radical Ecologist Nance Klehm on Urban Foraging

By | May 4, 2012 at 9:21 pm | 5 comments

Photo of Nance Klehm by Ann Summa

For Nance Klehm, going for a walk is more then just about getting fresh air and a little exercise. It is about feeling a sense of interconnectedness with all natural and manmade surroundings, including humans, animals, pavement, buildings, plants, and everything (growing) in-between.

“I can go for a walk and have, just a really great time,” says Klehm. “I come back and there is so much hope, and so much exuberance and so much wild out there, even with all this cement.”

Klehm, who is a fifth generation horticulturist, has taken a different path then her plant-loving elders by choosing to share her knowledge of horticulture through her love of foraging.

But let’s be clear here. We are not talking about foraging in a secluded forest, beneath densely packed hanging fruit trees, surrounded by wild, rich vegetation. Klehm prefers to eek out undiscovered and overlooked locations in the heart of major cities where nature is still surprisingly abundant and flourishing, despite the multitudes of odds against it.

Congested urban areas such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, and Mexico City are just some of the cities where she has personally foraged and held guided informal walks, through cultivated and spontaneous landscapes, helping community members identify edible plants.

Photo of foraged wild mustard by chickitamarie via flickr

I sat down with Klehm to learn more about how she got into urban foraging, the ethics behind it, and what tips she has for forage-curious and budding urban foragers.

Urban foraging is pretty “hot” right now, but you have been doing this for a while and seem to be one of the founding pioneers, if you will. How did you find yourself at the center of this movement?

I started to become disenchanted and lonely. And I started to feel less lonely when I went out for walks and looked at trees. So, I started walking in Chicago, near train tracks, looking at plants and realizing how many were edible, medicinal, good for fiber, or beneficial for pollinators or insects, or ones that build soil, etc. I also grew up indentifying plants. So I kind of had an in, you know. And then there was this emotional response that sort of allowed me to have access, and the result was engaging. So, you know, after I did it, I would just do it on my own for several years and I would go for a walk with friends and they would be completely fascinated, so I then just decided I would offer it to other people and take them out.

I’m also really interested in this intersection of humans and earth and when you’re in an urban area where earth is understood as real estate or that square on the map, or it is just something you cross through and over, it is really ignored and I am interested in the stories of that ignoring or the abuse and the inevitability of earth, and what story it tells of who shows up where. So I am interested in the cultivated environment, too, and what people are planting. Not necessarily what people are planting in raised beds, but what people are planting in the parkways or what they are trying to eek out. My favorite places [to forage] are cracks in sidewalks and places where water collects and what happens there.

Has foraging changed your life in a significant way?

When I am feeling just completely depressed, I can go for a walk and see what plants are doing and it is completely joyful and subversive at the same time. I just love it. The plants are telling stories of soil, air, migration, seeds from different places, so there is a lot going on there.

Is there a particular time of year that is best for foraging in cities?

You can forage year round. In certain climates it is very hard to forage things all year. But it depends on what you are looking for.

What common urban areas do you recommend for finding edible plants and weeds?

You have to ask the question, is this something that has been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides? You either know or you don’t know. You take a chance. You should know enough, before you pick. There are certain plants I know I can pick, that I won’t because I know that ethically it may be a delicate or rare plant. Let’s say you are digging up a root. You are actually taking the life of that plant. Or let’s say, you need some bark from that plant: you cut some twigs off and then you scrape bark from the twig. I never scrape bark directly off a plant. Any time I approach a plant, I am actually in gratitude and am happy to see it – and I project a lot of positive energy to the plant – and when I take from it I never take more than 30% of the plant. And I try to do really clean cuts so it is not torn, and so that people don’t see that I have been there. It is out of respect for other people, the plant survival, you know, I don’t need to. I’m not going to name names, but, you know, there are a lot of foragers now that really just see dollar signs. And feel that coming to something that is growing in our environment with that attitude is the wrong attitude to have; it is about a deeper appreciation. It is really important that people realize that they share their environment with everything else, besides just other people. Often on a walk, if I see something rare – especially if it is delicate or rare species – I won’t point it out because some people still feel the need to take from plants.

Foraging can provide a sense of autonomy from major food corporations and markets. But is it healthy, say, compared to growing your own food or buying organic produce from your local farmer? If not, how can foragers ensure the food they are gathering is not just convenient, but also good for them?

Because we are in an urban environment, all of us are coming in contact with pollutants, and we’re around them all the time, so we have to realize that, so understanding that and being really practical, like okay I am walking down the side walk and dogs pee up and down the side walk and cars park right there, which of these plants is really that clean. But you are going to choose to pick it and take it home and rinse it off, or not. Of course you could tuck yourself away in a local park, but you can often get in trouble picking in parks. That is the thing with urban foraging. There is no pristine place, you just have to kind of make your decision of what you’re goanna stick in your mouth.

What are some of the most common medicinal plants growing in urban areas?

Mallow, mustard, cress, dandelion, yellow duck, chickweed, thistle, garlic mustard, young clover, a lot of small plants, as well as flowering trees and shrubs- which can all have medicinal qualities.

Why do you think that sharing information you have gained from urban foraging is important?

Well, to create a sense of wonderment with people and [spread the knowledge] that we share this environment. It’s humans’ plus everyone else, from the invisible to the large. When I teach it I am not just staying put this in your mouth, I talk about how it got there. Is it ethical? Whether it is something that has escaped a garden. It’s awareness and a sort of magical aspect I try to expose people to, to get them away from the TV set.

How, in your oppinion, does foraging benefit communities?

What happens is people start having different conversations with each other. Conversations that are more connective and gentle, so it allows people to let their guard down and have a more connective experience with each other and the world around them.

What advice do you have for new foragers?

Know your plants before you pick them. And if you do take from them, take as little as you need – don’t strip a plant.  You are in relationship with theses plants, so practice ethics. Know what you are going to use the plant for before picking. There are some look-a-likes that can make you very sick if you pick the wrong one, so make sure you have an understanding of what you are picking and how you are picking them.

Klehm is currently working on a book, set to come out by the end of 2012 or 2013, and plans to release a Los Angeles street specific foraging chart that people can have access to online soon. For more information about Nance or urban foraging, please visit her website, Spontaneous Vegetation.


  1. Sinja (5 years ago)

    Nance seems like a really interesting woman! Looking forward to her LA foraging map/chart.

  2. Jarin (5 years ago)

    Great article! Please post more on foraging!!!

  3. Christopher ELLIS (5 years ago)

    urban foragers have been hard at it in Australia 7 New Zealand for decades: I have seen holes in the ground, where the big shot ran out of money, turn into wild life reserves, with duck, bees, rabbits, & all types of green herb; finally, it was all bulldozed & built upon, but…nature is quick to fill in the gaps.

  4. Dayna (5 years ago)

    I saw Nance speak once, years ago. She’s wonderful. Happy to see people are getting the chance to learn more about her.

  5. Jenna (5 years ago)

    Nance: My new idol. Thanks for posting stories on such beautiful people ecolutionist!


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