Abandoned yards, overgrown ditches, forests, wild urban gardens: Nature can thrive in the unlikeliest of places. We mostly do not notice it, however. But these hardy, often beautiful plants stubbornly growing in the gaps between bricks and stones or dry canals can often provide surprising health benefits.
Foraging seems to be picking up in Indian cities as a physical way to engage and converse with urban ecosystems. Ask Delhi-based gardener and forager Kush Sethi. Sethi, who hosts nature walks and plant workshops, started mapping urban weeds in Delhi to question our preference in species for horticultural practices and the constant desire to keep landscapes tidy and tamed. “I realised that the wild urban plants are rogue, tough and don’t need humans,” he says.
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Additionally, these plants are often used as food or medicine. “I see a mixed set of practitioners—home cooks and chefs, environmental activists, gardeners, urban farmers and enthusiasts of mycology and waste management practices—who are increasingly taking a keen interest in wild urban plants for their immense benefits, and of course, the overall adventure of finding and harvesting your own food,” Sethi says.
Foraging for mental and physical health
The benefits of foraging, especially regarding overall food security and dietary diversity, cannot be stressed enough. Rural communities swear by them. From the wild morel mushrooms and Mahua flowers of Jharkhand to the fiddlehead ferns of Himachal Pradesh or the wild amaranth and purslane in urban areas, the potential contribution of wild foods towards micronutrient provision and overall health is of utmost importance.
One can find a variety of edible plants growing in the city if only one knows where and how to look. Rich in nutrients, most of these so-called weeds can add a world of good to your salad mix, adding health and diversity to your plate. Take a common green -- mallow found easily in metros or the hilly fiddlehead fern. Both have tremendous health benefits, says Mumbai-based seasonal forager Ayush Pingale. “Mallow is especially good for pregnant and lactating women,” says Pingale, adding that it helped improve the immune system and is packed with antioxidants that delay cell damage. He adds that its leaves are a treasure trove of vitamins—A, B1, B2, C and E—and it is packed with the goodness of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and selenium. Likewise, the grassy fiddlehead ferns—tightly coiled tips of ferns—have a subtle nutty flavour and are popular in the regions of Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Foraging can also help improve mental health. According to an October 2021 US study of the National Center for Biotechnology Information published in the National Library of Medicine, meaningful human-nature interactions can counteract the extinction of experience and positively influence people’s nature relatedness, health, and well-being. It states that people who foraged more frequently had greater nature relatedness. Calicut-based Shruti Tharayil, who loves to explore wild edible greens growing in nook and corner of our streets and gardens, agrees. “Foraging consciously can be a source of inner growth,” she says.
A way of eating joyfully
With foraging, we are going back to our roots; humans, after all, have traditionally been hunter-gatherers. It allows us to support and keep alive the knowledge and culture of indigenous people and treat our system and senses to eating uncultivated, un-farmed, naturally-growing food. “There is something innately satisfying about wandering and finding an unexpected food source, harvesting it and then bringing it back to your kitchen to experiment and explore newer flavours and textures,” agrees Ahmedabad-based nutrition therapist Naina Mahajan.
Of course, the art of foraging also follows its own fundamental tenets. First and foremost, only forage for produce that you know for sure is safe. And perhaps the most important one—forage responsibly. Know enough about the plant so as not to wipe it out. Be sure to leave a healthy part of the plant behind so that it has the chance to regrow for the next season of foraging. “So far, I’ve only noticed foraging being done as part of workshops and guided sessions by people who’ve taken the time to identify them locally," says Sethi, as he prepares for his next foraging session. “The act of foraging and collecting is mindful and slow since you’re dedicating time to finding your food and, in its preparation, making an effort to spot viable plants or parts of plants that are in their right stage of life,” he adds. “Overall, it makes the experience of eating these ingredients joyful learning.”