As a keen forager myself, I was so excited to hear that my friend Johanna Knox was writing a foraging guide for New Zealand, but despite the fact I was pre-disposed to like it, I am truly impressed and in awe of what she has produced. It is a beautifully written, helpful and down-to-earth book with great illustrations and in a handy format for toting along on foraging expeditions. I talked to Johanna about foraging recently and here is what she said:
HL: Congratulations on your new book, Johanna! Can you tell me how you got into foraging?
JK: Thanks Helen! I was always fascinated by all the uses of plants, and I experimented madly as a child and a teen. As an adult I got into it again after I had children. I saw the natural world anew – through a child’s eyes again. Plus I got interested in food activism, and foraging kept cropping up as part of that.
HL: Why do you think foraging is an important skill to have?
JK: In the Western world we’ve grown so distant in our relationships with the plant kingdom. Obviously there are exceptions – all the amazing researchers and trampers and wanderers, and gatherers and growers like you, who are maintaining and developing give-and-take relationships with the plant world. But as a society in general we’ve become disconnected from the truth about how we need plants for our survival and wellbeing.
If we forget how all that works, we also forget what plants need from us in return. That way lies disaster. So foraging is a fun and productive way to help revive that relationship.
HL: What have you learned from your foraging adventures?
JK: To be patient about knowledge! To not try and identify everything and know all about every plant at once. That’s just frustrating. You have to read and listen and think and observe, and gradually things dawn on you. You can short circuit parts of that process if you get someone to show you stuff directly, but you still have to do your own research and observation and thinking.
HL: Do you dumpster dive, too, or is your ‘foraging’ restricted to natural foods? What do you think of dumpster diving?
JK: Dumpster diving is admirable. I haven’t been party to it since before I had kids. Maybe I’ll take it up seriously one day … I like the idea of doing it as a 70 year old.
HL: What would your ‘Absolute Top Five List of Things To Forage (even if you are not a keen forager)’ be, and why?
JK: This is hard! I reserve the right to change this list tomorrow.
Kawakawa: my first native plant friend, so easy to identify, so abundant, so useful in so many ways.
Fennel: I never used to like fennel – it gave me a stomach ache, but once I learned to use it more subtly in cooking and also found you could dye things almost fluoro yellow with it, I gained a new appreciation for it.
Nasturtium: Every part is edible – and nutritious – and medicinal in that mustardy old-time-remedy way … And it’s so decorative. Good for party foods.
Elderberry: Gather the flowers around November, and the berries late in summer and gather heaps. Make bulk syrup and freeze it and then use it in everything all year round. It’s so expensive in shops, and so cheap to make your own. And this tree is not endangered in the slightest.
New Zealand mint: I love it that New Zealand has a native mint. But like many New Zealanders it’s a bit reserved and self-deprecating. Tough though, with hidden depths … and it gets louder when you mix it with alcohol. If you can’t find it wild, grow it in your garden as a ground cover.
HL: How has foraging changed the way you see the world?
JK: I think I have a much greater appreciation for New Zealand’s native plants now, what they need, and their enormous value in ecosystems, as well as all the amazing things you can do with them.
HL: Do your family & friends ever get embarrassed when you forage and collect windfalls when you are out with them?
JK: Not so much embarrassed – just impatient! I always hope I can sweep them along in my own enthusiasm, but there are times when I have to accept they’ve got other things on their mind!
HL: Do you forage for mushrooms? Just how dangerous is it?
JK: I have anxiety around fungi. I realise rationally that if you know what you’re doing it’s not dangerous. And I can identify certain fungi that are edible – like boletes and basket fungus… but I can’t bring myself to eat them.
I gathered field mushrooms once, cooked them up, and ate them. I knew beyond reasonable doubt that they were field mushrooms. But for a couple of hours afterwards I was still hyper-aware of my body, and every odd twinge, wondering if I’d poisoned myself.
I’ve been wondering if this goes back to reading the Babar books as a child.
Do you remember that bit where the old king elephant eats a ‘bad mushroom’ and dies? There’s this awful picture of him lying on the ground all green and wobbly. That’s one of my most vivid book memories from my preschool years – staring and staring at that picture in horrified fascination, trying to comprehend it … Now I wonder if that book set me up for a lifetime of anxiety around wild mushrooms!
Whatever the reason, A Forager’s Treasury takes a botanical approach rather than a mycological one.
HL: Is there a foraged food you eat almost every day?
JK: There’s no one foraged food, but definitely a recipe I pull out more regularly than most others – that’s weed pakoras. It’s such an easy, substantial, satisfying way to use any edible weeds you can find near your house, and whip up a meal or a side dish when you’re running short of stuff in the pantry
HL: What is your best discovery in terms of our native plants? (Recently, I had delicious tea at a cafe which had Kawakawa in it, and now I’m keen to try that.)
JK: Perhaps harakeke. There are so many varieties, and you never stop learning about it. It’s just this most incredible multi-purpose plant – the nectar as a sweetener, the pollen as a nutritious condiment, the seedpods as a rich chocolate-brown dye (and I love the smell of them), the sap as a healing gel … and that’s not counting all the uses of the leaves as fibre.
HL: Does foraging have a spiritual element to it for you, or is it strictly pragmatic?
JK: I’m not a very spiritual person I’m afraid. I was brought up in a family of geeky atheists. But I think science has served some of the same purposes for me as a spiritual or religious path might for some others.
It’s given me a sense of awe and wonder about nature and the universe, a feeling of being just a small part of something grand and mysterious, and a reassuring sense of my own insignificance. It also helps provide the co-ordinates for a moral compass (however hard it is to follow that compass sometimes).
I can’t say it’s helped me fully come to terms with human mortality – I’m still working on that one! But I have the impression many people on spiritual or religious paths struggle with that one too.
When you’re out gathering, all those feelings and ideas certainly come into play.
Thanks so much, Johanna! Over the next couple of weeks I intend to post a review of ‘A Forager’s Treasury’ and Johanna has also given me a recipe to share with you all as well.