CARRBORO, N.C., March 23 (Reuters) - No arugula could be found in the salad mix for sale this month at a new outdoor food market in North Carolina. Instead, tiny purple nettle flowers were scattered among the familiar pointed oval leaves of the chickweed plant.
Familiar, that is, because the plant grows wild in yards, fields and pavement cracks in the town of Carrboro, North Carolina, and across much of North America.
The unusual salad was one of the offerings at what organizers believe is the first U.S. market devoted to wild food and herbs, a kind of non-farmer’s market that will be held monthly in the town near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A similar weekly market is scheduled to open next month in Asheville, making North Carolina the latest hot spot in the growing movement toward eating food foraged from forests and fields rather than cultivated on farms.
The trend has gained cachet among foodies, with dishes featuring everything from exotic mushrooms found deep in forests to humble dandelions that are the scourge of suburban lawns. Foraging tours have cropped up across the country and farm-to-table dinners are giving way to forage-to-table affairs.
Wild food expert “Wildman” Steve Brill, who leads tours in New York City’s Central Park, created a foraging app with descriptions of local plants and recipes. The head chef at Copenhagen’s Noma, named “the best restaurant in the world” three years running by Restaurant magazine, is known for foraging his ingredients.
“Europe has embraced foraging for a while, and I think it’s really taking hold in this country now,” said Josh Lev, co-founder of the Wild Food + Herb Market in Carrboro. “It fits in with this idea of getting back to basics.”
Selling wild food raises questions about the value of paying for plants people could pick from their own yards. Lev said his market is aimed more at creating awareness of wild foods and herbs than making a profit from them.
“I’m trying to build a community of people who appreciate the plants that grow around them and what an important resource they are,” said Lev, an herbalist, inventor and artist who recently moved to North Carolina from California. “We want to reconnect people to that kind of knowledge.”
The outdoor market is set up like a farmer’s market, with vendors signing up and selling their products.
Many vendors also hold classes and tours. The market’s debut this month included a walk through the town commons to teach participants how to identify common edible plants.
The educational efforts help new foragers distinguish between edible plants and those that are less palatable or even poisonous. Picking mushrooms, in particular, requires expertise to avoid eating something harmful.
Judith and Phil Morse already had taken a wild food tour at the suggestion of a friend before they visited the market in Carrboro. They did not feel confident enough in their knowledge of what was edible to forage for dinner, but they were getting closer.
“You really do get tuned into the plant world,” said Phil Morse, 69, who lives in a nearby rural county. “It’s really given us a different perspective about food.”
Alan Muskat, a longtime forager who is organizing the Asheville market, said eating wild foods was not only cheap and healthy but good for the environment.
“It really takes on the whole idea of agriculture, which is so foundational to the way we think about food,” he said.
Cornell University ecologist Antonio DiTommaso said he was encouraged by the growing interest in eating wild plants and thinks the trend could affect which crops are grown. He no longer buys lettuce in the summer, he said, choosing instead to eat a mixture of plants from his yard in upstate New York.
He wondered how far the movement could go in supplanting traditional agriculture.
“It might have been okay 10,000 years ago,” said DiTommaso, an assistant professor in the crop and soil sciences department. “If we get all of New York City running through our fields in upstate New York, I don’t know that there would be much left.”
Muskat, who studied philosophy and ecology at Princeton University, said he sold foraged mushrooms to high-end restaurants for more than 15 years, often selling more than 500 pounds of them a year at prices of $12 to $40 a pound.
Foragers have met sporadic resistance, usually due to concerns that rare plants and mushrooms will be over harvested.
Many public parks prohibit or at least restrict foraging. New York City parks adopted a non-foraging stance after noting an uptick in the number of people doing it there.
The national parks make exceptions for certain abundant foods, such as cactus pears in Arizona’s Casa Grande Ruins National Monument and berries at Cape Cod National Seashore. But even in those cases, the food can be taken solely for personal use, not for sale.
On a recent walk, Muskat was careful to pick only small pieces of a ginger-like root, leaving plenty to keep growing. He insists foraging is good for the long-term health of natural areas.
“Foraging makes the woods more valuable,” Muskat said. “And when something has value, you protect it.” (Editing by Colleen Jenkins)