In Southern California, low-hanging fruit is ripe for the picking—or so it seems. If you stroll down any residential street, figs, oranges, loquats, and persimmons hang over fences like jewels. Many locals don’t bother picking their fruit, preferring the taste of store-bought produce to the abundance in their yards. Luckily, state laws permit California residents to pick what hangs over a residential fence and into public property, including the plump, nearly overripe Mission figs my mom and I were picking one hot afternoon from a prolific tree whose branches dangle into an alley in my Los Angeles suburb.
We didn’t even notice a car pull up because we were concentrating on reaching the high-up figs. But soon, I felt a pair of eyes on me, and I turned to see a middle-aged white woman staring at us. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Those don’t belong to you.” I had no idea whether this person lived in the adjacent house, or if she just pulled over to police two Asian American women dressed in tattered sneakers and gardening clothes. I wondered whether she had considered that we could own this house, but I’m guessing that in her racial profiling, this expensive house couldn’t be ours.
My mom is a pretty advanced forager, and she knows her rights. Like many members of the online foraging group I’m in, she’s not afraid to knock on strangers’ doors and ask if she can take excess fruit off their hands. She wasn’t afraid, on this particular day, to retort that it was perfectly legal for anyone to pick anything that hung over the fence. Smashed figs were literally rotting into jam on the ground and being devoured by fruit flies and fig beetles, but this person thought it would be better off being eaten by insects than by us. Most of the food my mom and I forage, in fact, is stuff that no one except certain animals or the occasional forager wants—acorns, dandelions, wild turnip greens, poor man’s pepper, invasive mustards. We’re careful not to over-forage, and we know not to harvest in certain parks to preserve biodiversity. We’re not just here to gain; we teach neighbors how to use their persimmons: Koreans often dry this fruit and turn it into tea.
I’ve always been impressed by my mom’s courage in the face of intimidation, but it’s a privilege that not every forager of color can exert, especially those who are Brown and Black. For Asia Campbell, who is Black, foraging alone is a risk that could endanger her health or her life, especially when approaching someone’s yard. “Whenever I go foraging, I always go with someone,” she says. Campbell says educating other co-foragers is key. She lets other members of her foraging group approach someone’s front yard and ask if they’ll share their fruit. “Sometimes it feels like when people see me, they automatically assume our group is ‘up to something’ or doing something we’re not supposed to be doing,” she says.
Campbell forages mostly in Pasadena, an ethnically diverse area but one that still contains mostly white neighborhoods such as Madison Heights and Oak Knoll, both of which are teeming with plentiful, mature fruit trees. Campbell began foraging as a means of learning herbalism and plant identification and found it necessary to head outdoors in order to accurately learn. “Identification of a plant is very important and, if you don’t know what you’re doing, ingesting something could seriously harm you,” Campbell says. For foragers, experience is vital to being able to correctly identify plants, especially since their appearance can vary from state to state. “It’s important to learn about the plants around you and getting outside is the best way to do that. I thought, If I join a group, I’ll be surrounded by so many knowledgeable people with lots of experience.”
Campbell’s knowledge and love for the activity has deepened over time. “The joy came when I could walk around a neighborhood or hiking trail and recognize most of the plants around me,” she says. “I love being knowledgeable about the things around me in case of an emergency. I love knowing that my body can benefit from these plants when I incorporate them into my diet, instead of only grabbing them when I’m ill. We’re in a time when having adequate healthcare is uncertain, and while plants won’t cure everything, they’re still beneficial to our health.” Anisha Kumra, an Indian American forager who lives in San Francisco, says her foraging has drawn suspicion from others. “I do get looked at funny sometimes, but I explain what I’m doing if someone looks scared,” she says. Kumra, who alsoforages at night with uv lights, says that during one incident, a neighbor came out of their house and most likely called the police on her.
Despite its hazards, Kumra says foraging is a necessity—whether it’s for the food or herbal medicinal needs, the thrift, or the daily joy it brings. For Kumra, who suffers from chronic swelling, polycystic ovary syndrome, and endometriosis, foraged plantain and mugwort have helped treat her pain, and the experience of foraging mussels, sea urchins, seaweed, mushrooms, wild radishes, cherries, plums, oranges, and lemons has brought her joy. Foraging also honors Kumra’s culinary heritage and her connection with her mother (like it does for me and my relationship with my Korean mother) who taught her the skill as a child in east San Jose. “My mom, Indian-born and raised in Malawi, spent her childhood climbing trees and eating the fruits from them,” she says. “My mom would often encourage me to eat certain plants and fruits that grew on the hillside behind our house and in the parks. She also told parents on our block [to encourage their kids] to hop the three-foot fence and forage from our trees.”
“The joy came when I could walk around a neighborhood or hiking trail and recognize most of the plants around me.”
Kumra’s family turned to foraging because spinach from the grocery store failed to provide the wild or spicy taste of Indian greens. “They just didn’t have many Indian grocery stores in the ’80s, so we would go forage mustard greens with our family friends who had four kids,” she says. “Our mothers and grandmothers would go into every open field to forage mustard greens so they could make saag.” Foraging as a woman of color can bring heightened, unwanted attention to intersectionality. Kumra had a terrifying experience while foraging last summer in the midst of covid: A man chased her up the hill she was on. The man chasing her seemed to think she was alone but saw her white male friend when he reached the top of the hill. “My friend was very confused by the man 10 feet away and the new holes in my dress,” she says, referring to how her dress was ripped from being caught on theblackberry brambles. “I was so scared I didn’t explain.”
Sometimes foragers will avoid certain areas or scope the people nearby to see if it’s safe to forage there. “Having an understanding of what happens with trespassing laws and how Black and Brown bodies are treated differently really limits where I forage,” Stephanie Gravalese says. Gravalese, who is Afro Latina, says that while visiting Washington Park in Albany, New York, she wanted to pick a few magnolias, which are edible, but was scared she would get yelled at. That heightened sense of awareness is common among all people of color during any activity, including driving, shopping, or even simply existing, but it’s particularly strong when approaching the property of a white homeowner. That’s why Gravalese restricts her foraging to areas where she knows the owners. “Due to awareness of how Black and Indigenous folks are perceived in these spaces, I tend to stick to areas that are known to me—my backyard, spaces where I know the landowners, or sparsely populated areas—or I stay only for a very short while,” she says.
Kumra is still foraging and has photographed 1,700 items for her iNaturalist account, relying upon fellow foragers to help her identify them. Like Kumra, all the women of color I spoke with are adamant that they won’t stop foraging anytime soon—whether they do it out of necessity, passion, or for the purpose of maintaining health. For us, foraging is a lifestyle—not a hobby we can just discard. Each day, when foragers of color set out with satchels, knives, and sun hats, they have to keep their wits about them, weighing potential dangers and calculating the risk of hostility or violence against the benefits of rich, ripe fruit, fresh air, and immunity-boosting herbs. Whenever I make a foraging decision, it’s important to realize my privilege as an Asian American, then calculate any potential risks and prepare for how I will speak with homeowners and observers. I recently went back to the same spot where my mom and I were accosted by the fig gatekeeper, fully expecting to see her again. She wasn’t there, but the next time I see her, I’ll be ready to engage in a larger discussion about foraging, the risks that foragers of color face, and, of course, tips for cooking delicious Mission figs.