The chefs who hire professional forager Tama Matsuoka Wong to harvest wild ingredients for their restaurants know better than to request ramps, milkweed, toothwort or other edible native plants.

“People think that as long as they can ID a plant, it’s OK to forage for it,” said Wong, author of the James Beard Award nominated “Foraged Flavor.” “A lot of the wild foods that are in high demand grow in undisturbed areas and have a special connection to the soil; picking them disturbs a fragile ecosystem.”

Foraging is the latest foodie trend, and the demand for wild edibles has led an increasing number of foragers into forests and parks to collect ingredients like ramps, morel mushrooms and juneberries without regard for their impact on the environment.

Careless collectors often trample the forests, gathering all of the available bounty to sell to restaurants and wild foods markets, robbing wildlife of food and habitat, threatening biodiversity and making it difficult for wild foods to thrive.

“Some foragers think responsible foraging means picking 30 percent of a plant. But if we all picked 30 percent, the plants would disappear,” Wong noted.

Motivated by profit, some foragers break the law, stealing herbs and edible flowers from parks or private lands where removing plants from the landscaping is prohibited.

“I’ve seen lots of clandestine mushroom picking in areas where it’s illegal,” said Jonah Raskin, Ph.D., author of “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California.” “People see chanterelles out in the wild and think, ‘If I don’t pick this, it will go to waste.’ ”

Ramps for saleBecause the most coveted wild edibles grow in untouched areas of the forests, accessing them often requires leaving the trail and trampling through the woods.

“There are unintended consequences of lots of people going out and foraging,” Raskin said. “I’m not sure how aware people are about the effects of their actions.”

Conservationists agree that foraging for personal use (a handful of mushrooms and greens for salad or a bowl of wild berries) is not the issue. It’s the hunger for massive amounts of wild edibles for commercial sale and the carelessness of profit-motivated foragers that threaten the environment.

In 2013, park rangers at Epping Forest in the United Kingdom prosecuted 20 people for harvesting fungi from the forest, including one forager who collected 20 bags of mushrooms. The demand for wild mushrooms, which can be sold to local chefs for up to $35 per pound, has created a foraging free-for-all, forcing park rangers to search visitors for illegal mushroom hauls.

In Quebec, overforaging of ramps depleted the region's supplies, leading the province to declare the ail des bois a vulnerable species. Harvesting the plants for commercial sale is banned, and foragers could be slapped with a $500 fine.

“The commercialization of foraging is a big problem,” Wong said.

But there is hope: A growing number of conservation-minded foragers are leading classes to teach foodies responsible techniques and focusing on invasive edibles instead of threatened wild foods.

Wong works with conservation groups to remove invasive species that are choking out native plants and disrupting natural habitats and sells them to top New York restaurants like Daniel, Acme, Gramercy Tavern, Il Buco and Khe-Yo.

Several invasive edibles, including autumn olives, garlic mustard and watercress, are flavorful, and harvesting them helps preserve the ecosystem.

Foraged berriesInvasive species are great to forage for,” she said. “You could pick all of the dandelions and more will grow; we’ll never run out of dandelions.”

Although invasive species are a problem in New York parks, foragers are prohibited from harvesting plants.

“We don’t have the resources to make sure that people are doing it right and removing the right plants,” explained Sarah Aucoin, director of urban park rangers for NYC Parks.

Devoting resources to responsible foraging is a top priority for eco-conscious foragers.

Some cities and parks have taken steps to regulate the practice. At Redwood National Park in California, foragers can harvest up to 1 gallon of hazelnuts or berries; the same limit applies to wild edibles harvested at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department also permits foraging as long as the harvests are small.

“You need to have a license to hunt fish and game, and there are certain seasons and limits,” Wong said. “There should be a permitting system for wild edibles, too.”

Even foragers are starting to recognize the impact of the trend.

“I’m not against foraging; I think it can be done responsibly and ethically,” Raskin said. “But a forager once told me that if everyone started foraging, it would be a disaster for the natural world. We have to maintain that awareness.”

Related on MNN:

Inset photos: (ramps) Darya Pino/flickr; (berries) Leslie Seton/flickr
Is foraging bad for the environment?
Why this foodie trend could be doing more harm than good.