Overstory #106 - The Hidden Bounty of the Urban Forest
Have you ever picked berries from the edge of a forest in a city park? Made a holiday wreath from wild grapevine growing in your backyard? Collected the nuts of a Chinese chestnut street tree? Or harvested pokeweed growing in an abandoned lot? Many people do collect such products -- and others -- in cities. These urban nontimber forest products (NTFPs) represent important economic, nutritional, biological, educational, and cultural resources for a diversity of urban residents (Community Resources 2000).
Within the past ten years, people have increasingly recognized nontimber forest products for the important cultural, subsistence, and market values that they add to rural forests and individual households worldwide. Nearly all ethnic groups around the globe rely on NTFPs for household income, food, medicine, construction supplies, and materials for decorative and ceremonial purposes. These resources are especially important during times of economic hardship or during lulls in agricultural production (Saxena 1986).
Despite increasing use and recognition of NTFPs, they continue to be thought of as "rural" resources collected from rural areas and important to rural people (Guijt et al 1995). At the same time, research on the benefits of urban trees and forests typically includes beauty, increased property values, reduced noise pollution, improvements to water and air quality, and reduced energy costs but makes little or no mention of urban forest products (Moll and Young 1992; McPherson et al 1994).
Defining "urban forest" and "urban NTFPs"
Some definitions of the urban forest account for all elements (biotic, abiotic, and social) of our urban ecosystems, while others refer only to large, closed-canopy forested areas. We define the urban forest as all trees and associated plants and animal species that live in our cities. This definition includes single street trees, yards, vacant lots, and landscaped areas as well as "forested" areas. We define an urban nontimber forest product (NTFP) as "any (nontimber) product collected, cultivated, or derived from the urban forest."
Sources of urban NTFPs
People collect urban NTFPs from diverse sites that span a range of ownership and management regimes--from public to private and from highly managed to unmanaged. Some products are collected from a variety of sites. For example, pokeweed is collected from yards, vacant lots, and roadsides. Other products are unique to a certain type of site. Peaches and figs appear mostly in private yards, and morels are found in closed-canopy forests. Generally, urban collection sites include:
- Street trees--publicly owned and tended, single trees planted in sidewalks and grass strips. These often include nut- and seed-producing trees, such as ginkgos, oaks, and walnuts.
- Yard trees and plants--privately owned and highly managed plant resources in front, side, or back yards. These often include fruiting plants, such as apples, pears, and berries. Yard and street trees often include exotic and ornamental plants.
- Vacant lots--publicly, privately, or community-owned lots, whether managed or wholly unmanaged. Species collected from lots include a variety of perennial and biennial plants, such as pokeweed and chicory.
- Open-grown park trees--publicly owned and managed, single trees grown in open park areas. These often include fruit- and nut-producing trees, as well as a variety of evergreen species providing decorative greens and cones.
- Open-grown trees on institutional properties--similar to open-grown park trees except that large private-sector businesses and institutions, including business parks, cemeteries, schools, and colleges, often own or care for the trees.
- Roadside and forest edge plants--both publicly and privately owned, and often unmanaged plant species growing along roadsides and forest edges. These plants often include berries, vines, and medicinal plants. Many urban roadside species are invasive.
- Closed-canopy forest plants--woodland trees, shrubs, herbs, and mushrooms that grow in both publicly and privately owned, usually unmanaged forest areas.
Use and markets for urban NTFPs
People collect urban NTFPs primarily for personal use. They pick berries as they walk through parks, collect chestnuts or edible mushrooms as ingredients for a special dinner, cut grapevines from roadsides to decorate their houses in the fall, or gather and can fruit for the winter.
Many people collect urban NTFPs to give as gifts and share their harvest bounty with neighbors or friends. Sharing and gift giving is an important form of social reciprocity and an example of how urban NTFP collection can help build connections between people in urban communities.
Another prevalent use for urban NTFPs is to raise funds, both for organizations and for individuals. For example, the holiday greens sale is a common fund-raiser for churches, senior centers, garden clubs, and other organizations. In some cases, people gather greens from private neighborhood yards. but they also collect and gather NTFPs from parks, cemeteries, and hospital grounds. For fund-raising, many environmental nonprofit organizations sell seedlings at festivals. In some cases, organizations raise seedlings from seeds collected in local parks, and in other cases, people may dig up seedlings from yards or roadsides where seedlings are not wanted or are likely to be mowed or otherwise lost.
Finally, some collectors bring urban NTFPs to various markets for sale. Some make holiday wreaths and other natural decorations to supplement seasonal incomes. Recreational beekeepers also sell their product locally to offset their costs. Some vendors include collected products as a part of their inventory at local farmers' markets. For example, in Baltimore, Mariland, people report locally collected walnuts and chestnuts brought to market, while osage orange is sold as a roach repellant in the St. Louis farmers' market. Others sell products such as pokeweed, wineberry, grapevine, and pinecones to various wholesale and retail vendors including greengrocers or specialty craft outlets. Frequently, individuals sell collected products, such as mushrooms and figs, directly to restaurants or other consumers.
Urban NTFP collectors
Collectors of urban forest products are, in many ways, as invisible as collectors of forest products elsewhere. In fact, many urban harvesters do not identify themselves as collectors.
Urban forest product collectors come from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, and the products collected often reflect their socioeconomic and cultural heritage. For example, Korean collectors gather chestnuts and ginkgo nuts both because they are important ingredients for Asian cooking and because collecting is a traditional family activity. African Americans, with roots in the South, collect pokeweed as a traditional green. Many families of Greek descent grow figs, grapes, and other fruits in their backyards.
Urban collectors come from inner-city communities and suburban developments, from poor neighborhoods and wealthy neighborhoods, and from probably every ethnic group that resides within a given city. In Baltimore, there are Italian collectors who traveled from well outside Baltimore to gather chestnuts inside the city, inner-city residents who collect and can fruit from trees on vacant lots, New Englanders who made special trips to find ripe berries, and Native Americans who collect craft materials from city forests to make dream catchers.
Also in this region, anecdotal evidence points to the particular importance of urban NTFPs for certain immigrant populations, especially eastern European, northeast Asian, and southeast Asian immigrants. People suspected to have more recent connections to rural life (for example, first-generation migrants to cities) are more likely to collect urban NTFPs than are long-term urban dwellers; however, this trend is not always the case. Many Baltimore urbanites reported "rediscovering" collection as a new connection to the urban natural world as well as many recent migrants who said they were wary of urban collection.
A few people use the collection of urban forest products to boost their income. These include artisans, farmers' market vendors, and nature enthusiasts. In most cases, these folks are adding significant value to urban NTFPs through artistry, processing, education, and tourism.
The value of urban NTFPs
First and foremost, urban NTFPs provide economic values to harvesters. A product collected for personal use is a substitute for one otherwise purchased or is unique and cannot be purchased. Homemade or locally collected gifts have values that similar store-bought gifts do not capture. People selling urban NTFPs, either at fund-raisers or at local markets, earn cash from their products.
Edible urban NTFPs provide important nutritional benefits to collectors (Guijt, Hinchcliffe, and Melnyk 1995). Urban NTFPs are collected and consumed fresh, and locally collected products may taste better than store-bought items. Urban NTFPs are often difficult or impossible to find in stores and thus represent greater product diversity and expanded consumer choices. Products such as fresh figs, berries, apricots, mushrooms, and nuts are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, and proteins while being very low in fat.
Searching for, collecting, and using forest products promotes a greater understanding of natural environments and the human connections to them. The educational value is particularly important in cities where many residents may not know nonurban environments. Urban NTFP harvesting can build and strengthen a sense of connection, as harvesting is often a multigenerational activity in which older family members teach younger ones about the natural world, family history, and their cultural heritage. One collector taps sugar maples and collects berries with his two-year-old daughter as a way to teach her about how trees work and where food comes from. Another person uses harvesting to teach his child about poisonous plants and berries. Others use collection to teach about traditional foods and nutrition.
There is significant recreational value in collecting and in bringing home the harvest. Who does not enjoy chancing upon a patch of ripe berries? Or picking apples to take home for pie? Or bringing in fresh-cut blossoms to decorate the house? Collecting is fun. People will travel thirty or forty miles just to find a farm where they can pick their own produce. Many people share harvesting and harvests with family and friends. Because people perceive these products to be scarcer in the city and urban dwellers happen upon them less often, this recreational value is often greater for urban residents.
Many people raise questions about health risks from using urban NTFPs. Some of the concerns include air pollution from automobile and industrial exhaust accumulating on or in edible products; lead and other heavy metals in soils from old paint, car exhaust, or illegal waste dumping; toxic chemicals from spraying insecticides or pesticides and from industrial contamination; and poisoning from eating misidentified products, especially mushrooms.
Some general guidelines for avoiding health risks include (Brill 1994): wash or peel all plants before eating them; don't collect within fifty feet of a major roadway; don't collect along railroad rights-of-way; don't collect water plants unless you have the water tested; always be sure about your plant or mushroom identification (or avoid altogether); know which parts of edible plants are edible and in what season; and collect only the plants you intend to use (Brill 1994). Uncertainty exists about serious health risks from air pollutants and heavy metal uptake by plants.
- Season extension--Urban "heat island" effects may make urban forest products available several weeks earlier in the spring and later in the fall than in adjacent rural areas. For example, cherries in Baltimore come into season about two weeks before other local cherries. This means that urban cherries are available when market prices are still relatively high at about five dollars a pound
- Diversity--The urban forest contains diverse introduced species, many of which produce goods valued by a variety of ethnic groups and otherwise not available outside of the cities. For example, ginkgo trees, Chinese chestnuts, and figs are commonly found in the urban forest but are mostly absent in rural areas
- Public management of single forest trees--Urban trees are managed as individuals, which makes them relatively easy to manage for product production
- Access to products and markets--Urban NTFPs grow where many people live and shop. Very little travel time lowers costs for either collecting or selling these products.
As we all work to better understand and promote the sustainable use of our forest resources, it is important to remember that the urban forest is an important component. In conclusion:
- Diverse people collect many products from the urban forest.
- Urban NTFPs have important economic, nutritional, educational, recreational, and cultural values.
- Urban land and forest planners and managers should consider forest product collection and collectors as they work with communities, develop planting plans, and implement torest management strategies.
- Further investigations can help people better understand urban NTFP issues, such as empowering harvesters, collector conflicts, health risks, and ecological and management issues in the urban context.
Brill, "Wildman" S. 1994 Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. New York: Hearst Books.
Community Resources. 2000. "Working Paper: Exploring the Value of Urban Non-timber Forest Products," at www.communityresources.org.
Guijt, I., F. Hinchcliffe, and M. Melnyk. 1995. The Hidden Harvest: The Value of Wild Resources in Agricultural Systems. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.
McPherson, E.G., D.J. Nowack, and R.A. Rowntree, eds. 1994. Chicago's Urban Forest Ecosystem: Results of the Chicago Forest Climate Project. General Technical Report NE-i 86. Radnor, PA: USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station.
Moll, G., and S. Young.1992. Growing Greener Cities. Los Angeles: Living Planet Press.
Saxena, S. 1986. "Desert Plants Used as Human Food during Scarcity and Famines." In: Desert Environment: Conservation and Management, ed. K.A. Shankernarayan and V. Shaker, CAZRI pub. no. 26, Jodhpur, India.
This article was excerpted with the kind permission of the publisher from:
Jahnige, P. 2002. "The Hidden Bounty of the Urban Forest." In: Nontimber Forest Products of the United States, Jones, E.T., R.J. McLain, and J. Weigand (eds). University Press of Kansas.
Copies of this publication can be purchase from: University Press of Kansas 2501 West 15th St., Lawrence, KS 66049 Tel: 785-864-4155; Fax: 785-864-4586 Web: kansaspress.ku.edu/jonnon.html
A special thanks is extended to The Institute of Culture and Ecology ifcae.org/ who co-edited and contributed several chapters to Nontimber Forest Products of the United States.
About the author
Paul Jahnige has B.A. in psychology and a Masters Degree in Forestry and Environmental Studies both from Yale University. He began his career working on international conservation and community development projects in Africa and South America. In 1993 he turned his attention to urban environmental issues in the United States, moved to Baltimore, MD where he worked as an urban community forester for the City of Baltimore and a local Non-profit organization organizing greening initiatives, youth programs and natural resource training in some of East Baltimore's most depressed communities. He then developed Community Resources, a regional urban environmental non-profit organization, to expand and transfer urban environmental programs to other Mid-Atlantic cities. He served and Community Resources Executive Director, overseeing all of the organization's initiatives from urban environmental education to monitoring and evaluation. In 2000, he returned to his childhood home in Western Massachusetts where he consults of community development and environmental issues and serves as the State of Massachusetts' Community Action Forester for Western and Central Massachusetts. Web: communityresources.org
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