Rise of the TikTok foragers
Ever fantasised about a more bucolic, cottagecore way of life? A new wave of creators are teaching us how to get there, and pick the right fungi .
Imagery via TikTok
The modern rural fantasy is an idea that has overtaken social media since the beginning of the pandemic last year. From cottagecore to kitschy crocheting, a lot of us used lockdown to slow down and think about making things from nothing. At its core, the aesthetic trends that have dominated social media rely on a base idea of escapism. When everyone had to be indoors and isolating, the outside has never looked more appealing, as nature became a canvas for all things fantastical and contrary to our present conditions.
With more of us inside and cooking for ourselves than ever before, it makes sense that our bucolic fantasy is extending to how we think about food too. The rise of veganism and vegetarian diets has put an emphasis on home cooking. According to The Vegan Society, a study found that between 2014 - 2019 the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled. From 150,000 in 2014 to 600,000 in 2019. Following the trend, the alternative protein industry, including plant-based meats, raised $3.1bn in investments in 2020 – the most in the industry's history. In May 2021, another survey by The Vegan Society found that “1 in 4 Brits had reduced the amount of animal products they were consuming since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic” marking a move to climate friendly investment and consumption.
On TikTok, where every niche has a home, the hashtag #foragingtiktok, which has 14.1m views, has created a community of people showing the treasures they've found in the forest, from mushrooms that turn blue when sliced to raising awareness of potentially poisonous plants.
Megan Howlett runs the account @thegardencottage with 144.9 thousand followers. Her most popular video foraging for a witches egg, a type of mushroom that literally looks like a hardboiled egg that you can only find during the autumn Halloween season, hence the name, currently stands at 240.2k views. Megan's videos cover everything from different foods you can forage in specific months, like pineapple weed in July and blue Forget-me-not flowers in June, to the basket and the notebook she takes with her to forage, and simple recipes to make body butter from freshly picked lavender and chamomile.
As a now full-time forager and wildcrafter hoping to set up courses to teach others about foraging, Megan, who lives in a small town called Midhurst in East Sussex, UK, tells i-D that her interest in foraging came from her grandparents. "To try and keep my brother and me busy, when we were really young, they would take us out like blackberry picking, sloe berry picking, coastal foraging, that sort of thing," she says. "They never called it foraging, but that is what it was."
Despite its popularity, though, Megan's account was originally not meant to be around foraging content. What originally started out merely as a hobby for the 23-year-old has become a career, largely thanks to the pandemic.
"During Covid, I graduated [with a degree in Animation], and I had a job lined up, and that fell through. I was just a little bit lost, and I didn't know what I wanted to do in my life," she explains. "But I had already started an Instagram for vegan food. So when I started TikTok, that's where I went with it, vegan food incorporating a few forest things. Once I started posting things like 'oh, by the way, these are things you can find in January,' people loved it."
Education is central to Megan's content, which isn't unique in the world of foraging on social media. In fact, there's an emphasis on making the hobby and lifestyle much more accessible in terms of knowledge and education. "I refuse to post anything that is in like certain families, like the carrot family, I will never post anything that's in there because of the relation to poison hemlock," Megan offers as an example. "I think we just need to be more aware of regional edibility and global edibility; you can't just blanket say that they all look the same," she said.
Megan tells i-D that there's still a problem with raising awareness of the types of products you can forage due to the different kinds of edible mushrooms in the UK compared to those in America. Hemlock, a poisonous plant from the carrot family, grows near fences and roadsides, with accidental poisonings occurring when people mistake the root for parsnip, leaves for parsley, or seeds for anise. Wrongly identifying and eating hemlock can lead to death.
Laura, also 23, is perhaps better known as her TikTok handle -- @foragingfaerie -- and is similarly enthusiastic about the UK's wildlife, with her most-watched video of making daisy balm at 114.6k. But unlike Megan, Laura wasn't taught about foraging from a family member and instead learnt about it independently. "Basically, I had a lot of nettles in my back garden. And I thought maybe there's something I can do with them. So I started looking at recipes and then made nettle soup. And I was like, Oh, this is really good. I want to try doing more stuff like that. So I bought some books and just went around my local area," she says.
For Laura, the rise in young foragers comes from doing something yourself and pushing back today's online life. She tells I-D, "I think they're pushing away from this constant technology everywhere. It's also just doing something yourself, you've found it, and you've made something out of it. You can find stuff in your garden and do something with it."
According to a study by Nature England in 2020, adults from ethnic minority groups were less likely to have visited a natural space, with 51% of adults from ethnic minority groups having gone on a visit in the last 14 days, compared to 60% of white British adults. With this in mind, groups have grown, trying to rectify the lack of representation in nature for people of colour (Peaks of Colour, a group that began in July in Sheffield, offers monthly hikes throughout the Peak District). Outside of hikes and walks, other organisations emphasise urban farming in the UK to reconnect to nature.
But the foraging community is big beyond the UK. Aanjaneya, 19, who goes by the handle @aananaanjaneya across social media, is a marine biology major from Texas who also got into foraging through his grandparents. "On occasion," he said, "I would go fishing with my grandparents, and my grandmother would point out coconuts, wild amaranths, and other fruits that were edible while we were out in nature and fishing. I never really thought too much about it. But in high school, I took an ecology class for two years where my projects had a lot to do with freshwater systems, especially creeks in Houston, Texas, where I was working with riparian area plants, and it became a side obsession."
Like Megan, Aanjaneya has taken his passion to TikTok, where his most viewed video showing him catching shrimp has over 25k views. "I've had a great response on TikTok for my foraging videos, especially since I forage plants from around me but then supplement with fish or shrimp that I catch, which is right up my alley as a marine biologist," he says "It's the best of both worlds, and people love to see it. "
But as he grew up, Aanjaneya realised the hobby wasn't popular in his community, Houston or Corpus Christi, and that there weren't many young people and POC like himself. So he took it upon himself to research plants that looked edible on iNaturalist, Wikipedia and ForagingTexas to find their food value. "As a young POC, I recognise that fishing isn't really a hobby associated with me, but I've learned to embrace it and run with it," he says.
"I may not be the best fisherman or forager out there, but there's definitely a lot you can teach yourself. I didn't have anyone show me the ropes, just a few occasions with my grandparents. I had to learn so much on my own, but it was well worth it. I want to encourage more kids, women, POC, and LGBTQ+ people to enjoy the outdoors and not see themselves separate from it to have a more environmentally conscious future. There's no better way to do that than learning to forage sustainably."
Aanjaneya points out that foraging and fishing are hobbies that are not generally attributed to him as a person of colour, he's trying to get more people to enjoy the outdoors through his platform. Other big foraging TikTokers like @AlexisNikole, a Black forager, who he credits as an inspiring role model for young people getting into foraging, are embracing the tradition and helping POC of all ages learn what it means to forage and be more environmentally conscious about food production.
In an interview with Bon Appetit, Alexis explains that she's "not the person people expect to see excited about foraging, the outdoors, biology, botany, and history," which leads to more questions about her knowledge surrounding the field. But it's made worthwhile when her followers send her thank you messages for teaching them more about their surroundings.
The focus on paying the knowledge forward is an ideal that Megan, Laura, Aanjaneya, and Alexis share. That focus is at the heart of the new generation of TikTok foragers, who are dedicated to making the hobby easily accessible, easily understood and consequently more widely embraced. As climate change becomes a pressing concern too, to understand that we can take care of our surroundings better if we learn about them more is more important than ever. In their efforts make foraging accessible and less intimidating for everyone, even if you're seen as someone who doesn't typically occupy that space, TikTok’s new generation of foragers are leading the charge in encouraging us to respect the earth, and learn what to take from it.