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More than 1.4 million people watch Alexis Nikole Nelson, the ‘Black Forager’, eat weeds on TikTok.
The 29-year-old romps through forests and hedgerows in Columbus, Ohio, featuring extreme close-ups on her grin as she eats “coral fungus” or “dandelion coffee”, while teaching people how to avoid the “Tommy, no-nos!” (Alexis’s term for “poisonous”).
Earlier this month her, appearance on The Drew Barrymore Show making violet lemonade prompted the New Yorker to rave that she was “building an army of florivores”.
But the rise of Nelson, who founded her channel in 2019 alongside her job as social media manager, is the topsoil on a wider movement.
Behind her are hundreds more African American “plantrepeneuers” on social media, springing up to dig out space for black people in the natural world.
All of which exploded in popularity following the pandemic and murder of George Floyd.
“There’s something about being a black woman who gardens that confuses some people,” said Colah B Tawkin, founder of Black in the Garden; a podcast on “the intersection of Black culture and horticulture in a world where all the garden fairies and most of the gnomes are white”.
Tawkin, a mother from Atlanta, added: “But actually, Black people always had ancestral knowledge of wild plants. Harriet Tubman on the Underground … she literally foraged to survive. Unfortunately, we’ve been disconnected from that.”
An estimated 18% of the north-eastern United States regularly forages, according to research from the Forest Service, making it reportedly a more popular recreational activity than baseball.
But the current tangle of different federal, state and city laws governing it has racist roots.
Whilst indigenous tribes suffered early bans, it was after the emancipation of enslaved black people in 1865, celebrated by Juneteenth, which became a new federal holiday this week, that many southern states reversed legislation allowing public access to unfenced land.
“The laws were made by bitter, angry racists to keep freed people tied to properties”, said Baylen Linnekin, a food lawyer and senior fellow at the Reason Foundation.
He added: “That legacy exists in a lot of states, cities and national parks, where the default is often to ban foraging. [Now] it’s attributed by conservation groups to the idea that people can’t be trusted not to ‘destroy’ nature. It’s colonialism, racism and classicism.”
Although a lot of illegal foraging goes unpunished, there have been arrests.
In 1986, New York forager Steve Brill was prosecuted for harvesting dandelions in Central Park. In 2015, a Maryland resident was fined $50 for picking berries. Some areas are more progressive, like Seattle in Washington, which opened an ‘edible forest’ in 2009.
Places like the Berkeley Food Institute are campaigning to lift anti-foraging laws and put in place public classes on plant safety, sustainable practices and soil testing for contaminants.
Foraging has even become gentrified in the restaurant industry, with diners paying Michelin-starred chefs to feed them weeds.
Julian Agyeman, an urban planner at Tufts University in Boston and co-founder of the Black Environment Network in the UK, said the pandemic created a “golden opportunity for governments to reimagine access to public land … because of this new, ferocious need for nature.”
He added: “Maybe this is the reset we all needed?”
But for Maurice Harris, the LA-based “superstar florist” who fills his Bloom and Plume Instagram feed, with its 254,000 followers, with high-art, LGBTQ-positive naked photographs of himself with carefully draped foliage, there remains a layer of danger to being “a black person in nature”.
Last July, Christian Cooper, a bird-watcher in New York, went viral after a white woman called 911 claiming she was “threatened” by an “African American” man, after he asked her to put her dog on a leash.
Earlier this month, Minneapolis cleared part of George Floyd Square, a grassroots memorial occupying the street where he died, filled with plants tended by Black activists.
Harris, 39, also a judge on HBO’s Full Bloom reality show, said: “After George Floyd, I planted a garden and pick-axed into the ground a lot of rage and anger. Out of it grew something beautiful.”
Derek Haynes, 30, a biotech plant technician from North Carolina also known as The Crazy Botanist on Instagram, added: “Black folks gardening is phenomenal. A radical act. We are returning to a connection to the land that was snatched away from us by hatred and racism. We deserve this peace and joy. Putting my hands in the dirt. The worst that can happen is the seeds don’t grow.”
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