A Guide to Modern Foraging With Alexis Nikole Nelson
The TikTok star known as Black Forager shares how she got into the practice and the secrets behind her beloved videos.
When I ring up Alexis Nikole Nelson, she’s in the kitchen, frying up some parathas. Speaking over sizzling butter, she tells me that her aim is to veganize the Indian flatbreads, with some field garlic she foraged herself. If all goes well, the recipe will be shared with her 1.2 million followers on TikTok.
“And if it doesn’t, you will never hear about them again,” she jokes. Nelson, who used to do stand-up comedy, has a bouncy, warm energy that puts you in a good mood the minute you start talking to her. And once she starts raving about plants, you’ll find yourself matching her enthusiasm.
A day in the life of Nelson in Columbus, Ohio, goes a little something like this: Wake up at sunrise, walk to the park, and gather cottonwood buds. Brew some coffee with homemade magnolia syrup. Send work emails. Research floral recipes. Make field garlic parathas for lunch. Visit the creek to track the progress of spring ephemerals—ramps, cutleaf toothwort, spring beauties, trout lilies—and make sure that no one is overharvesting them. Make dinner, a riff on a saag paneer with tofu instead of paneer and wild grains in place of spinach.
“Every time I eat anything that’s even a little bit foraged, it’s a connection to past as much as it’s a connection to place,” she says. “There’s something really cool about partaking in a practice that you know other people have for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years before you. It makes me feel like I’m a piece of the environment’s puzzle.”
Nelson has been foraging since she moved to Columbus ten years ago. In the spring, she’ll go on a foraging walk for at least 30 minutes, five times a week—seven if she’s lucky and the weather permits. If a particular plant inspires her, she’ll feature it on TikTok, underscore its fancy Latin name, and show you how you can turn it into a snack. The videos are studded with jokes, fast-paced cuts, and a little melodizing—it’s a full-on, plant geek fest.
“And who doesn’t love a fun party trick! Who doesn’t love being able to point at something and be like ‘Ah yes, cardamine hirsuta,’” she says, in her best posh accent.
Nelson’s introduction to the foraging world began with her gardening-obsessed mother, who would quiz a five-year-old Nelson on plants. “Field garlic, which I’m cooking with right now, was the first wild plant that I remember my mom teaching me,” she recalls. “She had me break it so I could smell the very pungent allicin.” Ever since then, Nelson absorbed her environment like a sponge, poring over every North American plant handbook her library had available.
Nelson’s father, who was passionate about cooking, sent her to culinary camp when she was just eight years old. There, she learned the basis of her cooking knowledge—from knife skills to the building blocks of a salad dressing.
Once she graduated college, though, this gentle obsession with plants became a necessity. Living paycheck to paycheck, Nelson had no choice but to get creative with her foraging finds—and to do so in an urban setting. “If I wanted to incorporate fresh foods into my diet, it would be the curly dock growing in the church parking lot down the street—not a bunch of kale bought at the grocery store,” she says.
And that’s why food sovereignty is especially important to Nelson. “In cities across the U.S., and neighborhoods like mine that are predominantly and historically Black, many people live in food deserts, or are underserved in terms of having healthy food options available,” she explains. “Any time I can let someone who lives in the city know that free, fresh, and often more nutrient-dense food is available to them, it’s a win for me.”
That’s how her TikTok account was born, at a time when the pandemic exacerbated limited access to food. Because of her job in social media marketing, Nelson had already been familiar with the TikTok landscape. “Just for funzies,” she filmed a short video during one of her foraging walks, in which she looked at the camera and said “Hey, I know going to the grocery store is a little scary right now. I’m gonna show you five plants that are definitely growing in your neighborhood that you can eat.” The next morning, she checked her phone and saw that it had 10k views. For someone with only a handful of followers, this was a huge deal.
“It’s wild because I was doing the exact same things for my Instagram, except I wasn’t making videos. I was taking these high-contrast, very Bon Appetit, overhead photos of all the foods that I made with my DSLR camera,” she says, returning to her posh voice. “I had 800 followers on that Instagram, and I thought it was the biggest deal in the world.”
It’s really Nelson’s zestful personality, then, that steals the show. She turns a somewhat impenetrable practice into a lifestyle that not only feels accessible, but is a delight to watch.
While the videos are fun and light, they’re also educational. It’s important to note that on most of her social media platforms, Nelson goes by “Black Forager”—a title that’s rooted in history. When Black people were enslaved, they learned how to forage in order to supplement the small meals they were given. And many had hoped that, once emancipated, they would be able to support themselves financially through foraging. But with the Emancipation Proclamation, the South was left with a huge labor gap and many southern states enacted laws that prohibited foraging, making trespassing a criminal offense instead of a civil one. This resulted in many slaves going back and sharecropping on the plantations they had only just left.
“At first glance, people will think that those laws are a form of preservation, when most of them just have extraordinarily racist roots of wanting to make sure that people of color had to get quote-un-quote real jobs in order to take care of themselves, instead of living off of the land,” Nelson explains. “So for me, harvesting is an act of rebellion, harvesting is me sticking my proverbial middle finger in the air to folks who wanted to disenfranchise people who looked like me, to folks who thought they knew better. And now years later, it’s obvious they did not.”
Nelson also cares deeply about environmental education. She only harvests large amounts of what she knows is an invasive species. “If you take home three pounds of garlic mustard greens, you’re doing the forest a favor—that’s an invader that will take over and carpet the forest floor so quickly,” she explains.
When it comes to plants like ramps, of which large patches have been disappearing, Nelson is much more careful. She’ll only harvest from very robust, healthy patches. And even then, she will take one leaf from a plant that has three or more leaves to its name, so it can continue photosynthesizing after. Then, she’ll salt the leaves. “If you’re making very deliberate decisions with the way that you are preserving what you harvest, you can stretch some of those more precious commodities further,” she says.
She humbly admits that her followers are only seeing one piece of the puzzle, as she flexes her knowledge on the things she’s most familiar with. For environments that she is not accustomed to, Nelson’s favorite app to use is iNaturalist, which she recommends to any beginner forager. The app geotags plants that people all over the world have identified.
“It opens the door to how much wonder there is in your vicinity and is really nice if you’re just getting your bearings and don’t feel comfortable making the call on an ID by yourself yet,” she says. “It makes a fun little scavenger hunt of your backyard, or your neighborhood, or the park that you’re camping in for the weekend.”
Of course, foraging can be dangerous, if you’re not careful about making sure that something is not poisonous. But, according to Nelson, it’s all about getting to know plants on a one-on-one basis. “Some of the invasive brassicas still trip me up sometimes. But I’m a huge advocate of never bringing anything home to cook, unless I’m 100% sure of what it is,” she says. “I will bring field guides with me sometimes. I’ll even consult some of my foraging friends, especially if I’m in an area that I’m not super familiar with. There’s no shame in that game.”
But Nelson also encourages experimenting with plants that you are familiar with. Acorns, for example, are something just about everyone has come across, and Nelson has turned them into everything from jelly to pancakes. Dandelion, another common find, is one of her favorite ingredients to recommend. “They’re edible from flower, all the way down to the root, and they’re not just for throwing in salads,” she says. “The flowers make wonderful fritters. You can also use the flowers to make dandelion wine, which is DEE-lightful. The roots roasted are a great coffee dupe, and you can even make bitters for your cocktails with the roots."
That’s the thing about Nelson. She manages to muster pure excitement for things that are right outside her door—things that have always seemed to exist, but have just gone overlooked—and makes you, for the first time, excited about them, too.