In July Pelham Bay Park abounds in raspberries; ripe, they glisten in the sun, just begging to be picked. One sunny morning many years ago -- quite innocently, I insist (why else so brazenly in the open?) -- I was doing just that, anticipating a meal embellished by their succulent sweetness, when three park rangers forsook their vehicle to rush over and inform me that picking anything in a city park was against park regulations. "Leave them for the birds," said one of them, and I, a good citizen and by nature not an outlaw, agreed to do just that. So my dream of succulent sweetness was squelched by dutiful compliance.
it. Indignant at this act of callous and quite needless aggression, I vowed then and there to pick quantities of raspberries -- which I have never seen birds eating -- at every opportunity, a vow that proved remarkably easy to fulfill, since the minions of order are vehicle-bound, and city parks have many side paths where no vehicle can pass. My vow was obviously shared by others, since every weekend the ripe raspberries of Pelham Bay Park had a way of vanishing; I learned to look for them toward the end of the week, so more would have time to ripen. And so far the birds aren't starving.
For the hardy few: I have recounted the joys and perils of picking wild raspberries in a poem (not rhymed) first published in the poetry review Heliotrope. See "Wild Raspberries," no. 3, in the post "Poesy."
of mirth erupted, and the case risked being laughed out of court. Meanwhile Brill observed that indiscriminate mowing of weeds and overpruning by park workers was causing considerable damage in the parks. When he appeared for his arraignment, the unrepentant forager paused on the courthouse steps to serve a "five-borough salad," including dandelion, to reporters and passersby who in more than one way ate it up. After that a compromise was reached with the Parks Department, the charges were dropped, and he actually worked for the department as a naturalist for several years, until the advent of a less plant-friendly administration ended the arrangement.
Since then the "go-to guy" has not been molested, except occasionally by a ranger new to the force who doesn't know Brill and the story of his prior arrest. Park officials have a genuine concern about overforaging in the parks, but Brill knows these plants better than anyone, and insists that whatever he picks is never endangered; indeed, he's been foraging many of the same spots for years, and the plants have never failed to reappear. So they leave him alone (the rangers, not the plants). Which I heartily approve of; Steve Brill is an educator, not a criminal, and has revealed to hundreds the hidden treasures -- hidden in plain sight -- of the city's parks. May he have many more years of happy foraging unmolested by the guardians of order, who even as they protect raspberries manage to massacre chicory, that most innocent and lovely of flowers.
was now deep into the Park and far from civilization, with not another human being in sight, before starting back along another trail. To my knowledge, no blueberries grow in New York City parks, though I have seen the plants on Long Island in the spring.
Other plants that I have foraged include an aromatic mint in Van Cortlandt Park that I have never been able to identify, since half its features suggest peppermint and half suggest spearmint. Be that as it may, the leaves add a wonderful mint taste to cantaloupe, or to applesauce or apple crisp or apple pie -- in short, anything "apple-ish." And for a peppery taste in salad I have used poor man's pepper or peppergrass, a common but easily overlooked mustard whose tiny oval pods are indeed peppery.
If we have many uses for plants, they have uses for us as well. In late summer or early autumn just try walking through a field of tick trefoils, or simply brush past them on a path, and you will find your clothing thickly matted with hundreds of their small jointed pods, ridding yourself of which can take anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour. They even cling to shoelaces. No wonder these insidious plants of the pea family are also called sticktights. Well, they've got to spread their seeds about somehow, and here you come, blithely unaware of the danger. The same goes for beggar ticks and any plant with burs. Happy autumn! Nature's way.
One summer when I was cycling on Nantucket and eager to explore the distant reaches of the heath, I vowed to find the "Hidden Forest" indicated on my map. The name enticed me, and with great effort I did indeed discover it: a stand of scrub pine no different from numerous other stands on the island, but thickly carpeted with poison ivy. In short, a Hidden Forest that would do well to stay hidden.
Poison ivy is one plant that everyone, and especially foragers, should know; fortunately,
it is readily identified by its consistent three-leaflet pattern. No hike that I have ever taken, except in the most manicured of parks, is free from it. I have seen it growing in wet soil and dry soil, in woods and swamps and fields, and on roadsides. It can appear as an erect shrub or as a trailing or climbing vine, even twisting up tree trunks to appear at eye level or higher. Every part of it is poisonous: leaves, stem, roots, flowers, fruit -- even the smoke, if it is burned. Inescapable, yet avoidable. Not to be eaten by humans, needless to say, but many birds love it for the small white berries. I wish them well of it.
Another plant to avoid is stinging nettle, which, as I know from experience, lives up to its name.
And yet, it can be foraged. I have seen it at Keith's organic produce stand in the Union Square Greenmarket. One of the farmers told me that he drinks the tea as well, and has become immune to the plant, so that harvesting it causes him no trouble. To relieve joint pain, he added, some people even lash themselves with it. The wonders of plants will never cease.
|Heal-all H. Zell|
|Skunk cabbage leaves cmadler|
all common in this area, and for vivid descriptiveness I would add arrow-leaved tearthumb (I have felt those prickles), bird-foot trefoil, lizard's tail, turtlehead, Jack-in-the-pulpit, cat's ear (with soft downy leaves), and shepherd's purse (the tiny heart-shaped pods suggest a shepherd's purse, though, knowing no shepherds, I haven't checked this out). All of these are friends of mine from many a hike in this area. But for candor in a name it's hard to equal skunk cabbage, spring's first wildflower here, which pokes up among dead leaves or even patches of snow in wet spots in woods, soon to be followed by broad green leaves that look perfect for a salad, until you sniff them and remember the name. But I do protest the injustice embedded in the names of false dragonhead and false Solomon's seal (why false? they're just doing their thing), and the most foul and churlish allegation inherent in the name of bastard toadflax.
is suggestive, how about cut-leaved water hore-
hound, a plant of the mint family found in wet soil throughout? Suggestive in quite another way is poison hemlock, whose umbrella-like clusters of white flowers and finely cut, fernlike leaves I've often seen thriving near a huge sycamore tree in Van Cortlandt Park. It of course brings the death of Socrates to mind, but anyone contemplating suicide who, having read Plato, thinks of following Socrates to a peaceful and noble end should be advised that, yes, the juice of
this plant is highly toxic, but the death it induces is anything but peaceful, being preceded by tremors, seizures, ascending paralysis, and coma. Finally, to end on a more positive note, for sheer poetry I propose the names of Venus' looking glass, star of Bethlehem, Solomon's seal, and enchanter's nightshade, though admittedly this last, to look at, falls far short of its name. Even so, think of the name itself: enchanter's nightshade -- what magic!
Thought for the day: Be a friend of small grasses, rub the ridged bark of trees.
© 2012 Clifford Browder