Saturday, September 1, 2012

23. Foraging: How to Live off the Land

                                                                      Ben Stephenson

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.

                                                                       Manfred Heyde
But later that day, as I was leaving the park, I saw that a park employee's power mower had just massacred a thick stand of chicory that I had marveled at on arriving in the park.  Chicory, a common roadside flower with sky-blue petals, is in no way a problem or threat to anyone; it simply displays its beauty, it exists.  It had appeared here voluntarily, a bounty for all, yet these fools had murdered
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."

Wildman Devours Japanese Knotweed
I'm not the only one who forages in the city parks or the only one at odds with the authorities.  For thirty years "Wildman" Steve Brill, the "go-to guy for foraging," has led groups on tours of city parks, teaching them which wild plants have culinary and medicinal value and advocating better eating habits for all.  A carnivore turned vegetarian turned vegan, he has a profound knowledge of such matters and happily imparts it to anyone who cares to sign up for his scheduled tours.  I went with him twice, once in Central Park and once in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.  Bearded and bespectacled, he wears a pith helmet and carries a shovel and a backpack, and seasons his tours with humorous anecdotes, one of his favorites being how he was once arrested in Central Park.  Back in 1986 two undercover park rangers joined his group, taking careful photographs of his every act in the Park, including the consumption of a dandelion.  Armed with this fearful proof, they then called for backup.  Uniformed officers appeared, and Brill was handcuffed, hurried off in a police van, fingerprinted, and charged with criminal mischief.  "Parks Muzzle Weed Maven" announced the Daily News, while other papers reported that the culprit had been "nabbed in mid-bite."  As the story spread to media throughout the country that a man had been arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park, waves
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.

My own foraging began before I knew Steve Brill, but has certainly been enhanced by his instruction.  To find  small plants in city parks I have learned to look wherever power mowers can't go: along fences, close to buildings and other structures, around the base of trees, and in any small depression in the ground.  In the spring I have myself picked dandelions, though I have never been arrested for doing so.  The trick is to harvest the tender leaves, which some see as resembling a lion's teeth (dent-de-lion = dandelion), before the showy yellow blossoms appear, since by that time the leaves are less tender.  Vacationing on Monhegan Island off midcoast Maine, I have supplemented my lettuce brought over from the mainland with quantities of dandelion leaves, thus avoiding the need to buy greens at the island stores, which have to import all their foodstuffs and therefore charge high prices.  For taste, there is nothing like freshly picked greens in a salad.  As for the other French name for dandelion, pissenlit, the less said the better.

                                                                          Evelyn Simak
Another food I love to forage is wild apples.  I have found them in Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Parks and the Staten Island Greenbelt, usually lying in quantities on soft grass .  Admittedly, they are on the puny side and often blemished, whereas the greenmarkets at the same time are offering some fifteen or twenty varieties of apple, much larger and with few or no blemishes, which tempts me away from the wild ones.  But the best apples by far that I have foraged are from a tree on Monhegan Island that I once stumbled upon while following a deer path.  In the fall this tree is laden with mostly flawless green apples with a tart taste that makes for good eating and superb baking.  My first harvest would be from the lower branches, following which I would return with an apple picker for at least two more harvests, resting on the ground from my labors while watching gulls and osprey and peregrine falcons soar overhead, before starting back with a net bag bulging with apples and so heavy I could barely get it from the woods to the cabin.  This tree grew in the middle of nowhere and I alone knew of it and how to get there.  But when, to eliminate ticks, the islanders voted to rid the island of deer, the deer path disappeared and I had to scramble over fallen spruce logs, around brambles, and up a hillside to reach my tree.  Each year it was more inaccessible, so finally I had to give it up and harvest trees in the village bearing acceptable but not superlative fruit.  My tree in the woods will probably never be harvested again; I dream of it in its solitary, laden, and resplendent glory.

                                                                           Renée Johnson
I have also foraged blackberries in city parks, and up in distant Harriman Park I used to slowly climb up Parker Cabin Mountain to the top (where neither Parker nor his cabin can be found) and lunched there, then went down a thrillingly steep descent to pick (quite legally) some of the myriad blueberries ripening there in August, preferring the big ones that grew on bushes at eye-level.  Then, going on to Lake Skenonto, I would have a small second lunch while enjoying the thrill of knowing I had reached the farthest point of the hike and
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.
                                           Sue Sweeney
Another common edible is mugwort, or common wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris) -- not the inconspicuous flowers but the deeply lobed, pointed leaves, green above and silver-downy beneath, which, if used in moderation, add a slightly bitter but not unpleasant taste to a salad.  Aromatic, in late summer it grows in abundance in various spots in Pelham Bay Park, where I have found whole jungles of it crowding out other less hardy plants. What I love about mugwort and peppergrass and many other plants is that most people would dismiss them as "weeds," being totally unaware of their culinary and often medicinal values.

Footnote:  My favorite definition of a "weed": A weed is a plant whose value has yet to be discovered, or has been forgotten.

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
That scientific names of plants have their use cannot be denied, but I have always preferred the traditional common names, the names that most people use, since they often give hints of the plant's uses in earlier times when supermarkets were unheard of and doctors were few and far between (fortunately, given their level of skills back then).  Knowledge of these herbal remedies sometimes came with the early settlers from Europe, and sometimes was acquired from the native peoples of America.  Boneset is a common white summer flower found in low, damp places whose name reminds us that the leaves were once wrapped around splints to help mend broken bones.  The dried leaves of fleabane were believed to repel fleas, and an extract from eyebright, a small plant with lobed white flowers, served to relieve redness and swelling of the eye.  On roadsides and lawns I have often seen heal-all or selfheal, a low or creeping plant of the mint family with violet flowers crowded among bracts in a terminal cluster.  True to its name, it has been used in poultices to help wounds heal; in a tea to treat sore throat, fever, wounds, internal bleeding, and diarrhea; and in China, where it has been known for over two thousand years, in an infusion to treat liver ailments.  From this one little flower, a host of healings.

                            Skunk cabbage leaves                   cmadler
Still other uses are suggested by the names of bedstraw, Mexican tea, and Indian tobacco,
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.
Poison hemlock
Once I get off on the names of wildflowers, I don't know where to stop.  For a name that's as baffling as it
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




  1. The idea of forging is fun and Steve Brill makes a good living with forging as entertainment.

    Two thoughts to add. First, the wildlife really needs the food. Second, most the the urban ground is polluted with pesticides, petroleum residues, lead from when it used to be in gasoline, industrial heavy metals such a mercury, chemicals with names you can neither spell nor pronounce, PCB's, etc.

    So if you're going to take the food the birds need, which includes the plants that feed the insects which feed the birds, please leave them your credit card so they can go to the grocery store; fair is fair. We used to share with wildlife a long time ago but then there was a lot more uncultivated land so there was enough for all. Feel free to eat the invasives that native animals won't touch - Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, etc.

    Because so much land is polluted, it's very dangerous to gather even invasives except from areas you know to be pollution free for several decades. Keep in mind that's there's been a lot of chemical dumping in uncultivated areas, most yards now have or once had pesticides applied. Near roads and driveways is sure to be full of lead, etc.

  2. Good points! When gathering dandelion on Monhegan, I always kept away from the roads. But otherwise, the island was pretty free of contaminants. And if you pick berries anywhere, you'd better wash them thoroughly. cb