Weed Eaters:
Wildman Goes Foraging
Environmental News Network
June 22, 2000
By "Wildman" Steve Brill
Monkey

Hundreds of valuable, renewable herbs, greens, fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, roots, and mushrooms pervade our backyards, parks, fields, and trail sides. Although we can incorporate these common, healthful, and tasty renewable resources into our meals and home remedies the way our ancestors did, we usually either disregard them or try to destroy them as “weeds.”

Millions of years of evolution have endowed these wild plants with the high concentrations of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that they (and we) need to survive, plus way more flavor than their water-bloated commercial counterparts, which we usually breed for size alone.

Wild foods are safer and more natural than supermarket food. Our ancestors survived by foraging for tens of thousands of years, whereas junk food has been killing us for less than a century, and genetically altered food is an even newer experiment.

It’s fun and easy to learn to recognize and use wild plants. And it’s exciting and empowering to add wild plants to your meals while saving money, getting better acquainted with your biome, and improving your health. Incorporating wild foods into a vegan diet, along with regular exercise, yoga, and meditation, has made me healthier and more energetic at the age of 51 than I was at 21, when I lived on junk food.

And it’s unbelievable how good meals taste when you begin incorporating wild ingredients. Foraging also provides a refreshing way to exercise, and it increases your commitment to protecting your local ecosystems.

Of course, you must identify any plant you’re going to use with 100% certainty. Also, avoid species with poisonous look-alikes until you’ve gained expertise. Follow a few safe species through the seasons and learn them well, then gradually add new species to your list.

I’m now a professional naturalist and environmental educator who leads Wild Food and Ecology Tours in and around NYC. Here’s how I first got involved:

One day when I was hungry, I tried preparing my first recipe off the side of an oatmeal carton, and it actually tasted good! Soon I began using library cookbooks, then altering recipes to make them more healthful, and exploring ethnic markets for exotic ingredients.

When I encountered ethnic Greek women foraging in a local park in 1979, I stopped to inquire. Although I couldn’t understand a word they said (it was all Greek to me!), I came home with grape leaves to stuff, and became hooked on foraging.

I began leading Wild Food and Ecology Tours in NYC metro area parks in 1982 (urban parks, with great habitat variety and both native and exotic species, are excellent places to forage). But in 1986 two NYC park rangers infiltrated my group, paid me with marked bills, used surveillance cameras and walkie-talkies, and arrested and handcuffed me for eating a dandelion in Central Park.

I was charged with criminal mischief for removing vegetation from the park, but when they rifled my backpack, they didn’t find any more plants, because I had eaten all the evidence. When they let me go with a desk-appearance summons, I notified the media. The press ate up the story, and I got so much big-time PR that the Parks Dept. was forced to drop the charges and hire me to lead the very same tours.

I resumed freelancing in 1990, and by now, thousands of my tour participants have incorporated foraging into their lives. And countless kids who sampled the local flora with me through their school classes, day camps, scout tours, or on birthday party forays, have also become more involved with their environment, and with studying the science that explains it all.

Here are a few of my favorite plants, widespread species that grow throughout the US and in many other temperate regions throughout the world:

COMMON CATTAIL
(Typha latifolia)

Cattail

Cattail Shoot; Immature and Mature Flower Heads

Watercolor pencil illustration by "Wildman"

SEASON: Spring to early summer

HABITAT: Still, shallow water, including marshes, ditches, and edges of lakes and ponds

DESCRIPTION

Colonial herbaceous (non-woody) plant. Leaves narrow, sword-like, arising from the plant’s base, up to 9 feet tall. Immature, long, slender flower head green, wrapped in sheath in late spring, soon emerging to become covered with golden pollen; brown and cigar-like in summer; covered with tiny, white, fluffy seeds from late fall to early spring.

HEALTH BENEFITS

1. Shoot (inner stem)—beta carotene, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C

2. Flowerhead—protein, essential fatty acids, protein, beta-carotene, various minerals and trace minerals – similar to bee pollen

FOOD USES

Pull the stem out of the marsh, peel off the tough, outer sword-like leaves in the spring, and eat the plant’s tender heart. It tastes like zucchini or cucumber, good raw or cooked. (Caution: never pull out a cattail if animal rights activists are watching!)

Cook the immature, green flower head like corn-on-the-cob in late spring or early summer, and serve with a sauce. On windless days, shake the mature, yellow flower heads over a paper bag and use the pollen as flour, mixed with whole-grain flour, or use as a high-energy food supplement, like bee pollen.

MULBERRIES
(Morus species)

Mulberries

Mulberry Fruit, Leaves, and Branch

Watercolor pencil illustration by "Wildman"

SEASON: Late spring to early summer

HABITAT: Edges of forests, in fields, open woods, and near fresh water

DESCRIPTION: Medium-sized tree 40-60 feet tall. Leaves alternate (not paired), oval, sometimes partially divided into lobes, toothed (serrated), 2-6 inches long. Soft, juicy, sticky fruit, an elongated berry up to 3/4 inch long, dark purple, white, or pink (depending on species), faceted like a raspberry, but hanging from a slender fruit stalk.

HEALTH BENEFITS: Contains fructose, high levels of potassium, plus calcium and phosphorus.

USES: To harvest in quantity, shake the tree’s branches over a drop cloth. Avoid harvesting after heavy rains, which wash away much of the flavor. Use mulberries like other berries, in pies, cakes, cobblers, jams, and compotes. They’re sweet but not tart, so lemon or lime juice improves their flavor. Note: Flavor and quality vary from tree to tree.

GINKGO
(Gingko biloba)

Gingko Fruit in Leaf

Gingko Fruit and Leaf
Photo by "Wildman"

SEASON: Mid-fall through winter

HABITAT: Urban and suburban streets, cultivated parks (extinct in the wild)

DESCRIPTION: Slender tree up to 90 feet tall, with fan-shaped, alternate (unpaired) leaves 2-3 inches across; twigs look like bullets. Fruit dull orange, 3/4 inches across, smelling like vomit; surrounding beige, almond-shaped, thin-shelled nut; kernel inside jade green, covered with a tight, brown, papery sheath

HEALTH BENEFITS: Bioflavinoids that increase circulation, especially to the brain, improve memory, and strengthen capillaries

USES: The smelly fruit of this very ancient tree is guaranteed to repel dinosaurs, or you’ll get double your money back. Discard it wearing rubber gloves (it may cause a rash), rinse the beige kernel within, then toast in an oven (the seeds are poisonous raw) 30 minutes at 275 degrees F., stirring occasionally. Crack the thin shells and enjoy the green kernel as an appetizer, in soups, salads, stews, rice, and Chinese dishes.

GIANT PUFFBALL
(Calvatia gigantea)

Giant Puffball Painting

Watercolor pencil illustration by "Wildman"

SEASON: Late summer through mid-fall

HABITAT: On the ground in well-fertilized fields or pastures where the underlying fungus has plenty of underground manure to decompose

DESCRIPTION: Whitish, Styrofoam-like globe as small as a softball or as large as a beach ball, with short, root-like fungus connecting it to the ground. White, soft and undifferentiated inside, like cream cheese (or like tofu if you’re a vegetarian) at first, then sickly green-brown, finally maturing into trillions of microscopic spores that emerge as a puff of dark brown powder when pressed. Caution: Avoid smaller white, globular mushrooms with a stem, cap, and gills inside when you cut them open. They could be deadly amanitas.

HEALTH BENEFITS: Wild mushrooms like this one are best non-animal source of vitamin D; contains chitin, a non-soluble protein that precipitates bile in the large intestine so the bile is eliminated from the body instead of being reabsorbed, forcing the body to make new bile by breaking down cholesterol, improving cardiac health

USES: This mushroom is edible only when immature and white and soft inside. Slice the puffball, sauté it, steam it, or simmer it in soups, like other mushrooms. It has a rich, earthy flavor with a texture of marshmallows.

Foraging puts you in touch with the Earth, reduces both your food bill and your impact on the planet, and makes you healthier. It also stimulates your mind and spirit. There’s always more to learn, even though you already enjoy foraging after you’ve learned but a handful of plants. Explore your ecosystem and the renewable wild foods it offers. And share the experience with children whenever possible. It will transform your life.

Before You Forage

1. Identify every plant with 100 percent certainty.

2. Collect small proportions of common plants where they are very common.

3. Take only what you need, and don’t disturb the habitat.

4. Avoid polluted soil and areas within 50 feet of heavy traffic or railroad lines.

5. Rinse everything thoroughly under running water, and eat small amounts at first, in case of allergies or adverse reactions.