It has been a long, cold winter for much of the United States. But now, as green shoots begin to sprout and spring recipes start to fill the food blogs, some intrepid Americans are heading out the front door with basket and scissors in hand to harvest the burgeoning urban landscape. From public green spaces, roadsides and their own backyards, they snap up dandelion greens, lambʼs quarters (also known as pigweed) and wild mustard leaves. Foraging, say enthusiasts, is not only a great way to celebrate the season, but also a way to reconnect with neighbors after sheltering indoors through the winter.
Mark Vorderbruggen is a Houston research chemist with a passion for the outdoors. His frequent scribbling of notes and sketching of plants while out in the woods with friends prompted them to nickname him “Merriwether,” after the noted 19th-century explorer Merriwether Lewis. Under that nom de plume, he writes a popular blog called “Foraging Texas” and periodically teaches foraging classes at the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center. In the balmy climate of southeast Texas, foraging is a year-round affair for Merriwether, but spring brings new vitality to his neighborhood and he makes a point of taking daily walks with his two daughters through their suburban Houston-area neighborhood. Along the way, he takes note of what is edible and connects with neighbors.
It’s a skill he acquired from his own parents. “I grew up in central Minnesota,” he says. “I learned foraging from my parents, who were children of the Great Depression.” Now, his mother, for whom foraging was a necessity born of deprivation, is bemused by the large numbers of would-be urban foragers who take her sonʼs classes.
For Merriwether, much of the enjoyment of the classes comes from exposing children to the wonders of nature, discoveries that he enjoyed in the woods and fields of his childhood. These days, he says, “kids are afraid of nature because their parents are afraid of nature.” It doesn’t help that popular media often paints nature in negative, frightening colors, he says, with animals as monsters living in wild, hostile environments. Simply showing a child what a wild berry tastes like is opening a door to the real world of nature, not some Technicolor version.
When Merriwether moved in March 1999 to his suburban neighborhood, near Houston, many of the trees had been cut down and the fields bulldozed to make way for a parade of homes. His was one of the first homes to be built, and he decided to add a front porch to the structure hoping it would encourage introductions with his future neighbors. Soon, as new people moved in and as the “weeds” came back, Merriwether found himself harvesting his own yard and teaching neighbors how to set aside parts of their landscape for wild plants. His daily walks with his two daughters led to more neighborly conversations and connections. “I became the guy like Cpl. Radar OʼReilly on that TV show, ‘M*A*S*H,’” he says.
He’s become the neighborhood fixer — he knows who needs to borrow a tool and who has one to lend. That social network proved invaluable when Hurricane Ike struck the area in 2008. Merriwether helped his neighbors organize clean-up teams and communal meals, which were supervised by a food-service manager who lived in the neighborhood.
If foraging has taken root in places like Texas, you can imagine how popular it’s gotten in other parts of the country — like, say, Boulder, Colo. Caleb Phillips, a research scientist and adjunct assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Ethan Welty, a photographer and geographer, are both foraging enthusiasts, who together created the website Fallingfruit.org. The site is a global map of the urban harvest; users can search for edible plants by location, and also report and post sites. Phillips was inspired to launch the mapping effort as he strolled the Boulder campus one day, and spotted a sour cherry tree, a familiar sight in his hometown of Portland, Ore. As he picked enough cherries for a pie, several students stopped to ask him: “What are you doing? What are those red berries?” The incident prompted him to use his computer programming skills to map Boulderʼs urban harvest.
In March 2013, Phillips met Welty and they decided to take the mapping project global. Global hotspots for urban foraging have emerged, they say, in Poland, Israel and Madagascar (Merriwether notes that he also gets lots of emails from Poland and Israel about foraging); Japan is one of the least active spots. Phillips and Welty are now considering creating Spanish, Polish and Hebrew versions of their site as well as a Kickstarter campaign to fund a mobile app. “Itʼs a great way to explore new culinary horizons,” says Phillips, adding that, like Merriwether, foraging has eased introductions with his neighbors.
In San Francisco, where Phillips resides part of the year, Fallingfruit maps have yielded some surprising plants surviving in places far from their native environment. For example, some edible non-native plants that have been introduced in the Bay Area as garden ornamentals include carob pods, pink peppercorns and loquats. California also has those abundant native plants like citrus trees that can provide sustenance for more than just one family. “Itʼs a really neat way to meet your neighbors,” Phillips says. “They may have a grapefruit tree or lemon tree, and thereʼs no way they can eat all the fruit.”
Edible plants abound in urban areas, Merriwether notes. As the urban landscape changes — with new areas being torn up and old ones abandoned — nature has a way of stepping in to heal the damage. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” he says.
But while he encourages people to seek out what is edible in their environment, he also stresses the importance of remembering the fundamental tenets of foraging ethics: respect for the law, the land, the plant and yourself. First, foragers should find out what the local laws are; many states have strict foraging laws that allow plants to be harvested only if the landowner or appropriate government authority has given permission. As Merriwether points out, however, the mere act of asking a neighbor whether they’d be willing to share the abundance of a mustang grapevine or the fruit of a wild Texas persimmon tree helps make community connections. Second, be mindful of minimizing the impact of harvesting on the land and the individual plant itself. And, finally, be absolutely certain of a plantʼs identity — many are safe to eat, but many can be toxic — to safeguard your own health and safety. Novice foragers can familiarize themselves with the practice and their local landscape by taking a class.
Phillips and Welty echo the point about adhering to the forager’s ethical code. Lest you forget to ask permission before innocently picking a few berries, for instance, they’ll remind you of a story that recently made headlines in the foraging world: In Portland, last October, overaggressive foraging prompted one apartment complex manager to post a “No Trespassing” sign on the property, with an added handwritten warning: “Especially sous chefs!”
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