My personal history with wild foraging is passionate but limited. Every summer of my childhood in Kansas found my hands stained a deep purple from picking wild blackberries. The memory of this was recently prompted when I happened upon a small thicket growing over the sidewalk in my neighborhood; the taste took me right back to summer days chopping wood with my grandpa and traipsing along the Kansas River with my buddies.
Another foraging treasure in both Kansas and the Northeast is morels, a delicious springtime mushroom that resembles a partially dried sponge and was probably originally gathered by hobbits. My history with morel gathering is represented best by a trip I took with my Uncle Mike when I was in middle school. I thought I’d found a treasure trove of them under an old tire, probably hundred or so, but it turned out to be just a bunch of corncobs some raccoons had stored away for the winter. No matter how proficient I became afterward, my Uncle Mike still brought that trip up every time someone mentioned hunting morels.
I’m of course not the only one guilty of misidentifying mushrooms (though I might be the only one to misidentify them for rotting corncobs). I recently discovered at the Horticultural Society of New York’s exhibit of composer/forager John Cage’s folios for his 1972 Mushroom Book that Cage once had to have his stomach pumped after misidentifying a hellebore for skunk cabbage and accidentally poisoning an entire dinner party.
Which brings me to the number one fear of many would-be foragers: having to get your (or worse, your child’s) stomach pumped after mistaking a hellebore for skunk cabbage, or eupatorium for garlic mustard, or pokeweed in its poisonous stage for pokeweed in its edible stage, or…you get the picture. This is why it’s important for a beginner to find a good guidebook, or even better a seasoned veteran to guide you in identifying species, as well as making sure you’re practicing sustainably and within city code.
Fortunately for New Yorkers, there are a number of urban naturalists teaching classes and serving as guides for budding foragers. Probably the most notorious of them is “Wildman” Steve Brill, who was famously arrested in Central Park in 1986 by park rangers for eating a dandelion (which is not against the law, by the way). Brill has made an entire cottage industry from his ecological calling, with plenty of radio and TV appearances, a master foraging app (available for iPhone, iPad, and Android), a very informative website, and an extensive schedule of foraging tours throughout the year. He also frequently does Groupon and Amazon Local deals offering 2-person tours for $20.
My own resurgent interest in foraging was spurred in fact by my five year-old, Checkers. With all the gardening we’ve done in the past couple of years, she’s taken a borderline-obsessive interest in knowing all plants by name. I’d spoken with Leda Meredith, another urban foraging sensei, earlier in the year about fiddleheads, so I contacted her about bringing Checkers to one of her foraging tours at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Long story short: I think I have a five-year-old botanist on my hands. She took notes (in pictures) during the classroom portion, thoroughly examined the mayapples, sassafras, pokeweed, and myriad other plant life Leda pointed out in the garden, and continued identifying familiar plants on our walk home through Prospect Park.
Still on a high from our class, I’ve decided to give readers a beginner’s sampling of easy-to-identify edibles you might find on any walk through the park, or even growing in the sidewalk cracks or garden spaces. If this gets your juices flowing, I’d strongly recommend both Steve’s website and Leda’s newly published guidebook, Northeast Foraging. Here are a few of Checkers’ favorites so far.
Wood sorrel: According to Leda’s guidebook, this lemony snack is especially prodigious “anywhere we humans have recently disturbed the soil,” making it a bona fide urbanite. Its leaves resemble clover only each of them is heart-shaped, and it produces a wealth of tiny yellow flowers. We’ve discovered it recently in our bathtub garden, competing with the nasturtiums for eating flower supremacy. Everything on it is edible, but the unopened flower pods are especially delicious. Leda calls the tiny morsels “fairy okra.” I told this to Checkers—she then told me the only real fairy is the tooth fairy, so I told her she should try to lose her baby teeth in late spring through late summer so the fairy could stop by the bathtub for a snack.
Violet: Easily identifiable by their heart-shaped leaves (notice a trend here?) and delicate purple flowers, violets are so prodigious that they might be called invasive. In midspring when the leaves are curled up and delicate, you can eat both the leaves and the flowers. The flowers wither and the leaves harden with the onset of summer, but you can still make tea from the leaves, or dry them to flavor soups in the winter.
Field garlic: Or wild onions, as I call this stalwart. Like the taste of wild blackberries, the smell of these takes me right back to childhood. Checkers has already cultivated a deep love of its distinctive scent, its own uniquely wild mashup of onion and garlic. We love cutting them up an using them interchangeably in anything calling for onion, green onion, garlic, or garlic scapes. Unfortunately these are just going out of season, wilting in the hot sun. The good news is, they will be the first up in the winter, often poking their green shoots out of the snow in mid-winter.
Lamb’s quarters: Learning about this plant is truly a revelation, if only for this reason: I can almost guarantee you’ve seen this delectable plant growing on the sidewalk or in the park, and you probably didn’t give it another thought. The leaves don’t look particularly edible, with a whitish powder over much of them that looks vaguely poisonous, but it’s not only totally edible but one of the world’s healthiest greens, a worthy addition to your rotation of cooking greens. WNYC recently had a podcast on lamb’s quarters as one of their Last Chance Foods, but fear not—you can gather the leaves all the way through early fall.
John Proctor is our Dad for All Seasons and writes on his experience living and raising his two children in Brooklyn. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2000, and been a father since 2009. Besides keeping company with his wife, two daughters, and chihuahua, he also writes memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in The Austin Review, The Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, New York Cool, and Gotham Gazette, and he serves as editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can see more of him at his website NotThatJohnProctor.com, and he can also be reached at email@example.com. He’d love to hear from you!