Finding Wild Flavours in the City
5 MIN READ
Instead of heading to a bar to meet friends why not get together for some urban foraging? First, gather some tastes from your part of town and then add some oomph to that standard bottle of gin or vodka?
A handful of foraged fruits or a pocketful of aromatic leaves are all it takes to add part of your world to a glass. It isn’t something that money can buy so get outdoors with your crew and relearn a bit of what our ancestors knew about edible plants. Together you can explore with your senses, and then enjoy the fruits of your labors.
As an Ethnobotanist, I’ve worked on product development for distilleries and my job has been to help capture a sense of place in a bottle. Distilling the essence of epic landscapes of islands has an obvious romantic notion, but every city hides a bountiful patch of flavours that reveal something about the neighourhood.
While Edinburgh in Scotland may be the only place where you can find juniper growing wild in the middle of a city other gin botanicals grow in urban gardens and parks. For example, gin stalwarts orris and citrus thrive in southern Californian and Italian gardens. In Scandinavian cities you can find the vivid green leaves and flowers of feral angelica – the roots of this plant are used to add intensity to gin.
Your place or mine?
Let’s start in New York, New York. I’d taken a ferry across the Hudson River to Hoboken to meet my friend Poppy for some Bon Voyage drinks when I noticed a serviceberry tree full of fruit. I paused to enjoy these serendipitous berries with a view of Manhattan and now every time I see those seasonal berries I remember that moment before Poppy set off on her sailing adventure. That same trip I found a black walnut lurking in an upstate parking lot which I infused in spirit to make an Italian walnut spirit Nocino. Urban foraging can be joyful and surprising but you have to know what you are looking for so I’m going to share a few secrets with you.
Urban foraging is evolving from a sometimes contested niche occupation to an edible activity for any city dweller. Steve Brill’s case highlights this. He had been leading foraging tours around city parks for five years when he was arrested on a charge of criminal mischief for picking plants in Central Park in 1986. The parks department had previously warned him several times to stop picking plants in their parks. But within a month of his arrest the New York parks department eased their stance and were working on guidelines that accommodated Steve’s tours. Now foraging is being recognized as an aspect of fostering sustainable cities
In May 2009, Rebecca Lerner set out to survive on wild food found within Portland, Oregon. She hunted edible plants in vacant lots, wilderness areas, yards, even plants springing up by the sidewalks. After sustaining herself for five days Rebecca highlighted that knowing your neighborhood helps, but people sharing locations of edible plants saves time. Knowledge of what to pick used to be passed directly from person to person but today you can find it online.
In between the two extremes of getting arrested for picking a weed and living off urban foraging for five days, there is a fun activity trending. Collect enough edible plants with friends and then create a unique cocktail recipe. Consuming what you gather from familiar haunts and routes around the city is a way to connect with both the natural world and the people around you. Even in the concrete jungle wild nature is present.
Being free, foraged food is also much cheaper. Looking out for edible plants and spotting when they are ripe for eating enhances your journey by linking you with seasonality and place. Foraged plants offer flavours from plants than can’t be bought in a store, and you don’t even need a garden to grow them. A little foraging between office and home can turn standard bottles of gin or rum at home into a unique tipple.
Yarrow grows anywhere and everywhere. It intensifies gin’s flavor and adds a light bitter edge.
What to forage
Falling Fruit provides an online community generated map of edible plants in cities and encourages people to make use of fresh food growing around towns. It covers a range of edible plants from municipally planted trees that happen to have a tasty crop such as pinyon pines, to weedy herbs like yarrow.
- Pinyon pines grow wild west of the Rocky Mountains. These nuts smooth spirits into a drink that can be sipped neat.
- On the east coast you’ll find nuts from walnut tree that are great for infusing in spirit to make liqueurs like the the French ‘Liqueur de noix’.
- Yarrow grows anywhere and everywhere. It intensifies gin’s flavor and adds a light bitter edge.
- Garlic mustard is a European plant considered invasive in New England, so by harvesting the pungent leaves to enliven a red snapper cocktail you’ll also help native plants to reclaim ground.
- Celebrate spring’s arrival in Texas by using pink and sweet redbud flowers as a garnish or ornament frozen inside ice cubes.
- Boulder, Colorado has an annual dandelion festival. Marla Emery who researched urban foraging in Baltimore and New York says, “Dandelion is definitely up there on the list of most common in both senses of the word. It has large and widely dispersed populations throughout cities and is frequently foraged.” The bright yellow flowers are excellent for adding flavor and color to syrups or teas. Blend with bourbon as a dandelion julep, or gin as a dandelion martini.
- Bay trees, a Mediterranean native, are a feature of urban gardens, particularly as doorstep topiary.
A place to pick
In the UK, if you are not trespassing and not on land or picking plants to which specific restrictions apply, you can legally pick above ground parts of a plant but may not dig up roots. In the USA foraging in city parks remains illegal in most places, although some cities are becoming forager-friendly
- New York City Parks is including foraging as an activity in Concrete Plant Park with their foodway tours e.g. edible blossoms. Leda Meredith foraging author and tour leader suggests blending foraging with conservation, “Most of the wild edibles in the parks are invasive species that the Parks Department actually brings in volunteers to weed out. So [it’s] a low stress, legal way to forage in NYC parks and do an environmental good deed at the same time.”
- Seattle’s Beacon Park is managed by the community rather than the parks department and is intended to be a food forest.
- In 2017 Minneapolis’ Park and Recreation Board approved the harvesting of some fruits and nuts for personal use.
- Berkeley Open Source Food are working on easing restrictions on foraging by advocating “…public policy that increases the amount of free, fresh, nutritious foods in cities, by stopping the use of herbicides on public lands and allowing foraging of invasive species on public lands…” Each year they also run a wild/feral food week.
Hang out with foraging experts
Safety is the biggest limitation of foraging – some plants are toxic by nature, some are toxic due to where they are growing. It’s worth going on a foraging course with a local guide to be sure that you are aware of local poisonous plants and know to avoid them.
Green Deane of Eat the Weeds leads regular foraging classes in urban areas and areas where you encounter urban plants in Florida. In Texas Scooter Cheatham founded Useful Wild Plants and Lynn Marshall has organized their extensive data into distribution maps and a database.
Scooter highlighted Austin as an urban foraging area saying, “Everything from river banks to things growing in the cracks in the sidewalks. Some really good Austin area plants are Mexican plum, dewberries, mustang grapes and assorted winter greens. City and state parks prohibit damaging the flora – taking branches, digging plants. Nibbling on bits here and there isn’t usually a problem, but wholesale collection is not allowed.”
Russ Cohen leads foraging walks and talks in New England and New York. He doesn’t run courses within city limits but highlighted areas outside of city parks that offer foraging opportunities. “Edges of school ballfields, bike paths, and vacant lots, along with edible weeds in and along community gardens – picking with permission of the gardeners of course, I think they’d appreciate help with their weeding.”
Within the Bay Area of California Kevin Feinstein of ForageSF runs a couple of foraging walks in San Francisco a month.
Do it Yourself with Care
If you decide to go it alone remember – never pick something if you are not sure of its identity. Better to start by getting to know a couple of plants and then gradually add to your foraging repertoire, rather than make mistakes that lead to a hospital admission.
Where to start? A yard around your apartment block can yield a range of leafy herbs and edible flowers. Many trees and shrubs planted for ornamental effect are also delectable. Parking lots or green spaces owned by businesses are good locations to ask the owners if you can forage. Look out for places where fruit falls from trees and then rots, many land owners welcome a forager who picks fruit before it falls and makes a mess.
When wild harvesting in urban areas avoid areas where plants could be contaminated. For example, near roads with heavy traffic or rail tracks, where herbicides may have been sprayed to maintain right of way. Also check historical uses of land as prior industrial use may cause soil to be contaminated e.g. old scrap yard sites having lead present can render plants growing there unsuitable for ingestion.
A general introductory book to edible wild plants and foraging is Edible Wild Plants by Todd Telander. But there is a lot of botanical diversity in different regions and getting a local guide will help you to identify local plants e.g. Edible and useful plants of the southwest by Delena Tull and Northeast Foraging by Leda Meredith provide guidance to opposite areas of the country.
In Peggy Sias Lantz’s book Florida’s Edible Wild Plants she equips you with foraging knowledge and also describes the plants and their habits with details and stories that renders them as characters. Urban foraging isn’t about following an ordered shopping list or just about correctly identifying plants you want to eat, it is interacting with city and other people who inhabit it.
Rebecca Lerner’s book Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness immerses you in finding and using foraged foods in a city as she writes not only about urban edibles but also about challenges she encounters and people she learns from.
I hope that gives you lots of tips for your first foraging trip but please make sure you follow good foraging etiquette – leave enough, probably most of what you see, for wildlife and other people to enjoy. In any case a handful of leaves, fruit, or flowers is plenty to jazz up that round of drinks for you and your friends.