Dandelion, purslane, lamb's quarters, burdock, mulberries, violets, linden and white oak: Often slurred as weeds, edible vegetation thrives in the disturbed soils common to urban environments like Philadelphia. Gathered with the aid of a human or published guide, foraged foods are leaping from neglected planters and cracks in the sidewalk and onto the plates of intrepid diners. CP sought out three foragers to find out just how much food is under our feet.
Nance Klehm, ecological systems designer and horticulturalist, resides in Chicago; her community soil-building project, The Ground Rules, will launch here this May. Closer to home, Lynn Landes, founder of wildfoodies.org, is an activist, freelance journalist and Philadelphia resident. Our third expert, Jerry Silberman, is a union organizer and hobbyist forager; he has spent 48 of his 60 years in Philadelphia.
Jerry Silberman: There's an awful lot of very good food out there, free for the taking. It's very nutritious.
Lynn Landes: The wonderful thing about the wild edibles movement: It instantly changes your attitude about your surroundings. It's the fastest way to immediately connect with what's growing up around you.
Nance Klehm: When we go on walks and come together around some [foraged] snacks, we are making a pact to be in intimate communication with our environment.
The ethics of gathering
NK: We live here with other humans, so when we take from a public environment, we do it in a way that doesn't make it unsafe or trip somebody up — so it looks like we haven't been there. A plant can only have so much harvested and continue its survival — don't take more than 25 percent of the leaf. Know how the plant grows so you don't take more [than it can spare]. Be mindful when you take. Other animals are dependent on plants, and we want them around a lot.
LL: You start slow with wild edibles. Every person is unique. See how your body reacts to a small amount. Use the same cautions you use with any food.
NK: When collecting for each other, please be conscious of where you are pulling from: a laundry vent, near where cars exit, or dog waste? We're going to see these plants again and again, so make a choice where you pick them.
JS: Being attentive to nature and learning broad categories of what you taste and shouldn't taste is key. Don't taste any foliage that looks like a carrot leaf — some of them will kill you. Carrots have a bunch of delicious, spicy cousins like parsley, fennel and dill — the whole family is aromatic, but includes some very poisonous things.
NK: Mushrooms are hyper-accumulators of heavy metals — they search them out in the soil and it then shows up in their fruiting body, so mushrooms are used for bio-remediation of soil. If you're going through a park and see a bunch of puffballs, they are accumulating everything that’s been spilled in that park — definitely want mushrooms from clean land.
Where to look
JS: The city planted a row of burr oaks on 11th Street near the Convention Center. They have a delicious acorn which is almost sweet enough to eat fresh — it just needs to be soaked for a few hours. But all acorns can be eaten if you wanted to soak them long enough to remove the tannin.
NK: When I was here on Nov. 2 of last year for the World Toilet Conference, I saw 28 edible plants just by walking around the Convention Center.
LL: Behind the Art Museum at Lemon Hill, there are actually lemon trees back there. They look like green rose bushes with huge long thorns and grow these Chinese bitter oranges — it's more of a lemon — the size of a ping-pong ball. The skin feels like a peach but it tastes and smells just like a lemon. They're the only kind of citrus that grows this far north.
JS: All of the wild greens have a sharp taste — fairly bitter or sour — but the nutrition is in the sour. All of our domestic vegetables have the bitterness bred out of them. The dandelion flower, when wide-open and yellow, is great in a stir-fry. You know female gingko trees that produce all those smelly fruits? There's a technique for cleaning them, and inside is a really delicious fruit. Purple mulberries are great for eating right off the tree.
LL: People are really amazed by the taste of these plants. Wood sorrel just pops in your mouth! They can't believe the range of sour to sweet to herbal — all this, right around them.