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New York City Foraging: A Connection To Nature In Human Jungle.
Written by Meredith Craig de Pietro - Photos By Syd Woodward & Alex Harris

New York City is the type of place where if you want something, you can just reach out and grab it. Wild lettuce, chickweed, the common plantain, Japanese knotweed, and lamb’s quarters are all here for the taking, for those that know where to look and what they are looking for. “Foraging is about searching,” says Marie Viljoen, author of  Forage, Harvest, Feast. “The origin of the word forage is ‘to look for’.” One thing New Yorkers seem to be seeking more and more of is a connection to nature, and foraging is filling that gap. 

“Wildman” Steve Brill, has been educating and leading foraging tours through city parks since 1982. He gained notoriety in 1986 for getting arrested for picking a dandelion in Central Park, where picking plants is still not allowed. The event garnered so much media attention that the park eventually hired him to lead sponsored tours. “When people see how fun and interesting and diverse nature can be, they see how valuable it is,” says Brill. “And then the next obvious step is to protect and preserve it.” Brill leads weekend walks, regaling New Yorkers with anecdotes, jokes, and information. It’s a hands-on education that used to be commonly passed down through generations, teaching what plants to eat and which to use as medicine. Brill’s 15-year-old daughter, Violet, often accompanies him on tours and is even now leading her own. “The city is actually an amazing classroom for teaching people what grows beyond its edges,” says Viljoen.

Foragers emphasize that there is no need to leave the city to find greenery; vegetation like purslane grows on the sidewalk here. “Even if we think of the city as thousands of miles of concrete, trains, and subways, we’re still connected to nature. You can find a lot of plants growing through the cracks,” says Johanna Guevara-Smiley, owner of Dropping Seeds, a multi-use herb company. According to Guevara-Smiley, some of the best places to forage are abandoned lots and places where the flora has crept back in.

Additionally, there are unparalleled public green spaces in New York City including Central Park and Prospect Park, but also more unpopulated places like Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. “Recently,” Viljoen, who also leads foraging walks, says, “I met with someone who feels so disconnected from nature, that she wants to buy a forest! But she doesn’t go to the [existing] forests in New York. She’s so divorced from nature that she feels it has to be acquired. We just don’t spend time in green spaces that we have.” The areas of the parks that people tend to go to are the manicured lawns and ballfields, but the majority of the wooded areas are untouched; there are still wild spaces in the parks. “New York is a high-intensity environment,” says Viljoen. “Most people don’t realize that they can get on a subway for a few stops, walk into a forest and hear nothing except birdsong.”

For those new to foraging, the first step is learning to identify plants using apps or books. “Instead of just a wall of green, you’ll see habitats, you’ll see garlic mustard, you’ll see strands of chickweed,” says Brill. Next, sign up for a foraging walk, where you can safely try a tasting. “You have to know what you’re going to eat or you’re going to be dead,” says Brill. There is poison hemlock growing in Central Park that, according to Brill, looks like wild carrots to the untrained eye. Plus, it’s necessary to learn where pollution affects plants. But, as a whole, foraging plants rates low on the danger scale. “I think you would see more people being poisoned by E. Coli in bagged spinach found in a supermarket than keeling over from foraging and eating the wrong plant,” says Viljoen.

Foraging helps make the connection between the food we grow and the food we eat. Using new spices and plants in our cooking expands our palates and local cuisine. “Think of everything that’s in your spice rack,” Viljoen says. “How much of it comes from North America? The answer is probably nothing.” Rediscovering native plants would make them more valuable and possibly popularize new tastes and recipes like Brill’s “Juneberry Creme Pie” or Viljoen’s “Japanese Knotwood Hummus”. “All the [wild] food is very delicious, it’s healthful, it’s free, and it connects people to their local environment,” says Brill. “Plus, the resources are completely renewable.”

One issue with foraging though is the tendency for people to take too much. “Unconscious foraging leads to damage and decrease in regrowth,” says Guevera-Smiley. Over-harvesting is an issue, currently seen with ramps and fiddlehead ferns on a commercial scale, and it is important to forage ethically. “Never take it all,” says Viljoen. “Take some, and leave some, both for the plant’s health and its own reproduction, for pollinators (if you are gathering shoots or flowers), and for other foragers.” Finally, it’s important to watch for collateral damage while foraging, and avoid stomping or breaking other plants while you are gathering. As stewards of the earth, we must also give them protection and not just take their bounty. “Treat them with respect and politeness, and be kind,” says Viljoen.

In a city filled with brick and concrete, foraging is one of the few activities that bring us closer to nature, helping us to recognize how symbiotic our relationship is to the greenery that grows around us. “There was clearly a balance that humans had with the earth thousands and thousands of years ago. We can’t go back in time, but we have to move forward and understand what it means to be humans on this earth,” says Guevara-Smiley. “We’ve got to clean our backyard. If it doesn’t get fixed in the city, it’s not going to get fixed anywhere else.” Foraging allows New Yorkers to, literally, take these matters into their own hands.