The Lawnmower Man: Do Park Officials Need to Worry About Foragers?

(Leda Meredith leads a foraging tour in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.)

Leda Meredith, an expert urban forager, stepped off the park’s cement walkway and into a clump of knee-high greenery. “We could get our lunch right here,” she says to a group of want-to-be and practicing harvesters with notebooks and cameras at the ready. Leading a tour through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Meredith next points to a sprawling leafy green and identifies it as pokeweed. Back in May, for only two weeks, pokeweed was edible and could serve as a delicious asparagus substitute, but right now it was out of season, and poisonous.

For that very reason, Meredith discouraged members of the group from putting anything in their mouths over the next few hours. She wouldn’t be able to check that the morsel was a safe one for all twenty participating–a sold out tour. The activity’s increasing popularity has caught the attention of New York park officials. They say that people dining at the park’s expense will end up stripping the park, according to a front page New York Times article. But Meredith disagrees. She doesn’t think hordes of foragers will descend on the parks any time soon, and in fact, some extra flora munching would be a good thing. The parks are crawling with invasive plants, and human nibbling may be just the thing to keep them in check.

Meredith, who has the lithe body of a former ballet dancer and short red hair, was well aware of the stir surrounding the Times’ article, in which she was quoted. “I actually think it’s fantastic,” she revealed shortly into the tour. “I welcome that the topic’s getting more attention. What’s unfortunate is that it’s been framed as adversarial: parks versus foragers. We both want the parks to continue.”

Where a casual visitor would relish a park’s greenery for its sanctuary, a skilled forager sees the possibility for a relish. No longer monochromatic, the park is full of shades of green that hint at a multitude of fresh, tasty ingredients. Many of these ingredients, however, hail from Europe or Asia and park managers are trying their best to remove such invasive plants.

At Prospect Park, managers are also reintroducing native foliage. But the effort isn’t going so well, says Meredith. “From what I’ve seen, invasives are winning.” Invasives are so successful because their natural predators aren’t around. Humans may need to step in and start chomping. A majority of invasive plants are edible and make savory additions to a conventional plate. Lamb’s quarters, which can be used in pesto; garlic mustard, a sandwich condiment; and mugwort, a seasoning as well as a muscle relaxer, are all invasive species abundant in Prospect Park.

(After chewing, peppergrass exudes a mustard-y,
then spicy taste.)

Although a park does seem to present endless meal options, not all greenery would make a nice salad. The key is knowing just what to pick or pull. “Would you eat something you had a 90 percent ID on?” posed a tour participant to Meredith. The answer was a resounding “No.” “I have to be 100 percent sure,” she said. “I don’t mess around.” That missing 10 percent may be the part that matters. Poison hemlock, wild carrot, and goutweed all look very similar, and a misidentification could be fatal. For the most part, Meredith says that people err on the overly cautious side anyway. Even people that have signed up for her tour have pulled away when offered a freshly plucked edible. Maybe it had something to do with where the plant was pulled; Meredith warned to stay away from the ‘dog zone’ along the park’s walkways. But as one group member commented, “This is Brooklyn: People feed their dogs well.”

(Cook with burdock roots for an artichoke taste.
Bonus: use the burrs for lost buttons, which stick
like velcro, on camping trips.)

As the three-hour tour rounded out, Meredith reminded the group that foraged food isn’t really free food. It takes a lot of work. It’s not as if there’s a hamburger bush ripe for harvesting. It takes time and effort to find and collect the food and then prepare a dish. It’s much easier to go to a corner store.

That’s one of the reasons Meredith doesn’t think park officials have to worry about a stripped park. She does concede, though, that the more people that get into urban foraging, the more irresponsible people there will be doing it, a concern of park officials. In response, she advocates for more education. Learning what to pick, when to pick, and how to pick sustainably can benefit both the munchers and the park. Plus, someone who knows what she is doing will end up with a more delectable meal. As Meredith talked about Lady’s Thumb, a ‘smart weed,’ a novice asked, “Can you eat the flowers?” Yes, said Meredith, “But there’s a difference between edible and good.”

A few foraging tips from Meredith:
- If it looks like a clover, it's edible.
- If it smells like garlic, it's edible.
- Mushrooms with pores are safe. Those with gills may be poisonous.
- 'Brambleberry' fruits, such as rasberries, are safe to eat.
- If the plant's name contains the word 'bane,' leave it be.

Also read:
-Micro-Size Me: A chef describes his year-long pursuit to live off foraged foods found near his home in England.
-Walk on the Wild Side: The increasing popularity of foraging

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