Spencer H. Johnson

Before Supermarkets, People Foraged for Food Out in Nature (and We Still Can)

by , 06/11/14
filed under: Botanical, Sustainable Food

Russ Cohen, oxalic acid, sassafras, wilderness, wood sorrel, tapping trees, sedum, salad, peapod, organic, natural resources, monsanto, natural, milkweed, Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, grocery stores, jun berry, GMO, environment, fleabane, black raspberry, Monsanto, edible, weeds, edible trees, edible plants, chicory

Before we gathered our food in grocery carts and online services like Peapod, we gathered it straight from the bush. It’s a shocking idea that the food we eat might not be hosed with the equivalent pesticides of a 1970′s DDT public swimming pool before we eat it, but once upon a time, we foraged. No Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and everything came from nature, au naturale—naked food.

Russ Cohen, oxalic acid, sassafras, wilderness, wood sorrel, tapping trees, sedum, salad, peapod, organic, natural resources, monsanto, natural, milkweed, Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, grocery stores, jun berry, GMO, environment, fleabane, black raspberry, Monsanto, edible, weeds, edible trees, edible plants, chicory

We live in a world of a rapidly changing climate, where food giants like Monsanto Corporation have genetically altered forty percent of U.S. crops, leaving us unable to ascertain the possible effects they’re having on our bodies. It’s important to buy locally produced and organic food whenever possible, but when deep in the bush or even on a day-hike through the light wilderness, it’s nice to know the edible plants around. That’s when Russ Cohen’s skills kick in.

Related: 6 Edible Plants You Can Forage for in New York City

Russ’s environmental education began in the classroom before he shifted to the outdoors. He received a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College (1978) and a masters in Natural Resources from Ohio State University (1982). In case his environmental endeavors didn’t work out, he also obtained a Law degree that same year at OSU. He’s worked with many environmental organizations and has received several awards for his work with rivers. On June 6th of last year, the professional environmentalist and wild food enthusiast took several people—including myself—on a foraging information walk. The walk took place in Church’s Field Mattapoisett, in Massachusetts, the stretch along North St. that becomes Mattapoisett Rd. just past the town line. He talked about some foods, like June berries, tasting good raw, while others, like milkweed, tasted better boiled.

Most people don’t think of daisies as edible, but before the flowers come out, nibble on a leaf, he said. It makes a good salad ingredient. But telling them apart from their nemesis daisy fleabane is as easy as looking at the petals, he said. You’d need tweezers to get the narrow petals off fleabane.

Russ Cohen, oxalic acid, sassafras, wilderness, wood sorrel, tapping trees, sedum, salad, peapod, organic, natural resources, monsanto, natural, milkweed, Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, grocery stores, jun berry, GMO, environment, fleabane, black raspberry, Monsanto, edible, weeds, edible trees, edible plants, chicory, day lily

You probably wouldn’t know that the day lilies you’re growing in front of your house could be added to your evening salad, but they have several edible parts. The tubers (near the roots), the crown (near the base of the plant), and the flower buds (regular or wilted), make good salad ingredients. The only caveat he mentioned is that some peoples’ digestive systems aren’t agreeable to the day lily. You won’t die or anything, he added, just have a loose bowel movement or two.

We journeyed farther into Lyme disease country and Russ stood in the hole of a housing foundation as he explained how to spot black raspberries. When they’re small and red they’re about a week from being ripe, he said. During the off-season the stems of the plant have a purplish tint to them and he assured us they could be spotted from a ways away. He said it’s good to know where things are growing during the off-season so you can come back and forage for them when they’re ripe.

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1 Comment

  1. Aidan Garnier June 16, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    This is all great, but who\\\’s gonna remember this stuff? It\\\’s a good read, but let\\\’s say we had to actually do some foraging. Let\\\’s see, pokeweed is edible. Was it the roots? Noooo!

    Might be nice if there were an urban foraging mini-class available.

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