Many of us are completely unaware of the delicious edible plants that surround us, especially in urban environments, but did you know that there are a multitude of tasty plant species right in your own neighborhood park? No matter where you live, foraging is a free, fun culinary activity which requires only a keen eye, some plastic bags and a sense of adventure! It’s easier than one might think to uncover nutritious natural edibles, from medicinal herbs, to edible flowers, brain-boosting nuts and exotic salads. We followed NYC’s famed foraging experts Wildman Steve Brill and his daughter Violet Brill to discover six abundant and delicious plants nestled within the urban forestry of Prospect Park, right in the heart of Brooklyn, New York. Watch the video and read on to learn how to identify these forageable plants, from field garlic and ginkgo biloba to black walnuts and sassafras. Some of them could even be growing in your own backyard!
You can learn more about foraging for these delectable plants (and many more) with Wildman Steve Brill’s new Master Foraging App, now available for iPhone, iPad, and Android systems.
To get started with foraging, all you need are sensible walking shoes and clothes, a pair of gloves, and a stash of paper and plastic bags to hold your foraged goodies. If you’re planning to dig up any roots, you may also want to consider bringing a spade and shovel. You might also consider the same type of outdoor gear you would for a walk in the park—hat, sunglasses, water bottle, etc.
Ginkgo is an ancient tree that was around during the time of the dinosaurs, and today can be found in most urban environments: it’s a popular “street tree” because it is pest resistant and adapts especially well to pollution and confined soil areas. Its wildly popular Ginkgo Biloba extract is used in Eastern medicine to treat a variety of conditions, including memory loss and depression, and eating Ginkgo nuts is very popular in Chinese communities as a cognitive enhancer. Despite the popularity of Ginkgo pills as an herbal remedy, Wildman Steve Brill says, “it’s cheaper and more fun to go and collect your own.” In the fall, female trees produce a small poisonous fruit, which contains a delicious nut in the pit that is safe to eat. Bake or fry the nut for a nutritious, tasty treat!
Native to the Northeast, the Black Walnut tree is a type of walnut that grows to great heights; at times 130 feet above the ground. When the walnuts fall, they are encased in a thick, hard shell and husk, and the inner flesh is only accessible after hitting it with a hammer or rock. Like other types of walnuts, Black Walnuts are delicious and high in brain-boosting Omega 3 fatty acids. Black walnuts are in fact best harvested, and tastiest, when the husk is green, and some suggest that they may be a potential cure for cancer.
Field Garlic is a type of wild garlic in the onion family, which grows natively in many parts of Europe and North America. It is often mistaken for common grass, but if you look closely it can be easily identified by its rounded leaves. If dug out of the ground, each stalk contains a small bulb of garlic just above the roots. Both the leaves and bulbs produce a strong onion and garlic aroma, and the grass leaves can be used in the same manner as grocery-store chives, while the bulb used in the same manner as garlic bulb. One should be extra careful not to mistake Field Garlic for a poisonous lookalike, Star of Bethlehem, which looks nearly identical, but has flatter leaves and no pungent aroma. If it smells like garlic, you’re in the clear!
Before the advent of commercially produced food and medicine, Sassafras was once an extremely popular food flavoring and herbal medicine. It is the secret ingredient in “Root Beer” (Sassafras root), and was once commonly used to make teas, sodas, beers, and gumbo. Native American tribes used sassafras for medicinal purposes and scientists have recently found that the oil, roots, and bark have analgesic and antiseptic properties. Sassafras is easily recognized by the weird fact that it grows three different shaped leaves—an oval shaped leaf, a glove shaped leaf, and a mitten shaped leaf. The Sassafras root can be steeped to make tea and root beer!
Goutweed is an ornamental European plant in the carrot and parsley family that is considered an invasive species in the U.S, as it is extremely hardy and quickly takes over the ground in wild areas. It grows readily in shade and is found in many parks around the country. It can be recognized by its low, flat, variegated leaves and the sharp teeth on the outer edges of its leaves. The young shoots and leaves can be plucked throughout the spring, summer, and fall to make salad, and it has a lovely flavor reminiscent of parsley, celery and carrots. You can also dry the leaves in a paper bag and sprinkle as a dried herb in soups, sauces, stews and the like, the same way you would use parsley.
Epazote is traditionally used in Mexican cuisine, and produces a strong, pine-like aroma in its flowers and leaves. Medicinally, it is also known to kill a variety of parasites. It is often cooked with beans as it considered to be “carminative” (aka it mitigates the gas and flatulence often caused by legumes). Be sure to only use the leaves, and use them sparingly when cooking, as the flowers and essential oils in the plant contain natural pesticides, and are thus toxic in high doses.