Foragers are eating wild in America’s concrete jungles

More people feast on weeds in the city than you think — dodging dog pee, tainted soil and poison plants. What could go wrong?

July 2, 2018
Invasive weeds like field garlic, daylilies and nettles (pictured from left to right) are popular among New York City’s urban foragers. [Photo credit: Marie Viljoen]

The scent of fresh-baked goods fills the room as Marie Viljoen pulls golden-topped cakes out of the oven in her Brooklyn home. A bowl of twigs sits on her kitchen counter, along with jars full of clear liquids, citrus peels and what looks like pieces of pine. She rests the tray of cakes on the stove and tells me about their secret ingredient: ground-up spicebush berries that she harvested from the forests of Staten Island.

“Spicebush is one of the most underexplored and unknown spices,” Viljoen says. “I think it tastes like orange and pine and pepper.” (I thought it had more of a nutmeg and lemon zest flavor.)

There are all sorts of wild ingredients we never eat. Chokeberries taste like raisins. Field garlic is (unsurprisingly) garlic-y. Japanese knotweed is sour, like rhubarb, except a bit earthier.

Viljoen has sampled them all. She is an urban forager — she collects edible plants and fungi from city parks, private lands and wild areas in and around New York City. Currently, she is testing recipes for a soon-to-be-published cookbook based on these wild ingredients and posting photos of her edible experiments on Instagram, where she has over 12,000 followers.

Urban foraging has been flourishing in the past few years, Viljoen tells me. More people than ever are researching, experimenting and sharing their knowledge of edible plants online. “It’s a thriving, inspiring, creative community of wild food lovers doing very interesting work,” she says.

But foraging, and especially urban foraging, is not all sunshine and daylilies (which apparently taste a bit like leeks). Making salads out of park plants can wear on urban ecosystems. And the foraged foods themselves can be health hazards: In cities, plants grow among chemical contamination and human filth. Now, researchers are starting to study this subculture in order to better manage its risks.

“Whether good or bad, foraging is happening,” says Marla Emery, a research geographer at the U.S. Forest Service who has been studying urban foragers for the past decade. She is a forager herself, with a taste for dandelion greens. In 2008, she discovered that about 20 percent of more than 1500 people surveyed in the Northeastern U.S. have foraged at least once in the last five years. “That’s more people than do backcountry camping or a lot of outdoor activities,” she says. Emery’s estimate doesn’t include people eating foods from plants intentionally cultivated for human consumption, like backyard raspberry bushes and apple trees. It also excludes dumpster divers who scavenge wasted food.

Recently, Emery teamed up with researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and interviewed over a hundred urban foragers in Baltimore to find out what, where and why they rummaged for wild edible plants and fungi. The study was published in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening last October.

“I was pretty surprised that there were this many people foraging in Baltimore City,” says study co-author Keeve Nachman, a food production and public health researcher at Johns Hopkins. The researchers documented over 170 species that people were eating. And many foragers weren’t just occasionally grazing: one in five reported that foraged food made up at least 10 percent of their diets. That suggests that foraging is a significant contributor to the urban food system, Nachman says. 

Foraging might also contribute to urban food security since the activity is more common in low-income families. People with annual incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 collected nearly three times more edible plants and fungi than those making over $100,000, according to the study in Baltimore. Foraging, Nachman suggests, may allow people to supplement their diets with nutrient-dense, freely available foods.

For most foragers, however, eating wild foods is not a necessity; it’s purely a pastime. Over half of the foragers in Baltimore reported that they chose to forage simply because they enjoyed it, or because it allowed them to connect to nature. That’s why Viljoen forages: “I’m lost if I’m not connected to plants and what’s growing outside,” she says.

Park managers, however, could do without this particular type of outdoor leisure. In most city parks, foraging is either discouraged or flat-out illegal. In New York City, removing vegetation from a park can get you a $250 fine. “New Yorkers should get their fill of leafy greens – but not by foraging in our parks,” the city parks department wrote in an emailed statement. “It’s against the rules to mutilate, kill, or remove any plants, flowers, shrubs or other vegetation without permission.” There wouldn’t be much left of the parks if everyone went out and collected whatever they wanted, Sarah Aucoin, the park department’s education and wildlife chief, told The New York Times in 2011.

Out in the bushes, urban foraging can become a bit of a free-for-all. Self-described “Wildman” Steve Brill, who leads urban foraging walks through New York City’s parks, invites people to harvest all the edible plants they like. He was arrested for foraging in 1986 (his charges were eventually dropped after going to court). Sometimes, park officials still harass him for jumping over one of their “beloved fences,” he says, but usually, they leave him alone.

Nine years ago, Viljoen went on one of his tours. “I saw all these people jumping over fences and ripping up sassafras saplings in Prospect Park,” she says. At first, she was horrified. But Brill opened her eyes to all the invasive, edible weeds that grow rampant in the city. There are plenty of weeds, like mustard garlic and field garlic, that land managers are trying to get rid of anyway, she says. Foraging might be a better way to manage these plants than spraying them with herbicides. For now, though, hungry foragers and pesticide-spraying park managers rarely coordinate. This leads to its own set of problems.

“Urban foraging can be quite nasty,” Viljoen says. In 2016, municipal agencies sprayed a total of 1,150 gallons of herbicides throughout New York City, according to a report from the city’s health department. These chemicals included glyphosate and 2,4-D, a suspected carcinogen. In big cities, soils are often contaminated too. Over 70 percent of New York City residential garden soil had lead and arsenic concentrations above the acceptable limit set by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, according to a 2015 study.

Both urban foragers and park managers have repeatedly voiced their concerns about foragers accidentally ingesting these nasty toxins, according to the Forest Service’s Emery. But researchers still aren’t sure if plants actually absorb these contaminants and in what quantities. The scientific community has mostly ignored urban foraging as a commonplace practice, so there isn’t much data to quantify and help manage the health risks.

The researchers at Johns Hopkins hope to fill in this information gap. Their next step is to figure out if foragers are being exposed to any contaminants so they can make recommendations to help people forage safely. Until then, foragers are more or less on their own.

Brill, who frequently forages edible weeds in Prospect Park and Central Park, isn’t overly concerned. “You wash everything off,” he says. “The stuff you get from the store is much more problematic.” He tells people on his tours that foraging is perfectly safe.

Viljoen has her own ways of managing the risks of contaminants. There are ways of knowing when a plant has been sprayed, she says – a dry stalk from last year’s growth means that the area is probably clean. Pesticides sprayed last season would have likely killed the plant otherwise, although she warns the trick only works for some species and is not always dependable. In general, she avoids eating out of highly trafficked and well-maintained areas. She has a few secret spots. And over the years, she has learned which parks spray and which don’t. Still, she sometimes worries about the risk of inadvertently eating something she shouldn’t.

In recent years, Viljoen has taken soil contamination research into her own hands. She’s learned that some types of plants and fungi tend to take up more toxins from soils than others. Ostrich ferns (which are one of the species known as fiddleheads before their leaves unfurl) and mushrooms are particularly bad, she says. Some parts of the plant are also more likely to be concentrate toxins: the roots are risky, but the fruits are generally safe.

Apart from a few species, there aren’t many wild plants in the Northeast that can actually kill you, Viljoen tells me. But foraging gone wrong can be deadly. In 2017, 14 people were hospitalized for poisoning in California after eating wild mushrooms. And in 2009, a lifelong forager in California made a fatal identification mistake, confusing a poisonous mushroom for an edible one.

Even Viljoen once had a near miss. A few years ago, she ate the seeds of a fruit called a May apple, not realizing that she didn’t know if they were poisonous – while the fruit was well-documented, information on the edibility of its seeds was lacking. She panicked and made herself throw up. “As it turned out, I would have been fine,” she says. But at the time, she admits: “My appetite got the better of me.”


*Correction, July 2, 2018: The following errors have been corrected from the originally published version of this story:

The original version of this article mistook chokeberries for chokecherries.  

Ostrich ferns are not necessarily synonymous with fiddleheads. Fiddleheads consist of the unfurled leaves of ferns. One of the edible species of fiddleheads comes from ostrich ferns.

The original version of this article qualified the fruit that Viljoen ate when she had a near-miss as a “rare” fruit. The fruit was a May apple, which is not rare, but the edibility of its seeds was poorly documented at the time.  

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Good article about foraging. I’d like to add some additional info:

The Parks Dept. official’s argument that if everyone foraged, there wouldn’t be anything left, is specious. When you forage, you simply collect common renewable species, the same ones that are cut down by the millions by mowers, where they are super-abundant, and only take a small fraction. I’ve had large groups of adults and kids forage with me repeatedly in the same places for over 37 years, and they still have to send in the mowers to cut down the same plants we’re eating

Sassafras, mentioned in the article, is considered a “weed” tree, and it’s shade-intolerant. In can only grow to maturity in full sunlight. Pulling up a few small saplings out of hundreds growing in the shade of a forest has no environmental impact whatsoever, and all the sassafras stands in all the parks throughout the NE where we’ve been collecting it have remained unchanged in close to 4 decades.

Furthermore, former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe invited me to his office and told me that the NYC Parks Dept.’s objection to foraging wasn’t to protect the dandelions, but because officials were terrified of imagined frivolous lawsuits. Someone would pretend to have poisoned themselves foraging, and sue the city. That’s why I was arrested and handcuffed by undercover Parks Dept. rangers for eating a dandelion in Central Park in 1986. The officials didn’t want it to look like foraging was allowed, to head off such lawsuits (although, faced with a PR fiasco, they dropped the charges and hired me to teach foraging for the next 4 years).

You can also use the “what if everyone did it” argument against virtually anything. What if all New Yorkers rode bicycles to work? The streets would become impassable. Should we arrest bicyclists? What if everyone went ice skating in Rockefeller Center? Same thing.

Foraging puts people in touch with nature, and kids who became interested in the environment through my foraging tours over the decades have become eco-tour leaders around the world, and protectors of threatened habits near and far. I’m very proud of them!

Foraging is safer than driving a car. Or eating store-bought, mass-produced romaine or spinach tainted with E.coli. And consider the herbicides and pesticides sprayed on the fresh produce you buy at your local store.

The ‘rare fruit’ mentioned in the last line is in fact a May apple, a native of the Northeast. I tasted that first one almost 10 years ago, when relatively little had been written about them (turns out you can eat the whole fruit, seeds and all), but an experienced forager at the time insisted I call a doctor. Hence the drama. Rest assured, they are delicious.

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