Taste: Urban foraging takes root
Locavores shop parks and yards for fresh greens and other wild foods
Martha Stauss forages edible greens like garlic mustard from Herring Park. She chops the leaves to make delicious pesto with a little fresh garlic and olive oil. (Karen Jackson)
Depending on what time of year it is, she also might gather garlic mustard (which she uses to make pesto), black walnuts and hazelnuts, wild grapes, persimmons, pawpaws and all sorts of berries, including blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and mulberries.
"I don't have to pay money for it, it doesn't have to travel long distances, and they're good," she said. "And I figure that as long as I didn't pull them out of the sidewalk right next to the rushing highway, they're probably good for me, too."
By gathering food in a city public park, Stauss not only trims her grocery bill but also takes part in one of the more surprising offshoots of the local-foods movement: urban foraging. Even in Baltimore, where certain parks are better known as murder-victim dumping grounds than locavore playgrounds, wild edibles grow in abundance.
The Parks & People Foundation aims to demonstrate just that with an urban foraging tour of Druid Hill Park from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. Leda Meredith, an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden specializing in edible and medicinal plants, will lead the $15-a-head tour.
The author of "The Locavore's Handbook: The Busy Person's Guide to Eating Local," Meredith led a similar tour last fall in Leakin Park and discovered a large bear's head tooth mushroom, which can fetch up to $25 per pound at gourmet markets, said Kyle DeVaul, Parks and People's development and promotions manager.
"You can be walking through a park and have no idea you're walking past something that could be food," DeVaul said. She recalled how during the fall tour, Meredith handed out gingersnap-type cookies that she'd made with the spicebush berries growing "everywhere" in the park.
While some noted chefs are hiring professional foragers to find high-end wild ingredients, the idea behind the tour isn't primarily to help home cooks and restaurateurs save a bundle on exotic fungi.
"A big part of our mission is to get people out into parks, and if we can get them to use them in non-traditional ways, all the better," DeVaul said. "And foraging fits into that. There's not a lot of impact on the environment and it's also a way to really connect people with the plants around them."
And it's perfectly legal to use a public park as a personal produce aisle, DeVaul said.
"There's no law or rules against foraging that we could find," she said. "Leda encourages people to be respectful. Take just what you need, just a little bit, for your own personal use. Obviously if there's just a little bit of something, do not take the entire bit."
Just because it's legal to forage in a public park doesn't mean it's always a good idea. Someone on Meredith's fall tour asked how she could be sure the city hadn't sprayed pesticides in the area.
"Her response was, you really don't [know]," DeVaul said. "It's not a controlled environment. You cross your fingers and go to places that have been foraged in the past."
Stauss, the Lauraville forager, has professional reasons for knowing her plants. She works for a small landscape architecture firm, identifying wetlands and forest stands so that developers working in the area can avoid or replace them. She also has a small side business selling native plants.
But even Stauss, with a master's degree in environmental studies from the Johns Hopkins University, isn't always sure what's safe to eat.
"I'm no expert on mushrooms," she said. "I don't know for sure [which are edible], and it's not healthy to try."
She also steers clear of anything growing too near Herring Run. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage spilled into that water last month after someone stuffed a large carpet down a manhole, clogging the sewer line.
"I do not pick anything too close to the water," she said. "There are sewer leaks all the time."
Stauss leads informal foraging tours for friends and recently introduced a group of people at her son's school to the wonders of wild eating. Earlier this spring, school officials asked her to identify what was in the overgrown school garden plants so they'd know which ones were weeds.