I missed a Steve Brill/wild edibles tour in Prospect Park today but will try to catch one again in August. Like most things gardening related, I imagine it requires more than once to get the hang of it and put what you’ve learned to good use. Just one tour, like many things the first time around, can be fun and kind of thrilling, and leave you with plenty to mull over, but it gets better the more often you do it. The Wildman, himself, warns that you shouldn’t be putting things in your mouth you aren’t certain of and that if there’s any question, better to leave it alone. Sound advice, imho. (I just realized that what precedes this could be misinterpreted by a certain contingent of my readership — if that’s you, get your head out of the gutter and put your hands in the dirt).
Since I missed the tour today, I thought I might finally get around to ticking off my to-do list a post that I’ve been meaning to bring you for awhile. It’s highlights from the last tour I went on in June. To anyone who might be considering it, I would highly recommend the tour. Set aside about four hours and $20.00 for it — the $20.00 is just a suggested donation anyway (although I certainly suggest donating the full amount — it’s money well spent). In addition to spending several hours wandering through gorgeous nature, meeting several very cool people, eating some yummy wild food, and beginning to learn how to identify that yummy wild food, Steve Brill is pretty entertaining and keeps the tour interesting. He’s a funnily curmudgeonly type, eager to make kids laugh and adults chuckle with some well-practiced lines. (One of his jokes did go amusingly awry when, drawing the listener in with an increasingly hushed voice, he delivered the punchline in a booming voice without realizing that just behind him was a baby who quickly stole his thunder by breaking into a wail that only a seriously stressed baby can deliver). Who wouldn’t love a man who saves the corniest of jokes to ply you with as you’re eating your way through a forest. (Yes, pun intended — and a nod to the Wildman, since this is exactly the type of groaner you might hear on one of his tours.)
If you’re not up for the stream of one-liners that are tucked into some very useful information the Wildman dispenses on the journey, you can keep your own pace (which is another thing I appreciated about the tour, and which sets it apart from most other tours). It’s recommended you bring a whistle in the event you get separated from the others; lacking a whistle (and being laughably bad at whistling without one), I brought a harmonica but didn’t end up needing it. There are some helpful pointers on the website and in his book Identifying and Harvesting Edible & Medicinal Plants, that helpyou prepare for a foraging tour, including, for example, spraying your clothes with insect repellent and wearing white, which repels bees – this is why beekeepers wear white – and makes ticks more visible. The book, and I’m sure pointers from those who have gone on a tour (see QUESTION below), also help you know what to bring and how to get the most from the tour. I brought several plastic baggies, a few hard plastic containers, and post-it notes, a pen, a notebook, and my phone for snapping pics of the plants. I found the hard plastic containers to be pretty useless and wish I would have saved the space. I did end up using the plastic baggies (I should have brought many more, since I ended up having to store several different plants together and if the post it at the base of them came loose, I didn’t know chickory weed from jewel weed).
The tour is popular. I shared it with about thirty other people, ranging in age from 6 months up, representing what appeared to be a broad cross-section of Brooklyn’s population. There were couples, a few single individuals, and a family or two. The group gathered for a sign-in that took about twenty minutes (a long time, I know, but it involved Wildman doing a roll call, having people sign waivers, and offering for sale and/or autograph his own impressive collection of books that he’s authored and which he, equally impressively, has illustrated). He is a self-taught both as a botanist and artist, which is especially encouraging since it can seem impossible at the outset to ever be able to master the task of distinguishing an edible plant from a deadly one. Although he is quick to caution the eager tourists, he nonetheless makes it seem a reachable goal to sustain yourself, if need be, on a diet of wild edibles. He also offers quick advice on how to prepare each plant he covers, some of which I’m sure are in his cookbook (which I don’t have but someday may, once I’m able to tell the difference between a chickory weed and jewel weed without to the book, and the app (“Wild Edibles”), with its “important disclaimer” that I’m pretty sure I can guess what it says, or the pack of Wild Edible cards that I picked up in the shameless promotion start of the tour (disclaimer – Wildman did say that someone else made the cards).
In addition to the specific plants we reviewed, I picked up a few tidbits that are generally good to know. In this category:
1. Birds are flying dinosaurs – berries are brightly colored so birds can find them and help themselves.
2. Just about all plants have some level of toxin in them. That toxicity is to ward off predators. To humans, it’s only dangerous if we eat it in massive quantities that no one ever would.
3. It’s wise to cook all mushrooms – wild, raw, or not.
Some of the plant varieties we plucked, tasted, and took home include (disclaimer – the links that follow are not from Wildman, except for the one on chickweed, but are included to show some additional sources of info on the topic): quickweed, hedgemustard, mugwort, wild cherry tree, wood sorrel, honewort/wild chervil, chickweed, … more to come …
QUESTION: have you ever eaten anything in the “wild” and gotten sick? What was it? How old were you, and did you learn your lesson? Or do you still pop random weeds when you think no one is looking? Go ahead .. gimme the dirt!