Ellen Zachos is a modern-day forager, gathering wild foods to enrich her cuisine.
New York’s Central Park provides the fixings for much of her larder, which includes wines, pickles, jams and jellies made from flavorful weeds.
“Many of the most delicious wild edibles are invasive weeds,” said Zachos, an ethnobotanist, instructor at the New York Botanical Garden and author of the new “Backyard Foraging” (Storey Publishing).
“Japanese knotweed has taken over the universe after being planted for windbreaks in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But the stems, when eaten young, have a great rhubarb taste. It’s good that you can remove something noxious and eat it at the same time,” she said.
Wild food favorites range from shellfish to mushrooms, fruit to nuts. Berries, greens, sea veggies (kelp, beach asparagus) and garnishes (wild leeks, garlic) also are high on the picking order.
Many ornamental plants simply are beautiful to look at, but some also find their way into the kitchen. Zachos is especially fond of substituting day lily tubers for fingerling potatoes and preparing hosta shoots as you would asparagus.
“I look at ornamental plants with edible parts as the superheroes of the modern garden,” she writes. “They feed body and soul (with their deliciousness and beauty, respectively) and cut back on gardening chores by letting you focus your precious time on a single space.”
Arthur Lee Jacobson of Seattle is another urban forager who prefers gathering edibles outside to trekking to the supermarket. He hunts everywhere from alleyways to public parks, and enjoys finding escaped ornamentals.
“I generally go out just before dinner to see what’s in the yard — planted or wild,” he says. “I also go to nearby parks. If I’m walking home from an errand and notice some excellent greens, I’ll stop and gather them.”
What you harvest will depend on the season, the microclimate and growing conditions.
“In October, you can expect to go out and gather an abundance of berries and nuts,” Jacobson said. “About now (early May), you can figure to come back with lots of salad material.”
Wild foraging brings the flavor of the land into the kitchen, said Jennifer Hahn, a naturalist who conducts beach walks, leads family tours and teaches food gathering at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Her students are interested in returning to their figurative outdoor roots, she said, along with saving money and adding some unusual sources of nutrition to their diets.
“You can take a dandelion root, roast it, and mix it with ice cream and it’s almost equivalent to something you’d get at a gelato stand,” Hahn said.
It’s best to have a field guide in your pocket or, better yet, a mentor at your side when foraging for wild foods — at least for the first few trips.
“Don’t put anything in your mouth unless you’re 100 percent sure what it is,” Zachos said. “Don’t forage on public land until you have permission, and don’t pick anything that’s been sprayed.
“Ask first,” she said. “It’s just the polite and appropriate thing to do.”
For more about finding wild food at your feet, glean this document from the West Virginia Dept. of Agriculture: