I watched more television last night than I normally do, watching two episodes of Naked and Afraid with my family, and I couldn’t help thinking about foraging. The people on the show routinely get hungry, and they resort to foraging mainly to help feed themselves. I wonder at their hunger when I see their locations, because the areas in which the contestants were placed were full of food, but most of the people didn’t know how to find it. Foraging is much easier on a body’s energy stores than hunting, and the men unequivocally tried hunting without much success. One contestant ate rats, another ate a coral snake, and the third caught a grasshopper. As far as food went, it seemed that no one had a good idea of how to fish, much less look for a group of plants to act as a main food source. One team lived almost exclusively on bananas, but bananas are reliably offered in supermarkets and an easily recognizable food that has been cultivated for years.

It’s easy to think that we are distanced from Naked and Afraid by the plethora of supermarkets and pre-made food, until noticing that Big Rapids meets the qualifications for a food desert. I began to think about foraging last night, in part because I wondered about the separation from food cultivation and growth that evidences itself on shows like Naked and Afraid. People don’t know how to find food unless they know how to grow food and therefore understand habitats that support our food habits.

It’s very easy to say that we humans rely extensively on grass-based foods to feed us now, witness the rise of wheat, corn, rice, rye, oats, and barley. Weeds and rushes have been a food source for thousands of years, in the form of wild rice, but supposedly the Neolithic cultures also cultivated grass plants in the form of barley, spelt and wheat.

That’s not even scratching the surface on root crops. Think of potatoes, peanuts, yams, cassava, manioc, yuca and the starch that makes tapioca.  Cassava, manioc and tapioca are the same plant, a root tuber that is grown mainly through South America. According to a University of Colorado team, the Mayans consumed Cassava.

cassava root

The commentators on the show kept commenting on the male contestants’ weakness as saying, “it’s been x number of days since they had any protein,” meaning having eaten meat; however, what generally kept people alive on the show were plants, palm hearts, bananas, and coconuts.

It made me think of our foraging roots. Some time ago I read the book The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Taylor and found it interesting. I swear I had bought it, but I can’t find it. Urban foraging has a tradition in Central Park, NY. Even though NYC officials tried to stop the foraging, it still continues, according to a NY Times report back in 2012.

Now parks officials want them to stop. New York’s public lands are not a communal pantry, they say. In recent months, the city has stepped up training of park rangers and enforcement-patrol officers, directing them to keep an eye out for foragers and chase them off.

“If people decide that they want to make their salads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chipmunks,” said Maria Hernandez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages Central Park.

Plants are not the only things people are taking. In Prospect Park in Brooklyn last week, park rangers issued four summonses to two people for illegal fishing. Although officials say such poaching is not widespread, park advocates say taking fish and turtles for food is not uncommon, and some have reported evidence of traps designed to snare wildfowl…

Foraging used to be a quirky niche, filled most notably by “Wildman” Steve Brill, who for years has led foraging tours in the Northeast, including in Central Park. (He now sells a foraging app, too.) But foragers today are an eclectic bunch, including downtown hipsters, recent immigrants, vegans and people who do not believe in paying for food.

Even those who would never dream of plucking sassafras during a walk in the park can read about it. The magazine Edible Manhattan has an “Urban Forager” column (as does The New York Times’s City Room blog). And the current issue of Martha Stewart Living features a colorful spread about foraging on Ms. Stewart’s property in Maine — but at least all those plants belong to her.

The Gothamist says that up to 20% of the New Yorker population forages, not generally a popular image of New Yorkers:

Roughly 20 percent of the city’s population forages, estimates Marla Emery, a researcher with the US Forest Service who, along with Dr. Patrick Hurley, investigates foraging in urban environments. “That encompasses everyone like Marie, who are very focused and who dedicate a lot of time to foraging, and people who take a hike and pop a few berries into their mouth,” Emery says.

A local New Yorker takes people on foraging tours, and she even has foraging walks for children. Marie Viljoen writes a blog called 66SquareFeet about her experience foraging.

Young forager photo on 66squarefeet blog


How many children pick dandelions every year without realizing that the leaves and roots are edible? I prefer the young dandelion greens, and we always feed some to our small chicks and ducklings. Our next door neighbor shudders when he sees my yard abloom, and he warns me that the seeds blow into his yard, but I can’t help myself–I use the dandelion greens. I am contemplating digging the roots to roast this spring, as soon as the snow blanket is gone. I haven’t tried that before.

Foraging is pretty popular in NYC, as Wildman Steve Brill, another forager, has pointed out, and when I checked out his website, he has more good photos of plants for forage than do most books on foraging. I checked out pictures of plantain, which is usually used to help heal skin irritations, a common but often misidentified plant, and Steve’s website has multiple pictures, with this one being one of the most helpful:

Common plantain in flower

It’s a good picture, so I thought I would check out elderberry, which has different varieties and is also something which can be easily misidentified, and his information on elderberry was also sound, with a caution about refraining from taking all the flowers off the plant:

Elderberry flowers

Steve’s advice on harvesting the flowers was solid:

Avoid elderberries species with red fruit growing in rounded, instead of flat clusters. They may make you sick. Herculesí club is a shrub or small tree with feather-compound leaves that looks a little like the common elderberry. It has flat clusters of poisonous, black berries, often arranged in a ring, and a short, unbranched, thorny trunk. Elderberries are thornless.

The common elderberry often grows in large, dense stands in moist places. Look for it in marshes, along riverbanks, along roadsides, and in moist woods and thickets in eastern North America and the West Indies.

Collect the flowers by plucking off the stalk at the clusterís base. I tís impossible to remove each tiny flower individually. Take a small proportion of the flowers from each bush, and collect only where they are abundant or the plant won’t produce any berries. Where you find one elder bush, you usually find many more.

Foraging here in Big Rapids may not be advertised, but my parents have apple trees in their front yards, and even though they frequently get bugs or apple scab, people ask for the fruit every year. Our next door neighbor’s brother used to ask for apples every year to make cider, and in exchange he would bring over a gallon or two of the most delicious cider I had tasted. Repair personnel have asked for fruit, as have other adults walking by. They call out to us on the front porch and ask if they can have some apples. We always say yes, because we have plenty. Children walking to and from school will often snag a piece of fruit off the ground, and occasionally boldly take a piece of fruit off the trees without asking, but that is very rare.

The children’s picking reminds me of my own foraging history, of peaches, in Saugatuck, MI. My great-granny had a family cottage on Lake Michigan. This lake cottage sits directly on Lake Michigan, an area that has now been hugely overdeveloped and moved out of the price range of most local families (think the development of Martha’s Vineyard or Cape Ann on the East coast), but when my grandfather gave his family share to his brother, my great-Uncle Bob, we were allowed one week in the summer to stay on Lake Michigan. As the years passed, we weren’t allowed even that until our rights were forfeited altogether by prickly family politics and my grandfather’s death in recent years, so to find that foraging memory, I had to stretch way back.

As a child, though, I often felt that fruit on the ground was fair game, and I wanted peaches that were growing on a family farm on our way from the cottage into the town of Saugatuck. The peach trees were loaded, and the fruit was dropping. The smell was incredibly sweet, rich, and in some areas with just a touch of vinegars as hot peaches in the sun are wont to move quickly to a luscious vinegar. Vinegar-ripened peaches attracted yellow jackets, so I stayed away from those, but the freshly fallen fruit, magnificent. Often times the fruit that fell landed on the ground hard, and being perfectly ripe, the ground-side was bruised, but the side pointing to the sun was warm, golden, and so sweet that my twin sister and I would sneak out past our allowed play place and steal sun-warmed peaches. There is nothing on this earth that is sweeter. Seriously.

My brothers were small children at that point, and while they wouldn’t venture into the forbidden peach land, they would beg for some, and soon my twin and would sneak toward the field, duck under the fence line and fill our shirts with warm peaches from the ground. We would duck back under the fence, trying not to drop them and head back to the cottage. My parents caught us, of course, and we got scolded for stealing peaches, and then my parents went to the farm family to tell them what had happened.  I am sure my parents thought that being good neighbors meant coming clean about the unofficial ground peach harvest, and I am also sure that it’s not particularly a fun role as a parent to go and explain that your children have been harvesting groundling peaches while they were supposed to be playing in the yard. I expected more yelling and I was so ashamed for stealing, because I hadn’t thought I was stealing. I was just picking fruit I knew no one else would eat off the ground, which didn’t seem wrong until we were caught.

My father marched over to the house and my sister and I hid, afraid of how he might come home saying we owed money we had no way of paying. We watched from behind the tree swing as my father returned smiling broadly and said that the farm family had laughed at him, told him that we were more than welcome to help ourselves to fallen peaches and that they found it funny that the kids had found the ripest peaches in the world, that those were the best but couldn’t be sold because they had fallen. The farm family had been proud, in fact, that we loved their peaches so much, and I remember that summer eating peaches until our stomachs hurt and then eating more. It was so warm and sweet and satisfying to know that people liked us eating the fallen fruit, which they said would only go to waste, and we smiled when talked about how the family laughed at the children risking a scolding for sneaking away from a play spot to eat fallen peaches.

This isn’t a picture from my childhood, but one I found on the internet’s glorious image gallery. I don’t have any pictures of my ground peach adventure, but this is how the peach trees look. Imagine this from a child’s perspective, a small child’s perspective, close to the ground, and it you can only imagine how close the feast was:

peaches on the ground in an orchard

I still buy “over ripe” peaches from our Farmer’s Market, the grocery store, or whomever will give me some. They make the most incredible cobbler. Their fuzz is not prickly but soft and easily brushed way with the back of the hand, and with that memory in mind, I never scold the kids in the neighborhood who pick up fallen apples or start guiltily when I find them picking wild blackberries in my yard. I laugh. I remember foraging, and I have apparently taught by example, because my nephews, my niece and other children follow behind me and eat the mulberries from the trees in the yard. The older children are now able to climb the trees and hand down little buckets brimming with berries for the smaller children and myself. The tree won’t hold my weight, but the children move easily amongst its branches, and I think that I couldn’t stop them if I tried.

Putting my mind to foraging, I am reminded of another woman who is so fond of mulberry jam that she knew of the parks and recreation department’s mulberry trees and would sneak under them at night with a big sheet, catching berries while her husband shook the branches. She makes jam from the berries every year.

I am reminded of another family who has tomato plants in pots near the sidewalk, and people walking by routinely pop cherry tomatoes in their mouths as if they are unable to control themselves. It seems a compulsion to test a cherry tomato, and it’s a common compulsion if the attempt at unobtrusive tomato snitches are any indication. This same family has, in fact, been a huge proponent of starting the Big Rapids Community Garden, and they have always ardently supported urban gardening. Their gardens are beautiful.

I keep thinking back to Naked and Afraid, to our foraging roots, and to how quickly we can revert, even in an urban area, to looking around to see what is edible, even if it’s not polite.