Forager's Delight: Seeking Out Secret Harvests in the City

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Tracy A Woodward / The Washington Post / Getty Images

A woman picks mulberries next to a bridge in Rosslyn, Virginia.

For about three weeks each summer in the U.S., mulberry trees are impossible to miss — if you know what to look for. That's when the trees' sweet, ripe berries, which look a lot like blackberries, fall from the branches and leave telltale bluish-black stains on the pavement or ground below. It's happening right now in New York City, and I've been collecting and eating mulberries all week: sometimes I plop them on top of oatmeal or mix them in with granola; other times I eat them á la carte. Since most city folks don't even know that the berries can be eaten, much less that they come from the same native trees that once lined the city's famous Mulberry Street in Little Italy, more often than not, the spoiled fruit winds up as pigeon feed instead.

It's a shame. With supermarket berries averaging about $3 a pint at the moment, it's hard to see why more Americans don't take advantage of this annual harvest, available for free in cities from Sacramento to Baltimore, where the trees are also found and the berries are in season. Mulberries are one of the easiest foods for beginning foragers to harvest, because they are so plentiful and aren't likely to be confused with any killer berries. But despite a plethora of new books on urban foraging and a growing interest in eating local, swallowing something that doesn't come from a market or restaurant can be just too scary for most city dwellers — even those of us who picked wild raspberries off prickly vines and stole apples from neighbors' yards as kids. When I brought a bunch of mulberries I had collected from trees along the banks of the Hudson River in Manhattan into TIME's office for folks to taste, most took the offer as a dare, not a treat.

It doesn't help that city officials often frown on foraging. Health officials shut down an underground market of foraged foods in San Francisco last year, and the New York City Parks Department recently uprooted a rogue farm in Manhattan's Highbridge Park on the grounds that the crop was not safe for consumption. The absurdity of such policies seems only to encourage die-hard urban foragers like Kate Clark of Washington, D.C., who plucks the blossoms on day lilies and eats them raw or bakes them in quiche. "They have a squash flavor," she says, adding, "They're really nice in salads." She also makes wine from foraged mulberries (which she has seen for sale at local farmers' markets for as much as $4 a pint).

Some foraged food is actually easier to find in cities than in the country. Dandelions, whose leaves are the least bitter in spring and fall, as well as other greens such as purslane and lamb's quarters, thrive in dry, sunny spots where less-hardy plants would perish. Caleb Malcom of Kansas City, Mo., recently spied a flowering elderberry bush in an empty lot near his home as he was driving by one day and saw the bush's white flowers. Once the berries ripen later this summer, he plans to make elderberry wine. To make sure he doesn't harvest anything from a toxic brownfield or Superfund site, Malcom says he researches the locales he's interested in online before foraging them.

The biggest dilemma for newbies is figuring out what's actually edible. Rule No. 1: If you're not sure what it is, don't eat it. Novices should be particularly careful when foraging for mushrooms, because many are poisonous. To get started, free Web guides (try here and here) and field guides (such as Nature's Garden or Urban Foraging) abound. There are also some cool iPhone apps, like naturalist Steve Brill's Wild Edibles. Park tours guided by longtime foragers can also help ease the learning curve.

The biggest challenge faced by experienced city foragers is the competition for some of the more coveted harvests. "Sometimes I stake out my favorite gingko trees, and I'm too late," says Leda Meredith, author of The Locavore's Handbook, who often finds that others have collected the stinky tree's nuts, which can be roasted or used in tea. It's no surprise, then, that Meredith won't share the exact location in Brooklyn's Prospect Park where she collected some 30 lb. of maitake mushrooms (also known as hen of the woods) which are coveted by gourmands. Others foragers complain about harassment. "I've had people call the cops," says Sam Thayer, author of Nature's Garden, who adds, "Foragers are secretive because we get sick and tired of being questioned. Even with friendly people it gets old."

Hard-core foragers say their hobby can shave up to 40% off their grocery bill. But that's rarely the main motive. Kansas City's Malcom likes the health benefits: "Wild vegetables and wild greens have a higher nutrient level than things you find in the grocery store." (For example, amaranth, also known as Chinese spinach, is high in many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, folate, calcium, iron and magnesium.) Author Meredith likes the thrill: "There is an excitement, a treasure-hunt feel to being a forager."

Others see foraging as a political statement or even a spiritual endeavor. Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook, says the practice helps free us from a "secondhand existence," in which strangers harvest our food. "The ability to go out and get your own food is a strong rebellion against the industrial food system," he says. It also helps us to see that "the natural world is not a museum, filled with exhibits to be looked at but never touched." In other words, it's still our Garden of Eden.