I imagine the phrase “urban wild edibles” will conjure up different images in the minds of different people. These images are, as always, based on our own individual experiences in life. Admittedly, there was a time in my youth when this phrase would have brought to mind dinner at the most risqué bar and grill I had been to in the local circuit so far, somewhere out along the fringe of civility.
However in this case I am actually referring to edible wild plants, that still grow in our towns and cities much the same as they grow in the woodland fields, forests, and along the suburban and country roadways on the outskirts of town. Most people in the U.S. have seen one form of blackberry or another growing wild somewhere in their area, even if only on the edge of a city park. They are also pretty common in South America, Europe, and Asia. They are a hardy bramble plant that is quite prolific and can survive in some pretty harsh conditions. Blackberries are my favorite early summer snack, and the main ingredient in my favorite cobbler. Here in Southeast Tennessee they begin growing in early to mid spring, and are usually ripe from late June into early august. Because they are so common I think a lot of people may still be familiar with them.
If we take a little time out of our busy schedules to just look around while we are out and about, and peer between some of the high grasses and low shrubs on the edges of our local parks, we may notice other edible plants growing here and there. Passiflora Incarnata, or North American Passionflower, is the state wildflower of my home state of Tennessee, but it also grows wild across most of the southern U.S., up into the southern areas of the Midwest, and down through Central and South Americas. I can still remember the first time I paid serious attention to the structure of the flowers. I was wandering across an overgrown pasture on my grandparent's farm when I was 8 or 9 years old and came face to face with one climbing a small woody plant. I had never seen any other flowers that looked like that. It looked very alien to me, and brought to mind something one might have found growing in Dr. Morbius' garden on the Forbidden Planet.
It would be a couple more years till I learned more about them. Ironically after I had moved to south Florida, and found them growing at the Town And Country nature center just outside of Tampa. I would learn there that these were not only the state wildflower of Tennessee, but that they had also been prized by my Cherokee ancestors for their beauty. They called them Ocoee, and had named an entire river and river valley in East Tennessee after them. I also learned that the fruit was edible as well. After that they became my favorite wild fruit to snack on in the summer months after the blackberries have tapered off. I love the tangy citrus-y flavor they have and so does my daughter. We just eat the pith off the seeds and spit the seeds out.
If we take the time to look up, particularly in areas where reddish purple berries are found splattered on a sidewalk in a park, we may find another of nature's wonderful wild snacks. Mulberries of various sorts are another wild edible that are pretty prolific in the eastern part of the U.S., southern Europe, northern Africa, India, and Asia. Here locally we have a lot of the Red Mulberry trees that grow wild all around our region. They're typically ripe sooner than the blackberries, with them getting ripe in early June, but growing on trees rather than vines or brambles, they aren't usually easy to reach. They are delicious, to me anyway, but the juice will leave a stain on your hands and clothes if your aren't careful. In my experiences it washes off of hands and out of dark clothing pretty easily.
One thing that needs to be kept in mind while foraging, whether doing it in a woodland wilderness or an urban one, is that there is usually competition of one form or another for all wild edibles. And that there may be some incidental threats to contend with as well. It pays to pay attention to the fruits we harvest no matter which environment type we're in. The early birds don't only get the worms in the wee hours of the morning, they also get the choicest ripe berries, and the slow pokes miss out. And carnivorous predator insects, hunting herbivore insects, can inadvertently become an incidental threat to us when we gather them. When harvesting at night, or any time visibility is low, it is a good idea to put what has been collected into some sort of seal-able container for transport, rather than just loose in a pocket or pouch. Then inspect things more closely in better lighting later.
A rose by any other name, if all we changed was the name, would not only still smell as sweet but it would also still be a member of the Rosaceae family of plants. Which also happens to include apples, cherries, and peaches just to name a few. Roses of many types grow not only in gardens, parks, and parking lots all around the world, but also grow wild in places where old homesteads have been reclaimed by nature. Rose hips, the little round fruit underneath the petals and what is left after the petals fall away, are edible and high in Vitamin C when fresh. They can also make a nice flavorful addition to some recipes, but there will be more on that in the next article on wild edibles to come later this year.
A lot of the healthiest plants we can eat, various greens like dandelions and herbs like onion chives, grow wild all across the populated temperate regions of the world now, having been introduced there by settlers from other places. Plantain is one such plant. It didn't exist here in North American until it was brought over from Europe. Because of that it has been called “white man's footprint” by some Native Americans. Allium vineale, or wild garlic is another one that was brought over by European settlers. Those are garlic seed heads in a field next to a shopping center in the above image. It is widely distributed, and is considered and invasive weed by many people, but all parts of the plant are edible and have a strong garlic odor and taste to them. The bulbs taste like garlic, but have a slightly different aftertaste. The scapes and seeds are edible as well. Eating the plant, as well as rubbing the oils from the green plant on your person, will help to keep mosquitoes and other biting insects away.
There is usually a lot more to the world around us than meets our eyes if we don't take a few minutes to explore it now and then. And these days there are even some pretty cool plant identification apps for phones, that can identify a lot of the more common plants we see around us every day. Just remember knowledge is power, and the more knowledge you have the less power others will have over you.
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