While “summer reading” may conjure up frivolous beach novels that you don’t mind getting wet or sandy, may I recommend something both entertaining and informative this summer.
The Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner is a combination memoir/essay about urban foraging, or the art of finding food and medicine in the plants around us.
I first met Becky last summer in her hometown of Portland, Oregon where she gives periodic Urban Foraging 101 walking tours. We were a motley crew, but there was something for everyone – the plant nerds thrilled to identify the plants and hear the Latin names. Would-be survivalists eagerly wrote down details for preparation and storage; spiritual seekers enjoyed the meditation at the end of the walk. Since she was such a good speaker, I had high hopes for the book and I wasn’t disappointed.
A hard-core how-to book this isn’t, although there are plenty of tips (and recipes) on the various uses of urban plants. A few helpful safety tips are included. (Avoid railroad yards; some pesticides are dyed blue; urine is sterile, feces aren’t.) Lerner mixes in history and science lessons with personal stories about herself and her friends, drawing in a wider audience. This is a good strategy because foraging can and should be for everyone.
There are over 422,000 known species of plants in the world, and we’ve definitely forgotten the uses of many of them. In addition, many invasive “weeds,” such as dandelion, curly dock and kudzu can be eaten, thus decreasing their population, and reducing the need for pesticides. Eating weeds is hot right now – no less than Vogue Magazine published a story this May on the popularity of “field salads” containing chickweed, wood sorrel and miner’s lettuce.
With training, a foodie trend can become a lifestyle. If you know what to look for, street trees, parks and gardens become potential cornucopias. The best way to learn is to get out there and see the actual plants with a knowledgeable guide. An internet search easily reveals urban foraging workshops in many cities.
Our “civilized” urban existence is far from guaranteed. These weedy survivors might just teach us a thing or two about survival. In the meantime, read The Dandelion Hunter and try a few flowers in the salad.
I actually had the good fortune to interview Becky Lerner back in August 2012. To hear that conversation, click here.
Ellyn Shea is a consultant and garden educator in San Francisco.