Urban Foraging Turns Up Edibles in Prospect Park

March 4, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015

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Chickweed, an edible weed. (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)
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"Wildman" Steve Brill talks about the Sassafras root, which can be used to make tea, root beer, or even jello. (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)

NEW YORK—Steve “Wildman” Brill led dozens into Prospect Park on a crisp Sunday to forage for edible weeds, seeds, and roots.

During the jaunt, Brill pointed out various foliage, such as poor man’s pepper, chickweed, and garlic mustard, while listeners sampled the edibles, took notes, and snapped pictures.

With each plant came cooking tips, history, and an explanation of characteristics. Brill’s iPad has his

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Common evening primrose, which has a root that tastes kind of like a radish. Its leaves are edible as well. (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)

paintings or drawings of each plant, which he also shows.

Caffeine-free coffee substitute

The seeds from Kentucky coffee trees, are black and about the size of marbles.

“You roast them in a covered casserole dish—because they sometimes pop for three hours—[at] 300 degrees. Your whole house smells like coffee. Grind them coarsely in a blender, and put them in your coffee machine, and you have a caffeine-free coffee that’s the best coffee substitute in the world,” said Brill, who has been leading similar tours for 30 years.

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Steve "Wildman" Brill has written multiple books and developed an app called "Wild Edibles." (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)

“I only did that once and then I spit it out—it tasted just like coffee, and I hate coffee,” he said, evoking laughter with one of the many jokes he cracked.

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Eman Rashid bags foraged field garlic. (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)

Brill prefers wrapping the seeds in a towel and smashing them with a mallet, placing them into a spice grinder, and using it as a seasoning for tasty treats such as vegan chocolate truffles (which he handed out at lunch), hot chocolate, and chocolate cake.

Natural root beer

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A forager contemplates the taste of chickweed. (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)

Before chemicals, actual spices gave soda its flavor. Sassafras, a perennial that smells like root beer, can be used to make root beer when combined with sparkling water and a sweetener.

Sassafras can also be used to make other things such as tea. Brill even makes a gelatin dessert with it.

Lawn irritant actually edible

Field garlic may be mistaken for grass with its green color and similar shape.

However, one can differentiate the two by noticing how field garlic is thinner the higher it gets, and often rises above grass. If unsure, one can take a bit off the top and smell or chew, looking for a similarity to garlic.

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Seeds from the Kentucky coffee tree, which can be used to make a caffeine-free coffee substitute. (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)

One man on the expedition said he has a lot of field garlic in his lawn.

“It’s a pain … because the roots reach so far down,” he said. “But it tastes good. Now I’m going to eat it.”

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Poor Man's Pepper, named when it was commonly used to mask the poor quality of food. (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)

 Why people came

The diverse group who learned about foraging covered a wide range of ages, including a handful of kids, and a few dogs. Even a grandfather from the Channel Islands, visiting his family, joined the fun.

Eman Rashid teaches an environmental education class at a Montessori school and wants to start taking the kids there foraging.

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"Wildman" Steve Brill shows his Garlic Mustard painting on his Ipad. (Zachary Stieber/The Epoch Times)

 “I really want to improve my plant recognition skills, and I also don’t ever want to poison the kids,” Rashid said.

“I’ve been trying to make it to one for a while,” she said. “I’m glad I finally did.”

Josiah Laubenstein of Brooklyn read about urban foraging and learned about the tours Brill gives.

“Everything you hear says that you shouldn’t do this unless you go with someone who knows about what won’t kill you [when you eat it],” Laubenstein said, adding that he had never been to Prospect Park before. “It’s a good excuse to get out here.”

The group was quite jovial, something “Wildman” Brill experiences with many of his tours.

“You see how friendly everyone is, that’s typical of the tours,” he said. “And the kids have fun and they learn some things.”

Foraging Legal?

“Wildman” Brill said: “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. We can go pick the same sassafras and chickweed over and over again, these are purely renewable, so this is not harming the environment. … It’s technically against park regulations for a kindergarten kid to remove colored leaves from the park. So they have to decide what to enforce.”

The Parks Department said: “It’s actually against the rules to take anything out of a park, and we definitely discourage anybody from eating anything [growing] in the park.”

According to Brill, the Parks commissioner has said that if foraging were legalized there could be frivolous lawsuits against the Parks Department from people claiming they were poisoned.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber