I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published February 23rd 2010
Taraxacum officinale—check. Brassica juncea—check. Stellaria media—check. Those official-sounding scientific names identify but a few of the many edible plants growing right in Manhattan's biggest backyard, Central Park. And now you can feast on a homemade salad of sorts after learning exactly how to identify and forage edible green plants with New York's own "Wildman" Steve Brill.
Although few people are aware of nature's abundance in America's most popular park, Brill has been teaching people what to eat—and what to avoid—for the past 28 years. His four-hour tour of the park's denser environments, such as the Ramble and the North Woods, enables young and old to become skilled and discriminating scavengers while learning about the hundreds of varieties of delicious wild fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and herbs that commonly grow there. Brill explains how to successfully harvest the goods without harming the environment and also teaches us the nutritious value of the various plantings. It's certainly more interesting than the Paleo diet!
Take dandelions, for instance. Who among us hasn't tried to eliminate those from the yard? Turns out dandelion weeds are not only edible, but they are also highly nutritious. They are a good source of folate, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and Vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6, which means they have the natural power to lower blood pressure. Dandelions are also rich in calcium and iron. Natural-growing garlic is available—even in the winter months—and you can use the tender leaves like chives. Salad lovers will find chickweed growing across from Delacorte Theatre, mustard greens just south of Belvedere Castle, and Japanese knotweed—which tastes like rhubarb and is loaded with resveratrol to protect against aging—growing along some lakes. Some ivy varieties are among the members of the mint family and their leaves can be dried and made into a savory tea. Brill even points out several spots in the Ramble to find the seeds of the Kentucky coffee tree, which when collected, may be used to make delicious caffeine-free coffee.
So, grab your walking shoes, notepad, and anything else useful for a budding nature enthusiast and take Brill's "Wildman" tour. The first group meets at 72nd Street and Central Park West at 11:45 AM on Saturday, March 6. Reservations are required. Call ahead since tours fill up quickly, but fear not, Brill's tours continue on Saturday mornings throughout the spring and they get more and more interesting as new sprouts emerge.