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Feasting on New York City’s Greenery

Tour in Central Park led by Steve Brill, April 23 where people picked Japanese knotweed. (Credit: Aina de Lapparent Alvarez)

If you can’t beat ’em eat ’em. Faced with invasive plant species, some New Yorkers have decided to make them lunch.

Renowned forager Marie Viljoen teaches locals how to identify Japanese knotweed, an invasive species, in the New York Botanical Garden. She led a tour April 21 where she spoke about how invasives impact native species, affect biodiversity and possibly contribute to soil erosion.

Many New Yorkers have found an interest in urban foliage since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Spurred by questions about food security, the city’s residents have grown concerned about how local environments can help create sustainable cities, said Carey Clouse, a professor of architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amhearst, who has been researching foraging during the pandemic.

During the walk hosted by Viljoen, Jenna Houston, one of the attendees, said that an extract of Japanese knotweed, resveratrol, has helped her manage Lyme disease.

“In a way, it’s come to our rescue. It’s such a powerful medicine and it’s so generous,” Houston said. She was dismayed that knotweed had been discounted as invasive, despite all its qualities.

Some invasive plants are a promising source of food. They are usually non-native and grow aggressively, displacing native plants. This worries conservationists, as that leads to a reduction of biodiversity. But foragers have found a solution to the problem – if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em, a strategy also called “invasivorism.”

One of the most aggressive invasive species is Japanese knotweed. The bamboo-like weed with pink “freckles” grows abundantly in many places around the city. It is especially common near the Bronx River, since it can root from a small section of stem and travel through waterways.

Viljoen said that Japanese knotweed is very versatile in the kitchen. It has a texture similar to asparagus but tastes like rhubarb meets sorrel with a hint of lemon. “It collapses and becomes saucy in moist heat, but the tips stay firm if sautéed,” said Viljoen in an email. She makes quick knotweed pickles, uses it in omelets, sauces, soups, braises, curries and meatballs. Steven Brill, another forager, dries it before adding it to chocolate pudding. Chef Kris Loudermilk has made knotweed into syrup and plans to bake a strawberry knotweed cake. 

Foragers want to add nuance to conservationists’ perspectives that invasives are only bad for the environment. “I’d like to see bunches of knotweed shoots sold at spring greenmarkets so that farmers can generate some income from the invasive plants on their land, while controlling the plants’ spread mechanically,” said Viljoen on the knotweeds growing on farmlands.

Zoe Brice, an illustrator from Brooklyn, released a ‘zine, a small, self-published magazine, on nine wild plants that grow in her borough. “Whether it’s natural or invasive, I try not to put a value judgment on it at this point. I’m just glad that they’re all here,” she said. Brice included six non-native plants in her magazine because she said you can harvest them more than a native plant which may be tenuously holding on to its space in the environment. 

Growing up in Dallas limited her interaction and knowledge of the natural world, she said. She only learned about it once she moved to Brooklyn in 2015. Brice made sure her guide would be friendly to beginners like her, “people who have never met a plant before.” 

The key to identifying a plant, she said, is to use three identification points. Look at the shape of the leaf. Is it lobed, is it like a palm? What is the pattern of the veins? Then look at the flower. If it has not bloomed, the root or the smell can also be identification points. Also, she said, “Don’t take more than one-third of what you see.”

Steven ‘Wildman’ Brill is a famous forager who signs his emails as “America’s Go-to Guy for Foraging.” “Invasive species are delicious, and you can pick as many as you want,” he said. “Of course, they cause damage to the environment, so you should eat faster.” 

Brill leads multiple tours a week across the five boroughs and beyond New York City. He’s written five books, has an app, and is working on a video course. He rose to fame in the foraging community in 1986 when two undercover park rangers handcuffed him for eating a dandelion in Central Park. 

Steve Brill holds Eastern redbud, (Cercis canadensis ), a native edible plant that tastes like peas. Brill says it can be added to pancakes or salads. (Credit: Aina de Lapparent Alvarez)

Brill later learned from a colleague at the park why he was arrested in the first place.

“The officials were terrified that if they allowed foraging in the park, someone would pretend to have poisoned themselves foraging and sue the city,” Brill said. 

After the ensuing national publicity from his arrest, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation decided to drop the charges and instead hire him for tours. He worked for them for four years. Part of Brill’s legacy is that, while foraging is still technically illegal in New York City, the regulation is no longer enforced.

Brill’s knowledge of how to cook wild plants is self-acquired. A few years before his arrest, he was cycling through Cunningham Park in Queens when he saw a group of Greek women picking wine leaves from the side of the road. He picked up some and stuffed them at home. It was delicious. 

There were some books on wild plants at that time, but they proved useless to him. “The cooking information was horrible,” said Brill. “Some of the stuff I tried out, you could tell that they never tried it themselves.” 

Forty years later he’s proud of the impact he has had. “I’ve inspired a lot of people to take care of the environment and become excited about it,” he said.

Kris Loudermilk is a 30-year-old vegan chef who recently went on one of Brill’s tours in Bronx River Park. She knew about some wild plants and their medicinal uses but learned a lot more through the walk. “What surprised me was the number of plants I was able to eat and the ones I had already known that were in my backyard,” she said.

Loudermilk now plans to organize a tour with Brill to teach children from the Bronx about the resources they have. She thinks foraging tours could build their connection to the land, foster an appreciation for their environment, and ignite passions. “I would like kids from the Bronx to know that this is around them and that this is their resource, it’s not for the privileged, it’s for you,” Loudermilk said. 

Clouse said foraging is just one part of a renewed interest in getting involved in one’s immediate environment. “There’s a great interest in DIY city-building,” she said. “People believe they have a right to shape the city that they live in, that might include foraging even if the desires of individuals are completely oppositional to the laws that exist.”

According to Clouse, many city planners have a different view. “They would prefer to have ornamental species because they’re easier to clean up or maintain, instead of edible ones,” she said. 

Both foragers and academics think city planners should work with foragers rather than ignore them. “It’s arguably very good for the city’s health to have food built into it,” said Clouse, mentioning that peopple in some cities, like Marfa, Texas, had planted pecan trees. “Those were intentional – food security was built into the fabric of some early cities,” she added.

According to Clouse, the foraging groups she’s spoken to want plants and landscapes to be useful. “If you already have an environment that has been so manipulated, is it such a crime to imagine that there could be a fruit tree in a public park?” she said.

With the unpredictability of climate change, Brice and Clouse said foraging might become a key to survival. “One of the things that cities can do to prepare for climate change is to diversify and become more resilient,” Clouse said. “This isn’t a debate about natives or non-native species. This is a debate about whether or not we want our future cities to be food secure.” 

Written by

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez is a multimedia reporter currently covering food and The Bronx for NY City Lens.