Finding edible ingredients growing right in the backyard

Bishop's weed often invades gardens by rooting itself as a ground cover. The plant is rich in vitamin C and holds a flavor that falls between celery and parsley, lending itself well in soups and stews. GRACE DICKINSON / STAFF

“Anyone know what these are?” asks Lynn Landes, founder of the Wild Foodies of Philly, pointing to a patch of thistle in the ground.

“A weed,” jokes someone from a group of 20, all braving a cold and dreary Sunday in pursuit of scavenging nature for its plethora of edible eats.

“There’s no such thing as weeds!” Landes shouts back.

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Lynn Landes seeks to introduce people to edible foods growing naturally in the surrounding environment.

Landes, who has led educational foraging meetups for the last six years, has made it her mission to educate people about the edible properties of many common “weeds.” She hopes to show that plants considered pesky nuisances are often quite tasty, dinner-plate-ready ingredients.

During the recent Sunday excursion, she stopped every few steps to point out something, exposing the group to a grocery store full of eats, all within steps of the Awbury Arboretum parking lot.

From dandelions to wild violets, garlic mustard to thistle, an array of usable ingredients lay one right next to the other, not hidden in the forest’s depths but right out in the open of the grassy backyard landscape at the arboretum entrance. Landes paused at each plant, delivering a quick lesson as she moved the group across the yard.

“The thistle, like burdock root, are in the artichoke family,” Landes said. “You just boil the roots until they’re tender, and you’ll get that artichoke flavor.”

Seconds later, Landes stopped to break off a branch from a spicebush, passing it around so everyone could sample its aromatic fragrance. Spicebush, Landes noted, is great for tea, as are sassafras root, blackberry leaf, violet leaf, and yarrow flower, all ingredients in a drink that was later handed out to the participants.

Landes, an environmental activist, started the Wild Foodies of Philly as a way to take a break from more serious issues and emphasize the fun in nature. As the weather gets warmer, the educational events happen a few times per month.

“I really had no idea the level of enthusiasm that the group would receive,” Landes said of the Meetup group, which now has more than 3,800 members and is one of the largest foraging gatherings in the world. “People were immediately interested in joining and learning about what nature can provide, vs. hybridized crops and GMOs that saturate stores.”

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Sautéed burdock root, one of many dishes at a recent Wild Foodies of Philly event showcasing how to use foraged ingredients.

Though the majority of the events Landes and other volunteers lead through the Wild Foodies are free, Sunday’s foraging outing, in collaboration with the Awbury Arboretum, was not. That didn’t stop people from signing up, and the event, which included a light meal featuring  wild ingredients, ended up selling out, as often happens with the group’s events at the arboretum.

“It’s nice just to walk around and be able to identify the things that you’ve learned about — you start to look at your surroundings differently,” said Kanisha Hans, who attended the event as a birthday present from her boyfriend. The couple has taken part in several Wild Foodie gatherings and now occasionally venture out to forage on their own. “When people start spraying their lawns for weeds like dandelion, you’re like, ‘Wait, no!’ ” Hans said.

Dandelion is perhaps one of the most recognizable edible “weeds,” as is onion grass, both of which can be chopped up and thrown into salads. For many, however, the flower’s bitter leaves are an acquired taste.

“As a kid, when food was low, our aunt would throw dandelion into our salads, and I thought it was gross, but these other greens they have here are surprisingly good,” said 91-year-old Joe Havlick, the oldest member of  the crowd in the Francis Cope House at Awbury Arboretum. He pointed to  sautéed nettles on a table. “The nettles have a little pepperiness, and I really enjoyed that. And the dried mulberries taste like raisins.”

After foraging with Landes at the arboretum, guests were invited to sample an array of dishes, including sautéed nettle greens over polenta cakes, black walnut cookies, and a pesto made from chickweed, onion grass, bishop’s weed, and garlic.

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Cleavers, an early spring green, can be sautéed or boiled. It also produces a fruity seed that Landes notes appears similar to Grape-Nuts cereal and that can be used to create a coffee substitute.

“It’s really nice to have people not only see how things are growing out in the field, but then have them taste it after,” said Alyssa Schimmel, founder of Velvet Earth Herbs and the chef for the event. “It bridges the gap, since it can be intimidating to try something that seems so wild and foreign.”

A lot of the fear of foraging stems from uncertainty as to what’s fit for consumption. Landes said it’s important to do a lot of research before heading out into nature to pick up groceries for the dinner table. One wrong move can be the difference between tasty and toxic.

In addition to trying out tours like those with the Wild Foodies, Landes suggested reading books by experts. She also has a variety of resources, including field guides and harvest calendars, on WildFoodies.org.

“You also don’t want to forage right along the roadside or in areas where you can tell it was once an industrial site,” Landes said, pointing out that plants soak up a lot of toxins. “And when you start to eat a food for the first time, you don’t want to make a meal of it. Just take a nibble, and then wait a day and see how you feel.”

Even if a plant is  nontoxic, it’s important to go slow, because,  as with all foods, allergies can show up.

Landes noted that it’s illegal to forage in Philadelphia’s public parks, so you shouldn’t plan on scouring the Wissahickon every weekend.

“You can pick a dandelion or two and no one’s going to mind, but I don’t promote actual foraging around the city,” Landes said. “We do this on an educational basis, and nibble here and there, and then you can use the knowledge to find these things in your own backyard, or maybe your neighbor’s backyard, or a friend’s garden in the countryside. We don’t want people to think that wild edibles are only things you can find out in the wild.”

Landes recalled finding someone pulling up lamb’s quarters in her nearby community garden. The woman was embarrassed for having let her plot go.

“I immediately told her, ‘Those are edible!’ ” Landes said, adding that lamb’s quarters, a mild and leafy plant common in gardens, is great both raw and sautéed.

To go beyond education and dive into hands-on foraging, the Wild Foodies will partner with organizations like the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and Awbury Arboretum during certain harvesting seasons. The foragers essentially help the organizations get rid of “weeds” that would otherwise get tossed out.

“We plant native species, but invasive species inevitably take over,” said Nancy Pasquier, Awbury Arboretum director of field studies. “We’re always really happy when reliable groups want to take care of that for us and can use what they’re pulling up.”

For Landes, increasing education about and awareness of invasive species that are edible is incredibly important.

“People have no idea what’s available right here in Philadelphia,” Landes said. “There are wild lemon trees right by Strawberry Mansion, there are mulberry trees, there are day lilies, patience dock, garlic mustard, pokeweed — all of which is edible.”

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“I always think of hamburgers when I think of this,”  Landes says of garlic mustard weed, which as its name implies,  tastes like a mix of garlic and mustard and works well in pesto.