It’s the end of summer, a time when many city-dwellers visit local farms to go apple or peach picking. But, if you know what you’re looking for, harvestable food is actually all around us — even in cities.
Foraging for snacks might be an unlikely activity for most people, but a growing number of cities — including Boston, New York and Los Angeles — actually offer foraging tours each year. And for anyone who wants to skip the farm and go apple picking in their neighborhood this fall, there’s the Falling Fruit app, an online map that uses imported datasets to guide foragers to the locations of public fruit trees, edible plants and mushrooms.
Orange dots on the map indicate the location of an edible. Sometimes, it simply names the species. Other times, a user writes a description of the plant and a tip for when to harvest. For instance, mulberries are only good in June; linden leaves and evening primrose roots can be harvested in early spring; black cherry is also available.
David Craft is a local foraging expert who already knows many of the best places to find public snacks in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Memorial Drive, a busy thoroughfare across the Charles River from Boston, seems an unlikely place to look for edible plants, but Craft says that Magazine Beach Park, which sits between the busy road and the river, is one of the best places to forage.
“Right around here there's burdock, milkweed and oak trees for acorns; evening primrose and Japanese knotweed,” he notes. “Sometimes, I find lambs’ quarters and lady's thumb [and] some inky cap mushrooms.”
Craft also finds wild carrot, known as Queen Anne's lace. The carrots one can buy across the street at Trader Joe's are a lot better, Craft says, but with Queen Anne’s lace, “you can at least taste the distant memory of a carrot. It’s stringier. It's got a bitter aftertaste. But, a long time ago people said, ‘Hey, it’s pretty good, let's bring these into our garden and let's select the ones that are bigger,’ and, ‘My gosh, there’s one with an orange root!’”
Craft can even identify a small shrub growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. “It’s called pineapple weed,” he says. “It’s closely related to chamomile and you can make a good tea out of this. If you squeeze it and smell it, it's like a pineapple-y scent.”
Unlike store-bought produce, wild foods don’t all taste the same, even if they’re the same species. Black cherries are a good example. Most of them don’t taste as good as a store-bought cherry, Craft says, but on some trees, the fruit can look ripe and perfectly good — and taste absolutely horrible.
Despite the wealth of foraging possibilities, Craft says he still feels like the practice hasn’t caught on with many people. “I still can count on one hand, almost, the number of times I've seen other people out here foraging,” he says. “It drives me nuts when I’m picking some strange fruit from a tree in the middle of Boston and people walk right by me and they don't even ask [what I’m doing].”
“Show a little curiosity,” he urges. “And talk to your neighbors! It’s a nice way to spend time with people, too. You can say, ‘Hey, let’s go for a walk on the river and try to identify some plants.’ But, if you're so cautious you don't try anything, you're never going to experience the fun that comes with harvesting a meal — or at least a snack.”
And if you’re nervous to go foraging without an expert like Craft, well, as the saying goes: There’s an app for that.