Illustrations by Krissy Abdullah.

Urban foraging is a great way to get to know the plants in your immediate surroundings. And spring is the perfect time to see everything dressed to the nines. Flowers are popping, trees are budding and the landscape is colorful and fresh.

Not only can wildcrafting in the city teach us to more intimately know and appreciate many overlooked “weeds,” but eating wild edibles— especially in their young, tender stages— is a great boost to the immune system. Think about it: Why are weeds so resilient? They persist with virtually no care and despite the threats of lawn mowers, drunken parades, drought, pollutants, you name it.

When you go foraging, remember a few things:

1. Bring a paper bag or something airy to put your “groceries” in (plastic bags will make them wilt really quickly).
2. Take a walk around your neighborhood. Find an overgrown or abandoned yard (you shouldn’t have to walk far). Meet your neighbors, ask them if you can forage in their yard and then talk with them about what you harvested.
3. Don’t pick plants near the road. Try to harvest more than 20 feet away from the curb. Fifty feet is ideal.
4. Use this guide (see below) to correctly identify plant and mushroom species, but always check a second (or third, or fourth) source if you are not familiar with the edible (poisonous look-alikes abound in the wild). If you’re still not sure, don’t eat it. It’s not worth the risk.
5. Don’t overharvest. Yeah, yeah, these are “weeds.” But it’s still important to maintain an ethic of only taking what you need. Use common sense and respect the plants that are providing your meal. You never know what challenges next season will bring.
6. Familiarize yourself with some basic botany and mycology lingo. Knowing the basics parts of a plant/mushroom is the first step in correct identification. The local public library has great resources on both of these topics as well as plant identification books. Check ‘em out!

Listed below is a handful of wild edibles found in and about Gainesville.

Spiderwort

Tradescantia ohiensis

I see this plant so often it even haunts my dreams! Also known as bluejacket, dayflower and cow slobber, this plant is completely edible. The deep purple to lilac flowers have a lifespan of only one day, but each plant will produce more than 20 flowers per stem. The flowers are monocotyledons, with three petals in a terminal cluster, and have tons of hairy stamens that are also purple with yellow pollen at the tip. The leaves are sedge-like (sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses are hollow all the way down; see illustration below), and are 2-ranked (see illustration below) and alternate at 180-degree angles to each other.

 

Drawing distinguishing between a grass, a rush and a sedge.

Harvest early in the day and eat the young leaves, stems, flower pods and flowers raw. You can also make a poultice of mashed leaves to reduce itching from bites or stings (chew up a few leaves in your mouth and apply the poultice directly to the affected area…it works wonders!). The flowers can also be used as a pigment in dyes or watercolor paint.

 

Drawing showing leaf arrangements that help to identify plants.

In science labs, spiderwort is a good instrument for measuring cumulative doses of radiation and chemical pollution, and has proven more effective and accurate than many human-made radiation detectors.

Cleavers

Galium aparine

Also known as Stickyweed and Goosegrass, this climbing plant has long round stems with six to seven ensiform-shaped leaves (see illustration below) that grow in whorls (see above illustration). The leaves, stems, and seeds have tiny hooks that make them cling to everything they touch.

 

Cleavers have long been used as a medicinal herb and their health benefits abound. They have been used topically to treat skin problems (this is another plant that makes a great poultice for bites and stings). Ingested, they are a mild diuretic and blood detoxifier, and a great source of Vitamin C. They can be eaten raw, but due to their sticky nature they are best sautéed or steamed. Dried and roasted, the seeds can be used as a substitute to coffee. And a deep red dye can be obtained from a decoction of the roots.

Meadow Mushroom

Agaricus campestris

 

Drawing of a meadow mushroom.

These voluptuous white caps are one of the most common wild edible mushrooms. They are very similar to the button mushrooms that are mass cultivated and sold in grocery stores. Their gills are free from the portly stem and a pinkish color, turning dark brown as the fungus matures. A spore print will be chocolate brown in color. The meadow mushroom has no vulva, and the cap may bruise a slight reddish brown color (the Agaricus xanthodermus, a slightly toxic cousin of the meadow mushroom, will bruise yellow).

These can easily be found after a rain. However, I do not advise anyone who is unfamiliar with mycology identification to eat a wild mushroom. Rather, this information is being offered for the sake of learning the basics of mushroom identification. As I already mentioned, there are many poisonous look-alikes (such as the Amanita virosa, commonly called “the destroying angel,” that is morbidly toxic), so please use caution and backup sources before consuming something you are unfamiliar with.

Poor man’s pepper

Lepidium virginicum

A member of the Brassicaceae family (broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, mustards), this plant is my new substitute for store-bought mustard. Poor man’s pepper has tiny white flowers at the tips of its bottlebrush seed stalk. The flat circular seedpods grow along the stalk in a perfect spiral succession (called a raceme) and the leaves are alternating and pinnate (see above illustrations).

While still green, the seedpods have a strong mustard flavor that almost makes my eyes water. Ground in a blender with some vinegar, miso, turmeric, and salt, the seeds make a delicious mustard sauce. The leaves are also edible, sautéed or raw.

Wild Onion

Allium canadense

From a distance, I have been fooled to think the chives of wild onion plants were just grass. However, upon closer examination, I have found entire fields covered in these wild onions. This plant gives off an aromatic garlicky smell, and the short, round chives have a great taste.

To harvest, grab from the base of the plant, and gently work the root out of the ground. You may have to loosen the soil a bit to pull it up. But if you are successful, you should see a pearl-sized bulb similar to an onion at the base. To eat, snap off the taproot and squeeze the pearl out of its protective outer layer. Enjoy them raw or sautéed.