Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Foraging in a "Life After People" Landscape

The scene above was once a parking that fit 1000 cars, as well as touring buses. It was for an outdoor tourist destination that went out of business in the 1970s. For the past 40-odd years, the forest has slowly been reclaiming its own.

Edible milkweed and unripe raspberries
Life pushes its way up through weakened seams in the concrete; decades of growth creating an organic maze of grasses, shrubs, and even small trees. After even a few yards, the waves of greenery cut off the entrance of the former lot, and it's easy to feel completely isolated even though a picnic area and a major road lie within a mile. Subtle breezes bear the fragrance of wild roses and honeysuckle.

For the forager, these alleyways of pavement are like the aisles of a somewhat chaotic supermarket; stroll down one gathering clover, another for thistles, and a third will be bursting with raspberries in a month. All along the perimeter, rows of milkweed stand guard, three or more rows deep. In between them more raspberries, and bull, milk and sow thistles wait to snag the forager who ventures to gather the milkweed buds. 

Each week brings a different harvest. A month earlier, the edible pokeweed shoots would have been the right height for harvest, about 6 inches, but now they stand four or more feet high, their bounty out of reach for another year. The clover too, is nearly passed, it's peak about two weeks distant. But as the season progresses raspberries will ripen, milkweed pods will form, wild carrots will mature, and grapevines will bear fruit.

The animals are foraging as well. A doe ignores us as she continues her pursuit of unripe grapes. We surprise a family of wild turkey, and get a peek at their molting young. Butterflies and bunnies abound--too quick to photograph. The contented croaking of hundreds of frogs comes from the creek in the surrounding ravine, and the buzzing of bees fill the air.

Of course, the mosquitoes, gnats and flies are also out in force, and are little deterred by a protective coat of insect repellant. Fortunately for the human intruder, the remaining pavement provides safe-zones from the tall grasses which are home to disease-carrying ticks.

The harvest for the day is the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca; specifically we pick the flower buds, which are the part of the plant that is currently edible. Earlier in the Spring the stalks would have been on the menu, and later in the Summer we will dine on the pods themselves.

One of hundreds of rows of milkweed which surround the vacant lot, as well as run through it

Ethical harvesting means only taking one or two of the flower heads from each plant, and only harvesting where it is well established. (Here there are probably thousands of plants, all told).

Some foragers express a preference for the small, tightly compressed flower buds, but I didn't notice any difference in flavor, so for preference, I  harvest the largest buds I could find, ultimately harvesting fewer to fill my bag. 

But foraging for milkweed requires more than the usual amount of care. The milkweed is the sole home to young monarch butterflies. While harvesting, try not to break any of the leaves which might have monarch eggs. And inspect every bud you take for minute monarch caterpillars, like this one.
The flower buds are also home to milkweed beetles and bugs, which I find to be unattractive, despite their cheery cherry color. Aphid-eating ladybugs can also be found on milkweed, as can honey and bumblebees when the plant is in flower. Numerous spiders, preying on all of the above, lay in wait between the buds--it is wise to pick carefully, and give your prize a little shake before putting it in your bag.

Many earlier wild food guides list milkweed as bitter, and outline an elaborate process of repeated boilings to remove the bitter and toxic agent. In The Forager's Harvest, Samuel Thayer debunks this myth, which he attributes to years of repeating Euell Gibbons, who mistakenly ate the common dogbane.
Though it is neither bitter nor toxic, milkweed buds are, to me at least, also not tremendously exciting. They have an interesting texture (one that might not appeal to everyone), and a standard "green vegetable" flavor.

As always, one must be wary of poisonous plants, either dangerous look-alikes of edible ones, or common nuisances, like poison ivy.

Here the danger is minimal, though toxic dogbane abounds, this particular variety doesn't resemble common milkweed all that strongly, at least not this late in the season. The flower bud is dramatically different, the plant branches repeatedly, and the leaf lacks the perimeter vein where the other veins terminate. Poisonings are more common earlier in the year, when the shoots strongly resemble those of edible milkweed.

Toxic dogbane looks similar to milkweed. The clover around the base are still edible.

Overall, it is ironic how human disturbance sometimes creates the most abundant foraging landscapes. Many edible plants only occur abundantly in disturbed soil and habitat. So in nature, they are most commonly found in riverbanks or floodplains, or after disasters such as fire. However, terrain disturbed by humans is ripe for the kind of plants that move in first, before the trees, to reclaim the woods. An area like this, where the pavement makes it harder for plants to grow densely, will remain as a zone of truce between humans and the woods for decades, long after a field or logged area would have been retaken.

Miscellaneous Photo Album, June 10th, 2012

Milkweed flowers are also edible, and some report them as very sweet.
We left this early bloomer to the very happy bees

Though red clover season was mostly past, flower heads could still be gathered.
Clover frequently grows in with toxic plants, like these dogbane, so be careful to only harvest the edibles.

The numerous bushes were laden with unripe raspberries.
It looks to be a bumper year, if the animals don't get them all first.

These are the unopened fruitpods of wineberries, a type of raspberry.

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