Foraging: Delicious, nutritious and free 

click to enlarge monzel8.jpg

Herbalist and forager Greg Monzel wants you to take advantage of the free and abundant food that surrounds us. And finding that food is as easy as a stroll through the park.

As we take an afternoon walk through green spaces at the heart of the city - from American Legion Mall to University Park - he points to countless (seriously - I gave up counting after a while) edibles growing in plain sight.

For Monzel, who shares his wisdom on the joys of foraging for edibles on scheduled plant walks in and around the city, the benefits of foraging are many. The enhanced connection with nature fosters a healthier relationship with the environment and an attitude of conservation and care. The nutritional punch of food gathered from the wild is immense, and at the same time, medicinal. Foraging encourages a sense of curiosity and brings with it the joys of discovery. And, of course, it's free.

Central Indiana, Monzel says, is unique in that "it is a hyper-diverse bioregion, where northern species of plants have their southern limits and southern species have their northern limits." Likewise, he says, with the forestlands and prairie lands of east and west: "There's a lot of food here."

"Often, for the sake of foraging," says Monzel, pointing to a patch of clovers and dandelions growing among the grass, "the weeds are the most powerful plants." He says that the weeds we expend so much energy pulling up from our gardens "were often plants brought to America from other countries as food or as medicine."

Take purslane, a hardy, drought-tolerant succulent with thick stems and fleshy leaves that thrives in the disturbed soil of garden beds and planted areas. A favorite of Monzel's, this "powerhouse of nutrition" can be found everywhere, growing "from a crack in the sidewalk, big and beautiful, and packed with vitamins and omega-3s." Its juicy texture and slightly lemony tang make a nice addition to a salad, but Monzel says he's more the plucking-and-eating type.

A trot through a grassy lawn will even yield a surprising variety of tasty edibles, from plantains (whose leaves, Monzel says, are a hit with children), to dandelions (a touch bitter, with a host of uses, and one of the most nutrient-rich foods around), to violets (another culinary and medicinal favorite of Monzel, who says their "easy-to-identify leaves" make a "nice, mild base for a salad").

Ground-hugging weeds aren't the only plants fit for foraging around a park or green space, though. Trees can be prolific sources of food as well. "Trees are just really big plants," notes Monzel. "And they make a heck of a lot more food than the herbs that surround us." Oak trees, for example, bear acorns - "the most calorie-dense food on the planet, and probably the staple calorie food besides meat in this area" for indigenous peoples in earlier times. Likewise, black walnuts, hickory nuts, and gingko nuts make for tasty treats, though each nut requires some preparation work.

Basswood (or linden) trees are another fine resource for foragers. Their heart-shaped leaves - best picked when fairly small and tender - have a mild flavor, great for salad use or simply eaten off the branch. Mulberries, fruiting in early and mid-summer, are a well-known regional treat. Crabapples, often found in parks, are commonly used for jams and jellies. For the more adventurous and observant, there are plums, persimmons, and pawpaws.

click to enlarge Plaintain leaves can be a hit with kids, according to Greg Monzel. - JORDAN CLARK
  • Plaintain leaves can be a hit with kids, according to Greg Monzel.
  • Jordan Clark

The pawpaw - sometimes called the "Indiana banana" - is a tropical-tasting fruit with sweet, custardy flesh that ripens in late summer. Trees can be found growing on forest edges, and a shake of the trunk (look for those a couple inches in diameter) will release any properly ripe fruit. Persimmon trees can also be found at the edges of forests, and their sugar-rich fruit drops after the first frost.

Monzel, a native Hoosier, learned his trade via classes at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine, and serves on the board of the Indy Food Cooperative and as an officer for the Indiana chapter of the American Herbalists Guild. And he understands that, for every enthusiastic forager, there are plenty more who are wary of the potential dangers of gathering their own food. Foragers should take necessary precautions, but should not be dissuaded from exploring. It is best to become familiar with the common plants in the area, and especially with those that can be harmful. Carrying around good-quality photographs can help.

"I don't recommend that people just go out foraging in their lawn or their neighborhood without knowing at least a little bit what they're doing. You should know your poison plants first," he says, referring to a handful of plants all foragers should be aware of.

Additionally, while most rural areas are safe for foraging, as well as many urban green spaces, there are some places that aren't suitable for gathering food: "I avoid railways and I don't gather along trails, as traditionally they use heavy herbicides not approved for agriculture. Stay away form brownfields. Avoid streams and other waterways, which could transfer E. coli onto the plants." The foundations of older homes or buildings also present the risk of lead contamination, he adds.

But with a little knowledge, foraging is quite safe, says Monzel. People are often aware that mushroom hunting can be dangerous, and he finds that the mentality about mushrooms gets adapted to plants, which, he points out, "are much less likely to hurt you."

Monzel maintains that the foraging mentality, which hearkens back to our ancestors, should be adopted more broadly in modern society. "Children in traditional cultures would learn up to sixty plants by about age six, and how to identify them." What has been lost in the modernization of human society is much of our connection to nature and the uses of the elements that comprise it. Even a little education at an early age, he says, goes a long way to bridging that gap. Likewise, he notes, for the many homeless and hungry that frequent areas such as downtown parks, a bit of knowledge about the free food available could make an enormous difference.

Finally, Monzel emphasizes that, on top of the clear health benefits of consuming wild foods, there is a strong "community-building aspect" to foraging. "When we're gathering food, it's this feeding behavior that brings people together."

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