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Early Flowers and Early Berries: Foraging with David Craft
Features - The Home Farmer
Written by Jon Ross-Wiley   

If you are one of the Local In Season faithful, you know urban forager, David Craft.  Prior to the site going "live" in September 2009, we brainstormed ways to get Craft involved in the site. After all, what's more local and seasonal than simply taking a stroll in the neighborhood and finding edible plants, berries, and mushrooms to account for at least half of your meals?  That is the life that Craft leads, and, in his newly published book, Urban Foraging: Finding and eating wild plants in the city, Craft takes us with him on this journey around town and educates us along the way.  

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If you haven't "met" David Craft yet, take a moment to view the two videos we shot with him in the fall of 2009. You will immediately note that Craft is passionate about what he does, and that sharing this passion with people is a labor of love.  At the time the videos were shot, Craft was still working on this book, so we at Local In Season are thrilled to see him reach his goal of publication. You can purchase Urban Foraging at the Harvard Bookstore or online, but Craft has given us permission to share an excerpt from his book to whet your appetite. Enjoy!

 

[An excerpt from Chapter 6 of Urban Foraging: Finding and eating wild plants in the city]

To open your eyes to the natural world is to be continually astounded by the variety of life. I have considered becoming a biologist or a botanist, but it's possible that spending 8+ hours per day observing the natural world would send me overboard, frozen with awe. A few walks per week foraging is a good balance for me.  

Obsessed with order, humans have spent lots of time classifying plants and animals and fungi and to date we have described about 2 million species. The task of estimating how many total species exist is formidable and current estimates range from 5 million to 30 million. Taxonomic trees for the known species are continually being rearranged to account for new DNA findings of ancestral relationships amongst life forms. Mushrooms are especially prone to such re-classification. Initially, mushrooms were grouped together into genera based on the form–basically, the mechanism by which they disperse their spores. Mushrooms can have gills, which create a lot of surface area to generate and expel spores from (for example, the familiar button mushroom and the portobellos found in grocery stores), or they can have tightly packed tubes for spore dispersal (for example, hen-of-the-woods). But there are also mushrooms that rely on raindrops and animals to come and crush them, releasing a puff of spores that looks like brown smoke (puffballs). And then there are truffles, which never send a mushroom body above the surface, but live entirely under the dirt and, by producing enticing smells and tastes, get forest critters like squirrels to dig them up and take them from place to place. 

It was originally thought that each fungus form defined a different branch of the taxonomic tree, but recent findings show that all branches give rise to these different forms. Thus a mushroom book from 50 years ago will contain many mushrooms whose scientific names are now different. Botanists swear by their Latin names, but this in-flux DNA classification is reason enough for me to stick by the common names when possible. The porcini will always be the porcini. 

 

A general rule that I've accepted is, if you can conceive of it, it exists in nature. We have plants that eat animals (Venus fly traps, and the pitcher plant), lizards with a single sex who reproduce by parthenogenesis, and thousands of species of water bears, microscopic animals with 8 legs, existing over the range of extreme environmental conditions from hot springs to the tops of the Himalayas. Our biggest mammals, the whales, eat tiny plankton we can't even see. There is a mushroom that reproduces by infecting ants, sending them into a delirium which causes them to climb upwards, clamp onto a high branch, die, and sprout new mushrooms out of their heads. Every apple seed gives rise to an apple tree different from the tree it came from. Over the course of time, an estimated 4,000 distinct types of apples have been cultivated. How many more delightful apples-to-be do we toss out with our apple cores every day? 

 

All of this variety directly impacts the urban forager too. The natural life cycle of a plant consists of using the summer sun to gather energy to grow and produce seeds, and possibly store energy in roots for perennials and biennials. But before the seed can be made, the plant needs to flower for sexual reproduction, stirring up the gene pool. And even though we are not the pollinators, the flowers often smell and taste sweet to us, not just the bees. 

 

If there is an opportunity out there, Darwin assures us that something will fill the void. Bees are busy for all of the warm months because different plants are sending out their flowers at different times. Violets come out early on, and their heart shaped leaves are good for a salad at this early stage, along with their purple or occasionally white flowers. People with lots of patience and a sweet tooth can enjoy hand painting violet flowers with a sugary egg white solution to make candied violets. 

 

But the king of the early flowers for foragers, a dessert unto itself, needs no help from the sugar plantations of Jamaica. This is the black locust flower. The black locust is native to the southern United States but has become naturalized across the entire eastern U.S. and parts of the west too. When grouped together, their twisting trunks and deeply furrowed bark can produce a haunted, fairy tale looking plot, as a bunch of them do in an old graveyard set off the road in Lanesville, a small section of Gloucester, MA. In tall trees, the white bunches of drooping flowers are sometimes completely out of reach, but in younger trees or trees with limbs that bend down far enough, the white flowers are there for you to grab. Start by smelling them. A thick, jasmine-like scent fills you up, with a taste that is just as good. I pluck a whole bunch and then strip off the flowers with my teeth. Other edible flowers are at best color additions to salads, but these black locust flowers are hearty, crunchy and sweet and make a great snack in the field or at the table back home. If you want an impressive and unique dessert using fresh specimens, try black locust fritters. Using whole wheat flour ought to partially offset the fact that these are best when fried in lots of oil.

 

Black locust trees are actively cultivated in cities and yards though most people do not know the flowers are edible, so there are plenty to eat when you find the trees. I'll sometimes stand under a giant and ponder about all the tasty flowers draping the entire canopy above. I wonder, how could I get them all, and then what would I do with them? They freeze okay for use later on in oatmeal, but they are far better fresh and present a challenge regarding being preserved. Were they around all year I could easily start each day with a bunch or two, but like many foraged foods, these flowers are only out for a few weeks. Foraging encourages a Buddhist sense of non-attachment in us: what is here and good today is gone tomorrow. 

 

Black Locust Fritters


1 cup silken tofu

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup almond milk or water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon baking powder

About 20 black locust flower bunches

Canola or coconut oil for frying


Mix the dry ingredients together, then add the tofu, almond milk, and maple syrup. Blend or whip until smooth. Keeping the flowers on the stem, dip the entire flower bunch into the batter and fry a few of them at a time in oil over medium heat, flipping after a few minutes. Place them on paper towels. Serve hot or warm.


Another early flower, this one on a shrub, is juneberry. These flowers are not for eating, they merely help you locate the small trees and remind you that their berries will be out soon. The flowers are white and star-shaped (ray flowers). The bush has smooth, gray bark and stands anywhere from 10 to 20 feet tall, usually with three to six individual plants clumped together and emanating from the same spot, like a lilac bush. 

 

Juneberry is the helpful mnemonic for the forager since it is a reminder that by June you can be hunting for berries. The plant also goes by the name of shad bush, since the flowering of it coincides with the running of the shad, a migrating ocean river fish. It is also called serviceberry, saskatoon, sarvisberry, and shadblow, the flood of regionally distinct common names probably related to the fact that, without economic importance, there is no push towards a single shared name.

 

The berries, out in June, resemble blueberries, but are a bit less sweet and the seeds inside them are slightly larger, making the entire berry a little mealier. Still, the entire berry is edible, seeds and all, and if you add them to pancakes, no one will know they are not blueberries. Like blueberries, they freeze well. So if you are lucky enough to find some shrubs with lots of fruit, save some for later months. Freezing them first on a cookie sheet and then bagging them prevents them from sticking together in one clump in the freezer. 

 

Unfortunately, urban planners usually avoid planting fruit trees in the city because of the “unwanted” fruit they drop. Urban fruit trees, if found, occupy out of sight corners and they are never as common as the oaks, lindens, maples, Callery pears (inedible), and sycamores that line the streets. Sometimes though, a corporate landscape or a small municipal park will contain a few juneberries, probably chosen for their early flowers. I have found them planted along rivers and ponds in cities (Central Park has some), in landscaping around malls, and on college campuses. Once, while picking a haul of them by an office building in downtown Boston, a quirky older gentleman came up and asked me, “What are you going to do with those Amelanchier canadensis?” Sometimes if you know the Latin name, you just have to say it.

 

While farmer's market shoppers go berry-free after strawberries and before the arrival of the August onslaught–blueberries and raspberries and blackberries–urban foragers enjoy a steady stream of berries from the time the juneberry comes out. A fantastic urban berry appearing just as the juneberries are fading is the mulberry. 

 

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