Towards the end of our foraging journey, there was a flurry of excitement. Someone had spotted a lone morel mushroom growing on the side of our trail. This sought-after fungus, for which connoisseurs will pay up to $35 per pound, was the most valuable find of our entire trek, but no one ventured to pick the specimen — perhaps because of its neighbors. The cone-shaped mushroom grew right next to a leaky-looking battery and just steps away from a rusty razor blade.
We weren’t foraging in a beautiful park or someone’s woodsy backyard. No, on this Sunday morning, we were looking for edible and useful plant life in “The Cut” — an abandoned, four-track-wide section of Philadelphia’s abandoned Reading Viaduct railroad, sunk some 40 feet below street level. We entered, somewhat ironically, through a chain link fence separating the encroaching wilderness from the employee parking lot of a Whole Foods market. A few members of the tour took the opportunity to forage for some coffee inside before signing the requisite waiver form and venturing down the parking ramp and into the unknown. After circumnavigating a moderately sized pile of general trash, it quickly became clear that this little section of abandoned city space was home to more than just weeds and rats (and a few vagrants). Tall grasses, sprawling bushes, and full sized trees had spent the previous few decades reclaiming The Cut and creating an impromptu slice of nature.
Our foraging guide, David Siller — a farmer, naturalist, and primitive skills practitioner — wasted no time in pointing out the first few edible and useful plants in the area. I had naively assumed that there wouldn’t be much in terms of edible plants growing in the space between shiny new parking structures and luxury condominiums, but I soon found myself struggling to keep up as I jotted down notes on the names, uses, cooking instructions, and toxicity levels for the never ending stream of treasures. While we didn’t find any of the local foraged food classics like ramps (a wild spring leek), stinging nettles (cooking softens the stingers), or fiddleheads (tightly curled fern fronds) — it soon became clear that nearly every plant we came across had some sort of use, either as a material or a food.
Of course, we wouldn’t actually be eating any of the plants we found. The Reading Viaduct was once the most heavily traveled stretch of industrial railway in the country. Thousands of heavy duty locomotives drove innumerable tons of cargo right into the heart of the city. While the trains may have stopped rolling decades ago, years of heavy traffic have left their toll — likely driving pollutants deep into the aging rail beds and elevated paths.
Even in a less toxic locale, like a quiet countryside or your supermarket’s produce aisle, some plants contain trace toxins or minerals that make them unsuitable for daily consumption. Raw potatoes, for example, contain harmful alkaloids which are only rendered safe through cooking. On the other hand, a “choice” vegetable like kale can be eaten in large volumes, raw or cooked, without issue. When it comes to wild plants, the gap between “edible” and “choice” can be even wider. When our guide held up pokeweed, a spinach-like, somewhat invasive plant, and proclaimed it “edible,” he seemed to gloss over the fact that the plant must be boiled in two separate pots of water before it is safe to eat. That means boiling, cooking, draining, boiling again, cooking again, and draining again before the residual pile of what I can only assume is a warm green plant mush can be eaten.
So how can one tell the difference between similar plants? “To get closer — get closer,” was the advice of our guide. It’s no use trying to identify a plant from afar; you’ll need to get up close and personal to catch differences like leaf patterns, bud formations, and even subtle sound differences. For example, dogbane, which we encountered on the tour, is decidedly not edible, and, as its name implies, is highly toxic to dogs. Common milkweed, which looks similar to dogbane and contains a similar, milky-white sap, happens to be edible. One of the easiest ways to tell them apart? Dogbane leaves squeak when rubbed together, unlike the silent milkweed leaves.
One of the plants that evoked the most enthusiasm from the tour group was the unique looking Japanese knotweed — an invasive, fast growing plant whose young, spring stems can be likened to a sour rhubarb. Supposedly only “in season” for about two weeks, this plant brought up another problem with foraging – seasonality is much more strict in the wild than in the grocery store. Domesticated plants which can provide food through multiple seasons, either through creative gardening solutions, diverse varieties, or long distance transport, but a wild plant may only have a window of about a week or two to harvest. Want to get fresh ingredients for your favorite Japanese knotweed jelly recipe in winter? Too bad, you can’t.
While we didn’t taste plants straight out of the industrial soil, our guide David came prepared with homemade food made using his own foraged ingredients. The first, a Japanese knotweed tart, used knotweed in place of lemon in a simple lemon bar recipe, resulting in a rich, earthy tart. A second dish used cleavers and garlic mustard, along with walnuts and olive oil, to make a bright, surprisingly spicy foraged pesto. Both recipes required a fair number of non-foraged ingredients, but they showed how foraged foods can be easily incorporated into everyday cooking.
As we clambered back through the chain-link fence and into the Whole Foods parking lot, I couldn’t help but think that the dumpsters behind the grocery store probably held greater treasures than the few edible plants that lay beyond them. But that wasn’t entirely fair. My day of foraging was an enlightening experience, even without the ability to snack freely on the plants we found. If anything, seeing the variety of edible plants can help fight the preconception that “food plants” and “not-food plants” are two distinct groups. It might be unreasonable to expect every urban park to grow into a wild community garden, but in an urban setting where parks often have more broken bottles than flowers, perhaps a park that would allow exploration through hands-on foraging might encourage community members to spend more time exploring, and caring for, our shared outdoor spaces.
Wild Greens Pesto
1 pound mixed wild greens (like violet leaves, chickweed, cleavers, and garlic mustard)
½ to 1 cup olive oil
1 cup walnuts
2 heads garlic (optional)
Parmesan cheese, grated, to taste (optional)
Combine ingredients in food processor or blender and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add oil as desired and process until smooth. If not freezing the pesto, mix in the Parmesan cheese.
Japanese Knotweed Tart
For the crust:
2 cup flour
1 cup butter
½ cup sugar
For the filling:
2 cups Japanese knotweed, de-leafed and chopped
1 cup sugar
¼ cup flour
Pre-heat oven to 350°F.
Mix all ingredients for the crust together, then press into a tart pan and par-bake for 20 minutes.
Steam the chopped, de-leafed Japanese knotweed for 10 to 15 minutes. When steamed and tender, blend with eggs, sugar, and flour. Pour the mixture into par-baked crust and bake for another 20 minutes.