Harvesting wild local produce in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park might seem like the best idea. And yet, while foraging in a bustling public park last month, Steve Brill, a straw-hatted forager named “Wildman,” and his teenage daughter, Violet, led about 40 of us hobbyists into the grassy areas beyond the park’s paved paths. four-hour trump. Tucked away in plastic wrap and bottle caps, we found edible roots, aromatic herbs, and robust greens, all ready to experiment in the adventurous chef’s kitchen.
At least in theory. There was food here, of course, but hardly the practical variety. We recovered pods from a Kentucky coffee tree whose seeds can be used to brew a caffeine-free alternative to your morning cup. That is, if one is willing to harvest enough of them, wash them off the green poisonous pig, and grill them for hours, although even then it won’t really happen. coffee. I put a few pods in a canvas bag next to sassafras root, once used to brew beer the old-fashioned way, and a handful of lettuce-flavored violet leaves, which, in just the right amount, could make a small salad. Two weeks later, I’m still wondering what I’m going to make with these strange new ingredients.
What I didn’t expect were all the medicinal plants. Just a few minutes into the tour, we encountered as many wild pain relievers and anti-inflammatories as a casual hike could provide. Among the tobacco residue here was broadleaf plantain, an easy-to-miss herb (related to the banana-like fruit) known to soothe mosquito bites. Peeing puppy had jewelry that soothes poison ivy and stinging nettles. Twigs plucked from a black birch tree exuded wintergreen oil, also known as methyl salicylate, the aspirin-like equivalent of pain relievers such as Bengay and Icy Hot.
Interest in foraging has grown in recent years, thanks in part to the gentrification of local eating and its popularity on social media, where influencers make stinging nettle chips and add fir needles to granitas. Foraged ramps and morel mushrooms have become so popular that they now appear on restaurant menus and in high-end grocery stores. But the foraging boom has largely left behind what has historically been a major challenge for plants to contend with: finding cures for minor ailments. To be clear, medicinal plants aren’t likely to save the life of a casual forager, and they lack the healthy clinical data that pharmaceuticals provide. But even some scientists think they can be handy in a pinch. Somehow, finding a goldsmith’s stalk is more rewarding than discovering a handful of leaves to replace a carrot.
That was certainly the case for Marla Emery, a scientific advisor at the Norwegian Institute of Natural Research and a former US Forest Service geographer who studies community foraging. A few years ago, after encountering poison ivy on a hunting trip with huge, oozing blisters on his legs, Emery visited a botanist in Scotland who applied lobelia, a grass with pale purple flowers, and slippery elm, a tree. with mucoid properties, his calf. Soon, she felt a tingling sensation, “like someone poured seltzer over the area,” and within an hour the blisters healed, Emery told me.
Both plants, traditionally used to treat skin conditions, “support health and have medicinal value,” he said, and are particularly beneficial because “you’re unlikely to poison yourself” with them. Anecdotes like these, which demonstrate the profound utility of medicinal plants, are common among the herbalist variety. “If you cut and paste [broadleaf] on the plane tree, you can see it up close,” Alex McAlvey, an ethnobotanist at the New York Botanical Garden, told me. For some species at least, he said, “the proof is in the pudding.”
Although foraging has long been a medicinal practice, and many modern medicines are derived from plants, in the West medicinal flora has largely relegated to “traditional” or “folk remedy” status. However, their use continues in many communities, including immigrant groups who “come from their homelands using herbs and seek to continue them,” Emery said. People in the Chinese, Russian and some Latino communities in the U.S. commonly smoke fennel, a weed with diuretic properties, to support kidney and urinary tract health, he added.
Along the concrete walkways of Prospect Park, Briles pointed out stands of burdock; its roots, in addition to being a delicious potato cheat, are used in some cultures to poison the body. Pineapple weed, found in baseball diamonds and sidewalk cracks, can soothe an upset stomach, Steve said later. Scientific evidence for such claims is scarce, as for other forage plants, and the use of plants for health inevitably raises questions about scientific credibility. Many medicinal plants that the casual seeker will encounter in the wild no have been studied through rigorous clinical trials just like any prescription drug. Whether people ultimately accept foraging for medicinal plants depends on how they believe “we’re generating evidence and truth,” McAlvey said. “Many people say: “If there’s no clinical research, it’s not legitimate.” Other people say: “My grandmother did it. It’s legal.” Nothing beats clinical research, although it is clear that some plants have valuable properties with some medicines. Lamb’s quarter, which is a spinoff of spinach, is so packed with vitamin C that it was traditionally used to prevent scurvy. Stinging nettle, traditionally used for urinary problems, may have the same effect as finasteride, a prostate medicine.
Naturally, the experts I spoke with were unanimous in recommending the use of forage medicinal plants only for minor ailments. Just as foraging for food comes with certain risks—the sight of a delicious mushroom can make you sick—so does foraging for healing. Take approved, reputable classes and use books and apps to correctly identify plants, many of which have dangerous counterparts; the edible angelica plant, for example, can easily be confused with the poisonous water hemlock known to have killed Socrates. Learning about dosing is also important. The benign plant can become toxic if too much is used, Emery warned. While working with herbs, he said: “You have to know what you’re doing, and that’s not the case with a random TikTok post.” Novice foragers should stick to “subtle but definitely potent, easy-to-identify herbs” like dandelion and violet, McAlvey said.
As Brills instructed, when I got home, I dipped the eaten jewel stem in witch hazel to make a skin-soothing tincture. Days later, as I rubbed the tan off my arm, I felt, or perhaps imagined, a wave of relief. Be that as it may, my joy was real. When I asked both tour-goers and experts why edible medicinal plants matter in a world where drugs that do the same things can easily be bought at the pharmacy, some said it was “empowering” or “satisfying,” but the description, which responded. Most with me came from McAlvey, who called it “magical,” the power to master nature. in nature to heal.
When I returned home from the field trip and opened my forage bag, I found a branch of a black birch still flooding the wintergreen. Coincidentally, it’s the smell I’ve been craving since I was 38 weeks pregnant (and counting), but moms-to-be are advised to avoid oil-based medicated creams. I sniffed the twig deeply, again and again, remembering that it might come in handy in the coming months. Brill said that when teething babies are given black birch twigs to chew on, the mild pain-relieving properties of wintergreen oil in low doses help soothe their pain. Suddenly their crying stops. What’s more magical than that?