How to Forage in New York City

Armed with little more than a knife, an old Herschel backpack, and generally inexplicable footwear — flip flops or flats no matter the terrain — Brooklynite Marie Viljoen points out the delicious ingredients hiding by or under Brooklyn’s bridges, marine ways, and popular pedestrian paths. Any given weekend you can find her leading a troupe of wild-edible-curious folks through New York City’s parks and green spaces.

A self-taught recipe developer and forager, Viljoen has been leading foraging tours for nearly eight years. At the end of each walk, the backpack comes off and Viljoen unpacks a small feast. The menu changes with the seasons and the vagaries of Viljoen’s tastes and inspirations (some of Viljoen’s recipes are available in her book, Forage, Harvest, Feast). Recent walks featured deviled eggs with miso fermented pinecones, cabbage confit with juniper and elderberry, bread with dandelion greens, and “forest toddies.”

Though foraging has gained newfound popularity in recent years, it is a trend with undeniably ancient roots. For Brooklynites, including Viljoen herself, it presents the opportunity to learn more about the landscape of the northeast and reverse engineer the natural history of their neighborhood.

Marie Viljoen, foraging. Photo: Vincent Mounier

If you were to go to Prospect Park in the spring –– when the foraging season in Brooklyn gets underway –– you would find winter honeysuckle, spicebush, and magnolia trees in bloom. Magnolia flowers are delicious pickled fermented, winter honeysuckle makes delicious flavored gin, and spicebush is similar to allspice.

While you’re walking, Viljoen suggests, you should keep an eye out for dead and decaying remains of shrub-like plants from last season. A few weeks later, you might return to those patches and find hosta shoots, Japanese knotweed, and pokeweed. On this walk, you’ll probably also find garlic mustard. The tender leaves are peppery and later in the season, more established garlic mustard roots are an excellent dupe for horseradish. In the early to mid-summer, you might find milkweed blossoms, escaped asparagus, and daylilies. Later in the summer, you can find wild blueberries, mugwort, and sumac.

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The fall rains bring many species of mushrooms. Viljoen has found maitake (also known as “hen of the woods”), puffballs, oyster mushrooms, and wood-ears, all in the city. You also can gather crabapples, hawthornes, and juniper berries. The truly ambitious can make acorn flour by gathering fallen acorns, dehusking them, and soaking them in cold water to leach out the bitter tannins.

Despite the possible bounty, some might be a bit squeamish about picking a pantry staple from a polluted or well-plodded park. “I call it the great return of common sense,” Viljoen replies in her lilting South African accent. “It’s making a comeback.”

Japanese knotweed. Photo: Marie Viljoen/Instagram

Viljoen recommends avoiding spots too close to a path, or within reach of a full-bladdered puppy. As a rule, she says, the safest part of a plant growing in possibly contaminated soil is the fruit, such as berries and flowers. She also recommends vigorously washing or blanching anything you gather in a public place.

In addition to potential hygiene implications, urban foraging is frowned upon. Removing plants from city parks is prohibited. To get around this, Viljoen has had to develop her own set of ethics for her walks. In terms of so-called “invasive” plants, because of their potential to crowd out native plants, Viljoen has no compunction about removing them. “Parks are woefully underfunded,” she says, arguing that “foragers are helping to weed.”

She talks specifically about ground elder, found in Prospect Park, which forms a monopoly on the forest floor, an important habitat for native species. “I have no qualms about gathering bushels of it,” says Viljoen. Adding, “It also happens to be absolutely delicious.” She describes ground elder as “a cross between celery and lovage,” which she prepares in soups and salads. It has medicinal and cultural purposes in some Korean cooking traditions, and Viljoen has seen women gathering it from forests in Brooklyn.

A foraged spread prepared by Viljoen in Marine Park. Photo: Chrisaleen Ciro

Viljoen is proud to claim that her walks attract a crowd that is as diverse as Brooklyn itself. “Everyone in Brooklyn is from somewhere else,” she says. Because of this, Viljoen is cognizant of the language that she uses to describe the different plants she gathers around the city. She avoids characterizing certain plants as “invasive.” Instead, she describes the landscape as “cosmopolitan.”

“I’m particularly interested in people whose mothers or grandmothers foraged in different countries,” she says, of people who attend her walks. “And those who are now becoming more interested in this practice and connecting with plants that their own family might have foraged on a different continent.”

This is the case for chef and recipe developer Zoe Zhang, who has been a frequent attendee of Viljoen’s walks since 2018. Zhang grew up foraging for mussels and jellyfish with her dad in China. She now uses various Asian cooking techniques to prepare wild ingredients from around the northeast. “I tend to focus year after year on the plants that came from Asia,” she says. “I feel a certain kinship with them.”

When Zhang first started foraging in the city, she recalls her friends’ confusion. They questioned what she could possibly find in and around Brooklyn. But Zhang has come to see the urban environment as having its own advantages. Because cities are populated by so many people from so many different places, their green spaces –– particularly sprawling gardens like Central Park –– have the potential to be very diverse. In terms of the best places to find and practice identifying interesting edible plants in the city, Zhang recommends Prospect Park, Fort Tilden, and Greenwood Cemetery.

Viljoen unpacking a foraged feast in Marine Park. Photo: Chrisaleen Ciro

Not only is foraging possible, it can be a powerful tool to reorient one to the ways in which Brooklyn, despite being a dense urban metropolis, is irrevocably an ecosystem. Therefore, when Zhang goes foraging, she takes her relationship with her fellow New Yorkers seriously, plant or otherwise. “I believe that some plants want us to eat them and others don’t.” She goes on, “It sounds weird to say, but if a plant doesn’t look like it wants to be eaten, I avoid it.” She mentions a flush of serviceberries that grow near the Gowanus Canal. “Even though I know that [serviceberries] are delicious, seeing that the birds leave them alone makes me wonder.”

If you’re interested –– but aren’t yet comfortable heading down to the local park with a reusable grocery bag –– there are other ways to get to know your botanical neighbors. You can join your local park’s conservancy, volunteer at a community garden, or join a foraging tour like the ones Viljoen leads. But you might be addicted once you get a taste of the foraged feast inside Viljoen’s beat up Herschel backpack.

Chrisaleen Ciro is a writer and MA candidate at the New School.

This article first appeared in The Brooklyn Eagle on Nov. 4, 2022.

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Chrisaleen Ciro
Chrisaleen Ciro
Chrisaleen Ciro is a journalist covering environmental issues and MA candidate at the New School. She also writes the “Knife Bloc,” a newsletter covering the intersection of food and politics in NYC.
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