Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Foraging with Wildman Steve Brill

If you haven't heard of Wildman Steve Brill (many TV and radio appearances and he was written up in many publications), then you should know that signing up for a tour with this well-known naturalist is a wonderful way to use NYC as a classroom (for kids and grown-ups). It is such a fun educational nature hike with the "Wildman" who has over thirty years of experience. Steve's jokes and stories held the attention of my (recently turned) six-year-old easily. His anecdotes (with silly sound effects and animated gestures), as well as the hands-on experience for participants, made this an unforgettable field trip. The parents of the kids also learned so much about foraging safely (for edible and medicinal plants), wild vegan cooking and our environment. Below are some photos of our foraging trip in Prospect Park, we met at Grand Army Plaza, the actual foraging portion was a solid two hours (and not one whining word from my dear daughter who had a blast).

Steve encourages making observational art from nature (and showed us some of his sketches and paintings on his tablet, so we could compare how some plants look different each season). My daughter insisted on bringing a journal to this tour, since she has enjoyed drawing "interesting things" on our own hikes the last year.

My daughter can survive in the wilderness, it seems, because she (and so many of us in the group) didn't hesitate to taste whatever Steve Brill told us was safe to pluck and eat. She immediately tasted the garlic mustard raw (you can guess what the leaves taste like by the name), identification included small white flowers on the plant.

We also nibbled on lamb's quarters raw (which tasted like spinach). We found the leaves ourselves after Steve helped us identify them (teeth along the edges and it's white underneath). Lina said she could munch on these every day (many vitamins and minerals, too).

The tastiest of them all...was pokeweed. One needs to be very careful with pokeweed since it can be poisonous, causing extreme vomiting and diarrhea. Never eat pokeweed out of season. Never eat pokeweed raw. Never eat the toxic roots, berries or flowers. When the young leaves and stems are collected (only in the spring from pokeweed plants that are under 8 inches tall), as a few of our group members took home, and are cooked properly...they will be edible. Steve had cooked the pokeweed in three changes of boiling water, each time discarding the used water (do not drink it), then added garlic and tamari soy sauce etc. (He sells a wild vegan cookbook and I'm betting everything he cooks is super tasty.) Lina and I both agreed that this was yummy and since it's a dangerous gourmet vegetable (if picked or prepared improperly could lead to death)...I was happy to sample what an expert cooked for the group. Lina said it was the most delicious vegetable she ever ate (below photo, second helping).

We found, picked and ate raw chickweed (which tastes like corn). Leaves are small smooth-edged ovals growing in opposite pairs and there were tiny white flowers on the plant (5 petals, each deeply cut almost in half to look like 10 petals).

We took a break and while others were sitting down and eating lunch (we were planning to meet friends for lunch at a restaurant after the field trip)...we found an area with shade (it was a very warm day) and Lina went hunting for dandelions.

Blowing on a dandelion and making a wish...

Next up on the tour...common plantain. Which Steve had cooked like a kale chip...crispy. Lina liked this very much.

We saw common plantain growing. It can be tough and stringy, so it's not tasty to eat raw. Instead, they can be twisted, to release juice, and rubbed on the skin to cure it of a new mosquito bite...if reapplied for about 15 minutes. That is useful information. Lina will itch a mosquito bite to such an extent that her skin will begin to bleed and we do not like using chemicals on our sensitive skin to ward off bugs. Avoidance has been our strategy...but that limits time in nature to a few hours at a time (and running away from anything that might bite or sting) and one day we would like to go overnight camping. Anyway, I'm sure there are other medicinal plants that will help relieve skin irritations...and it's important to learn how to identify them...but common plantain helps heal mosquito bites and poison ivy rash...and it's an oval leaf, smooth-edged and ribbed...with visible parallel veins, that grows close to the ground and the leaves spread out in a circle from one point.

We continued the tasting adventure...moving on to raw goutweed. It tastes like parsley and freshens breath.

Then, yellow woodsorrel was discovered...raw it tastes a bit like lemonade. The plant can be identified by the yellow flowers and each three-parted leaf has leaflets that are heart-shaped (unlike a clover, which has oval-shaped leaflets), so we enjoyed looking at the shapes of leaves and picking the right ones.

We continued on...going deeper into an area where the kids could duck under thick branches and walk over sticks, they were much better at doing this quickly than the parents who were a bit behind. (I gave up, by the time I got was time to head out...and Lina had dropped what she was given by accident..and I didn't hear what the tree looked we didn't have a chance to find and study the leaves and root of the sassafrass sapling, or save some to make tea later, but folks said it smells like root beer.)

Though this was a homeschooling group that met for a tour, he has public tours (in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut, Pennsylvania etc.) on his calendar (anyone can register in advance) as well as private tours or presentations that can be arranged for school classes, scouts or birthday parties. Also, organizations can host tours so their members (chefs, nature lovers etc.) can learn about "a great diversity and abundance of common, renewable, seasonal edible and medicinal wild plants or mushrooms." 

So check out his web site, if you're interested:

Here's an old YouTube clip with Steve talking about some foraging safety issues:

He pointed out poison ivy in person to us during the tour. That was awesome, because most people walk through it or touch it without even realizing it and get a rash...that's why we were not wearing open-toed sandals during the hike through Prospect Park.  He also pointed out various plants no one should eat...whether they were poisonous (and explained what would happen if they were eaten) or they taste bad raw.

It was very entertaining for everyone to listen to Steve making music with his mouth during the tour. His web site states:

 "The brillophone is an instrument you make by cupping your hands and clapping them in front of your mouth. You form a small, circular opening with your lips, hold your breath, and open your throat as though you're going to swallow or yawn. Air from the hole above your thumbs forcefully enters your mouth and creates an echo. You create different notes and tones by changing the shape of your mouth and lips."

There's so much to learn in each park, each season, each's better to schedule tours regularly. I didn't even realize before this tour that opposite paired or alternate leaves, smooth-edged or teeth along the edges of leaves, were a couple of ways to identify plants.

Identifying so much in nature (plants, flowers, trees, rocks, bugs, birds etc.) using our senses, rather than sitting in a classroom with a book or movie in front of us, is a wonderful way to remain active and feel alive and connected to the world around us.