Urban foraging is harvesting free food in urban environments. Not sure if you can eat the weeds in your backyard? Green Deane leads classes in Florida to help students identify wild edibles in their backyards and green (and not so green) spaces.
That Time I Ate Red Berries
My first attempt at urban foraging did not go so well. I was either three or four years old and told my mother I ate big, beautiful red berries off the neighbor’s shrub. Although juicy, they were extremely bitter.
“The birds were eating them,” I explained. I could not understand her frantic response and rapid-fire questions.
She spoon-fed me a healthy dose of ipecac. Quickly, I learned not to eat red berries off bushes either in the neighborhood or in the wild.
Since then, I have learned a little bit about foraging but have stuck to traditional wild edibles. A vacant lot near my North Port home yielded a few blackberries and strawberries this spring. They are smaller than those sold in grocery stores. As Deane Jordan, also known as Green Deane, would probably refer to them as “trailside nibblers.”
Meet Green Deane of Eat the Weeds
A native of New England, he moved to the Sunshine State decades ago and calls Central Florida home. Deane’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother foraged and in junior high, he brewed beer and made dandelion wine. Although his stepfather offered suggestions on improving the beer and his mother knew the basics of wine making, Deane made those on his own.
“The beer was good, but the dandelion wine was better,” he told me. Deane’s parents did not drink much and he gave most of his beverages away. Deane has since “gone on to make thousands of gallons of wine.”
Today, Green Deane is one of the country’s foraging experts. He writes the popular website called Eat the Weeds and for about 20 years, has led wild edible classes throughout the state and often leads seminars and classes out of state. With more than 4.3 million views, EatTheWeeds boasts being the most watched foraging channel on YouTube.
Eat the Weeds and Native Plants
“We’re going to see about five dozen plants today, so by the time I’m done you’re going to be sick of green,” he told a group during a wild edibles class in Sarasota.
Surveying the surroundings of Red Bug Slough Preserve, I found it hard to believe there were five edible plants in the park. Sixty seemed like a stretch. Within 15 minutes, Green Deane was well on his way in identifying and sharing the edible and/or medicinal properties of dozens of shrubs, trees, and other flora.
We followed him through and around the preserve including a brief amble on a sidewalk and through a neighborhood. He walked through tall vegetation and down the bank of a waterway all in the name of wild edibles.
Wait. What Plant is a Good Insect Repellent?
In front of an American beautyberry bush (Callicarpa americana), we stopped. While the magenta-colored berries are perfect for making jelly, the shrub has a useful property, especially to outdoorspeople.
“The leaves are a good insect repellent,” the wild edibles expert said. He added, some people prefer using the extract from the crushed leaves over products with DEET. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, American beautyberry contains the compound called callicarpenal which repels imported fire ants, mosquitoes, and ticks. Make a salve by combining it with olive oil, Deane suggests.
A Change in Foraging
He has noticed a change in foraging over the years.
“More people are interested in foraging than 30 years ago, the traditional seasons for finding various wild species is changing such as earlier or later or longer, and more governmental agencies are opposed to people learning about local plants in parks,” he said. Foraging on Florida’s public lands is illegal.
Most plants identified by the philosophical forager, who is also a professional musician and MENSA member, are edible or serve a beneficial purpose. He identified a few poisonous plants, too, such as rosary pea (Abrus precatorius), a common ornamental planted throughout Florida bears deadly seeds.
Some plants have medicinal properties, such as Carolina willow (Salix caroliniana). Aspirin is synthesized from its bark and chewing on stems have the same effects as aspirin. Those allergic to aspirin should not consume any part of willow trees.
Green Space to Table
And of course, many make nice side dishes on the dinner table. Deane referred to a handful as “trailside nibblers,” such as the stalks of cattails. Chomp on the white, tender portion found at the base of the stalk, and it is like munching on celery. It’s a welcome relief during a Florida summer day. Yellow blossoms and pea pods of the hairy cowpea (Vigna luteola) are edible, preferably cooked. Most other wild peas, with pink or red blossoms, are not edible.
Tubers of the non-native sword fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia) swell with water and are a refreshing snack. They also contain a bit of protein. Roast them for a sweet flavor and chewy texture.
Green Deane’s Fave Southwest Florida Edible Is…
What’s the witty forager’s favorite Southwest Florida wild edible? He eats ringless honey mushroom (Armillariella tabescens) the most followed by chanterelles. He has a keen interest in fungi and manages several Florida Facebook groups including the Orlando Mushroom Group (OMG).
“I also like the fruit of the pindo palm (Butia capitata). I’ve been low-carb some 13 years and that is the one, sweet, wild fruit I let myself enjoy in moderation.”
Why Eat the Weeds?
At the end of the class, our minds were full of the knowledge of dozens of wild plants and tasted at least 10 of them. Deane hopes his classes introduce participants to “new flavors, textures and seasonal sources of different nutrition.”
“Wild food has been less manipulated and handled than traditional food,” he said, and continued, “When you pick a wild berry the possible chain of contamination is rather short, and no genes have been added. Wild foods are also usually lower in carbohydrates such as sugar than cultivated edibles.”
Deane graciously shares his knowledge through his website, EatTheWeeds.com, YouTube channel, classes, and soon a book.
“If society falls apart,” Green Deane joked, “I don’t know if I’ll be kidnapped or king.”
Common Mistakes Beginners Make
Interested in foraging your own wild edibles? When asked what the common mistakes beginning foragers make, Green Deane said they make two.
The first is trying to identify every plant.
“As some 93 percent of species are not edible, depending some on where you live, that is very unproductive.” He suggests, “It is far more efficient to look for the 7 percent of plants that are edible.”
The second mistake beginners make is trying “to make a plant fit a description.” He explained, “Botanists usually describe plants well. You have to be ruthlessly objective. If all the leaves are described as under two inches and all your leaves are over three inches but everything else fits you still probably have the wrong plant. This is why studying with a friend is good in that you will be more critical together.”
Nuts & Bolts About Green Deane’s Wild Edibles
Deane Jordan, aka, Green Deane
Eat the Weeks
Classes are offered regularly throughout the state including in Charlotte and Sarasota Counties. They are typically Saturday and/or Sunday mornings, about three hours and cost $30. Visit EatTheWeeds.com for a current class schedule. Classes occur rain or shine. Dress for the weather, which may include insect repellent, sunscreen, and raingear. Bring water and wear comfortable shoes.
Check out Green Deane’s videos on YouTube.
Florida is home to other foraging instructors including:
Florida School of Holistic Living
Food Forest and author of Homegarden Cuisine Toolkit: Ideas for Making Food in the Humid Subtropics. Find it on Amazon.
Additional resource include the Southwest Florida Mycological Society Facebook Group which is for amateur and professional mycologists.
Crowd-sourced map for foraging locations throughout the country.
Gulf States Mycological Society
Non-profit scientific and educational organization for the Gulf States to promote the study and appreciation of fungal floral. The organization is affiliated with the North American Mycological Association.
This post is for informational purposes only. Before consuming wild edibles, check with a local expert to verify your find.
This post contains affiliate links to support this blog, my traveling habit, and my special-needs dog. I was a guest of Green Deane during this experience yet opinions are my own.