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If you’re like me, when you look at a vacant lot packed with dandelions, you probably see nothing but weeds. When a mulberry tree drops its berries on your regular sidewalk route, you see a nuisance that must be tiptoed around to avoid sticky shoes. Those green, golf ball–sized walnut pods that dot your neighborhood cul-de-sac? Fun to kick down the street, maybe, but little more.
On the other hand, to an urban forager, these run-of-the-mill plants can wind up as delectable, nutritious and even medicinal additions to their kitchen. Despite the urban landscape, Portland remains lush with foliage both aesthetically pleasing and ultimately good for the body and soul. All that’s needed is doing a little homework and knowing where to look.
Many Portlanders make locally sourced food a priority. Stop by any of the city’s many farmers’ markets and you’ll see banners proudly emblazoned with the names from farms near the metro area, by the coast, in the Willamette Valley or out in the Columbia River Gorge. “Is it local?” has become a good-natured joke about Portland that many of us are quick to embrace. But even if urban foraging doesn’t appeal to you, the surrounding area is packed with wild food-gathering options and a plethora of organizations enthusiastic about helping you get started.
For urban foragers of all experience levels, Portland-based nonprofit Urban Edibles provides ample resources to help fill your baskets with delicious or medicinal plants, roots and produce that often go overlooked in our own neighborhoods. Their website offers users the chance to browse by location or by the desired food category. The site also provides tips for ethical considerations. After all, raised garden beds next to the sidewalk are obviously private property and off-limits. But there are other ethical considerations as well, such as over-harvesting to the point that you are harming a plant or otherwise damaging the visual presentation of a plant in a public space. Chemical contamination is another concern, given that any urban area is prone to use of pesticides or exposure to other toxic chemicals, even something as simple as errant paint chips or motor oil.
Portland is also home to one of the more active and notable urban foraging experts, Rebecca Lerner. In addition to hosting her First Ways website, which is chock-full of vibrant photos and detailed descriptions to help you identify and safely harvest edible herbs and other plants growing in your neighborhood, Lerner also offers classes and personal guided hikes. She has also penned a book on the subject, “Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness.” In 2009, she even made local headlines by subsisting for five days on nothing but wild food she foraged from around town, in order to draw attention to urban foraging. Lerner also serves as the Pacific Northwest e-field guide on the highly rated “Wild Edibles” smartphone app that can make foraging an even simpler process here in the digital age.
Although the nonprofit itself may be based in Colorado, Falling Fruit offers an interactive map that allows users to pin locations of available urban produce anywhere in the world. Many owners of lavender bushes, apple trees and other edibles will post their permission for people to harvest what otherwise may seem to be off-limits to the public. The site not only uses Google Maps, but also Street View technology, along with very specific written details to ensure that foragers can find exactly what they’re looking for. The site lists over half a million food locations around the world, with 13,000 of those in the Portland metro area alone.
What You Can Find in the City
Literally dozens of edible plants peek up through the concrete, proliferate along roadsides and in vacant spaces or drop their fruit or nuts onto parks, sidewalks and other spaces throughout the city. You’re likely familiar with many of them, but you may not have realized they were edible. Others are less familiar and take more research to identify, but with a little study and some legwork you can easily supplement your refrigerator’s crisper or spice rack without having to leave the city limits. In addition to the dozens of spots to find such common food items as blackberries, cherries, figs, plums and apples, there plenty of other edible and medicinal plants.
Dandelions may be the most versatile — and likely the most ubiquitous — edibles that you can find around town. In addition to the leaves being frequently used as a salad green, there are many other specific uses for this common weed, including medicinal tinctures (they’re especially good for the liver), a caffeine-free tea when the roots are roasted and even dandelion wine. A word of advice: pick leaves before flowers form to avoid increased bitterness to the greens. Violets (both the leaves and flowers) can be eaten raw to give your salads a vibrant zing. Planters around sidewalk trees can be a gold mine for salad greens that sprout there as well. The plentiful chickweed is one that grows even in the soggy gray depths of winter.
There’s little reason to shell out money to buy chestnuts if you live in Portland. They grow bountifully here in the Rose City. Urban Edibles lists close to 30 locations throughout town. However, make sure you do your homework before harvesting, as the delectable prickle-encased nuts do look somewhat like their spiny (and toxic) cousin, the horse chestnut. Walnuts also abound within the city limits, with nearly 50 locations documented on Urban Edibles.
Goldenrod may be routinely blamed for allergies, but its leaves and flowers can actually be made into tea and used as an allergy remedy. Native American tribes have traditionally brewed the flowers to treat fevers in young children, and the root has been known to ease toothaches when placed in the mouth. Goldenrod is also said to act as an effective anti-inflammatory remedy.
If you’ve heard of the Oregon grape before, it was likely in the context of that plant’s yellow blossoms serving as our state flower. But the root of the Oregon grape can also be made into a tincture that’s been shown to ease the symptoms of acute viral diseases such as mononucleosis and strep throat. The roots grow horizontally along the ground, making for easier harvesting. Meanwhile, the holly-like leaves and bluish berries are also edible, with the berries providing a very tart flavor. (See this month’s Publisher’s Pantry for instructions on making Oregon grape jelly.)
Heading Into the Woods
Of course, as convenient as urban foraging may be, sometimes you simply have to get out into the forest to hunt for the true gems of nature. Mushrooms are of particular interest in Portland’s surrounding areas. Mushroom hunting communities have sprung up to swap stories online or meet for group hunts. But finding out the best spots to score chanterelles, shiitakes, oysters, morels or highly coveted truffles can prove difficult because many mushroom hunters are hesitant to share the location of fungi treasure troves. With the rarer and most delicious mushrooms going for $40 or more per pound at farmers’ markets, hunting grounds are often kept secret.
One great way to put mushroom-hunting ambitions into action is through involvement with the Oregon Mycological Society (OMS). Founded in 1949, OMS cites its mission as not only identifying, studying and collecting both edible and non-edible fungi, but also educating the public and promoting health and safety in the gathering and consumption of mushrooms. In addition to monthly meetings (and pre-meeting mushroom identification sessions), OMS also offers field trips and hosts mycology camps along the Oregon Coast and deep in the Cascades.
Though it may be common knowledge that Portland has a love affair with its Douglas firs, did you know that you can harvest the green, new-growth tips of this evergreen’s branches to infuse with syrup, cream or spirits? And you can check out shady areas for new-growth ferns, called “fiddleheads.” These coiled stalks taste much like asparagus and can be found in large quantities. And while most people are familiar with nettles for their infamous stinging leaves, that defense mechanism is neutralized when the plant is cooked or dried, yielding a rich flavor.
The book “Pacific Northwest Foraging” by Douglas Deur offers a comprehensive guide for wild plant foragers, including ideas for preparation and use.
With all the exciting information and spectrum of resources that are available to Portlanders interested in foraging, it’s important to keep in mind that gathering wild food should be approached with the utmost care. After all, there are many toxic lookalikes out there that can cause some nasty symptoms if consumed. That’s why so many parents routinely impress upon their children the importance of not eating wild mushrooms or berries. But the truth of the matter is that informed adults can safely harvest foraged food and medicinal herbs simply by doing their research.
To get started, organizations like Wild Food Adventures offer workshops, guided hikes, expeditions and other teaching events. Their newsletter and printed field guides can also serve as hugely valuable resources for the fledgling forager. Through hands-on guidance and a wealth of resources, Portland is truly a boon for green-minded folks who want to take the Pacific Northwest’s emphasis on sustainability to the next level and directly harvest what nature has put right under our noses.