Posts Tagged ‘urban foraging’

I knew that if I didn’t go out foraging today, the nettles would be past their prime. I called up my Mom.

“Want to go out for a walk in the sun? I’m going out to pick nettles.”

Any other lady of 87 would tell me to get lost. But I know Mom. She immediately said,

“Let’s go.”

I knew she would. She’s loved the green, growing things all her long life, and her daughters have caught it from her.

So we set out out to do some urban foraging. I brought along the camera, a bag, and a pair of scissors. We didn’t need to go far, because right next to Mom’s is the abandoned garden, and plenty of nettles grow there.

I’ve been picking nettles so many years, the sting hardly bothers me anymore. I think it’s good for my carpal tunnel syndrome, anyway. But the smart way to pick nettles is to cut them with scissors and while the stems are still trapped between the blades, to pop the bunch into a bag or basket. Of course you have to deal with them later, but you can put on a pair of latex gloves.

The photo below shows the immature, green seeds. Once those seeds have turned brown and hard, the nettles aren’t worth picking anymore. Do you see the spiky “hairs”  bristling on the leaf at bottom right? Those are the culprits that carry the sting.

Ah,  but nettles are beautiful, mysterious things…

The sting, by the way, gets cooked out immediately upon contact with heat. Geese like to eat nettles raw, and I’ve read that when cattle eat them dried, mixed in their hay, their milk is richer. But I wouldn’t advise humans to put raw nettles in their mouths. Ouch.

It takes some work to get nettles clean.  First, I cut off any roots, with the soil clinging to them.

But I don’t throw the roots out – I put them in an old plastic bottle with plenty of water, and let that infuse for a day or three. My houseplants love that water.

Then I sort the nettles out by length of stem. In sorting, I might find other plants that came along when I picked my nettles. I take them right out.  This pretty clover and blade of grass have no business in my nettles…although such a tiny quantity is harmless.

Sorting makes rinsing and collecting into bunches for drying much easier. And they do need plenty of rinsing. Best is to let them soak in cool water for about 5 minutes ( don’t throw out that water – give it to your houseplants), then rinse. Then I hang ‘em up to dry. Depending on the weather, they’ll be crisp and dried through in about a week.

I harvest all the chickweed I need from my windowsill planters. Right now I have a lot drying for medicine: it’s excellent, made into tea, for eye infections. I also use it in the water part of a moisturizer I make. Finally, the young, leafy plants are very good in salad. Chickweed has a pleasant, somewhat salty taste. Here is some growing wild on the verge of a sidewalk.

Right next to the chickweed grows a stand of Pellitory of the Wall. This almost innocuous weed has a bright side and a dark side. On the bright, it’s a nutritious green that made into tea, works well as a diuretic and part of an herbal formula for expelling gravel from the urinary tract. On the dark, it flowers 4-5 times a year and about 20% of the population is allergic to its pollen.

Mom took my arm. We strolled over to a building whose front yard is covered in young mallows. She fielded questions from curious passersby. I photographed and harvested.

I like to eat the very small, tender leaves in salad. The big, coarse ones are good for stuffing, like grape leaves. This dish is traditional among Sephardim (and herbal folk like me). I’ve seen an old Sephardi lady wearing a headkerchief and a long, hennaed braid down her back, standing in a field of mallows, picking away.

Mallows were a valuable wild food during the War of Independence in 1948, when people were starving because the highways were blocked and there was no transportation of goods. Today, some people celebrate Independence Day by making old-time patties of chopped mallows, flour, and eggs. I mentioned this once to an elderly friend of mine in Tfat. He shuddered and told me he abhors mallows. They remind him of the hard times, when his mother would make him go out in the fields and pick them, and that’s all they would have to eat.

I don’t have such sad memories, and so pick my mallows in tranquility. It’s great to have dried mallows in a big glass jar when I run short of something green to chuck into a soup.

Several years ago, I wrote an article about the uses of mallows for  Henriette Kress’s herb site. You can read it here and learn how to use it as a food and as medicine.

I really wish dandelions grew in this part of the country. But they don’t, so I’ll probably go up north to Tsfat, come March. I know the haunts of the dandelions there. But here, the mild, semi-tropical climate allows folks to grow bananas, goiabas, mangoes, and even papayas. This papaya tree is one of two growing in a building yard not far from my house.

Ethical harvesting from the wild involves keeping certain principles in mind.

  • Don’t pick the first nettle, dandelion, or whichever plant that you see. Walk further on and if there are plenty more, start picking. You might just pick the only one in the area if you go for the first one.
  • Pick no more than 1/3 of the plants you come across.
  • Look for the “mother” – one very large plant that looks like the matriarch of the others standing around it. Leave it alone.
  • When foraging bushes, trees, or large standing plants like mullein, pick only up to 1/3 of the leaves and flowers. Leave the rest to reproduce.
  • Pick no more than what you need.
  • Be grateful… And wait a few minutes while you’re standing in the middle of the plants. You might feel a moment of unity, almost of silent communication, with the green, growing things. I always do.

Recipes with nettles and other wild edibles will appear over the next week.

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The first green wild plants start poking their heads up at about this time of year. Our rains have been sparse, but that moisture was enough to release the energy in the seeds of wild plants. Out foraging and taking pictures, I see clumps of nettles standing in neglected street-side corners, and remember how good they taste cooked with garlic and rice. So I stoop down and quickly gather a handful, ignoring the slight sting. Passersby stare for a moment, then walk on, thinking who knows what. Yes, it probably is a strange picture: a middle-aged lady with a camera dangling from her shoulder, picking nettles. I hope someday to be an old lady picking nettles.

It’ll be another month or so till the nettles are big enough to harvest in quantity. Their sting will be powerful then, and I’ll have to be cautious. I’ll go out with a bag and a pair of scissors, cut my nettles close to the ground, and bring them home to dry. At that time, I hope to post an old-fashioned recipe for savory nettles pudding.

Nettles fit into all kinds of modern recipes too. Steamed, sauteed with garlic and/or onions, combined with cheese, mushrooms, as a filling for crepes or ravioli – just recall any recipe calling for dark green leaves, and substitute nettles. I’ve heard it said ironically that with enough cheese and butter, any wild edible can be made tasty…but the rich, dark taste of nettles stands up to irony (and is good for raising hemoglobin). And – nettles taste nothing like spinach. It seems that whenever an author is at a loss to describe the taste of a wild green, he or she says it tastes like spinach. Nettles have their own flavor, not earthy like chard, not mild like green beans, nor yet bitter, like spinach – but their aroma sometimes reminds me of wakame seaweed.

Rice With Nettles

Serves 4


1 cup of rice

1 Tblsp. olive oil

2 garlic cloves

1 tsp. salt

1/2 cup of tender young nettle leaves, rinsed and chopped: a small handful

2 cups of boiling water or hot stock


1. Rinse your rice well to free it of dust. Allow it to drain in a sieve till no more water drips.

2. Heat the oil in a small pot and add the rice to it. Stir, covering the grains with a film of oil.

3. Allow the rice to heat through and change color slightly. Add the garlic, salt, and nettles. Stir well.

4. All the water or stock- carefully, there will be steam. Stir again and cover the pot.

5. Steam the rice on the lowest possible flame for 10 minutes. Check to make sure all the liquid is absorbed and the grains are tender all through. Let it sit a further 5 minutes before serving. If you like the taste, you might try using a full cup of nettle leaves next time.

It’s not only good, it’s good for you.

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All around my town in Central Israel, the trees have put forth luscious fruit. My own building’s yard has a lemon tree that gives more fruit than we neighbors know what to do with.

This year’s fruit is under Shmitta law still, so I haven’t harvested any. All the same, it’s a pleasure to walk around and see the fruit growing almost at hand’s reach, in gardens, parks, and sidewalks around where I live. In some gardens, oranges, tangerines, guavas, and quinces are so abundant that the fruit falls to the ground and just stays there. The owners readily give permission to do a little urban foraging.

These yellow dates are dry and tasteless if you eat them right off the tree. However, they magically turn sweet and juicy after being frozen a while.  They’re quite expensive in the markets – but these are free if you feel like shinnying up the date palm and fetching some.

Gorgeous citrus fruit like these pomelos grows everywhere.  Near my building there is an old, abandoned house where fig sycamore, pomegranate, Seville orange, almond, grapefruit, and this pomelo tree, grow untended. The trees haven’t been watered or sprayed for over a decade, but the fruit is candy-sweet.

We’ve had permission to take a few bananas from this bush, which grows in a yard around the corner. I like to get them green and sautee them in a little oil, when I get nostalgic for certain Venezuelan dishes.

Nearby grow some old mulberry trees, which stain the pavements with their juicy, purple berries in May. Nobody cares how much you take, if you’re willing to look like you just murdered somebody after picking. But only the neighborhood boys climb up the branches and sit there like monkeys, eating whatever’s in reach. A pity; the fruit is there, fresher than fresh and free. I confess that to make my mulberry wine, I buy the berries in the shuk. You need 3 kg. to make a gallon of wine, and there’s no way I’m going to go up a tree to forage that much fruit. Regretfully, though, I think of how much sweeter the berries from the neighborhood trees are…

A Lovely Lemon Tree, set against the mystical, medieval town of Tsfat (Safed), and the melting Meron hills. Not at all close to where I live. I include this photo because I’ll be visiting Tsfat over the next few days, and so won’t be blogging till Tuesday.

Artists are attracted to Tsfat because of its unique energy,  beauty, isolation, history, crystal air, mountain views, slower pace – who knows?  Many set up exhibits in their homes, and some have shops catering to the tourists in the Artist’s Market. Here’s a little glimpse.

Till Tuesday, folks!

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On a ten-minute walk around the neighborhood today, I counted 23 medicinal or culinary plants. Some were cultivated and some were wild. One, a huge old eucalyptus, is an historic landmark. Others, like the citrus fruit and many varieties of hibiscus, are so common around here that nobody notices them.  Most of our native wild edibles make only a brief appearance in springtime, but here are a few of summer’s favored ones. Click on the pix to enlarge and see details.

Aloes and yellow hibiscus

Aloes soothe and heal burns. Hibiscus leaves and flowers are edible, cooked.

Also known as pigweed. The leaves are edible, cooked; the seeds are high in protein and B-complex vitamins.

Amaranth, or pigweed. The leave are edible cooked, although not tasting of anything much. It is considered “famine food”. The plant is related to quinoa; seeds are high in protein and B-complex vitamins.

Bananas are the main article of diet for millions around the planet. There are many such beautiful banana shrubs around my neighborhood.

Szetchwan, or Chinese Pepper – Pilpelon in Hebrew. The leaves taste citrusy and make a pleasant occasional tea. The pale red berries are a pepper substitute and make up part of the Chinese 5-Spice mix. Medicinal properties: antibacterial, antifungal, diuretic, stimulating. Toxic in large doses, however (sprinkle over food, don’t eat tablespoons of it; drink a cuppa once in a while, not all day long).

Purslane. A valuable free food, known all over Latin America as verdolaga. Can be eaten freely. High in vitamins, minerals, and some Omega-3 fatty acid. Eat the tender young leaves raw in salads or saute them for omeletes (they are salty and somewhat sour); cook the older leaves and stems in soups. The tough stems of autumn make good pickles. Crush the fresh leaves against an insect sting to soothe it away.

There are so many more useful herbs and fruit in the neighborhood, all eminently forageable. Over time I’ll be posting about them.


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