Is it survival, or just an urban guerrilla food hunt?


Pinecone jam. Photo: Marie Viljoen/Instagram

Armed with little more than a knife, an old Herschel backpack and usually inexplicable shoes – flip flops or flats, whatever the terrain – Brooklynite Marie Viljoen points out the delicious ingredients lurking near or under popular Brooklyn bridges, seaways and walking trails. Any weekend, you can find her leading a troop of wild, edible, and curious people through New York’s parks and green spaces.

A self-taught recipe developer and forager, Viljoen has been leading foraging tours for almost eight years. At the end of each walk, the backpack comes off and Viljoen unpacks a little treat. The menu changes with the seasons and the vagaries of Viljoen’s tastes and inspirations (my personal favorite is his pollen pignoli cookies, available in his book, Wild, Harvest, Party). Recent walks have included deviled eggs with miso-fermented pine cones, juniper and elderberry cabbage, bread with dandelion greens, and “forest toddies.”

Although foraging has grown in popularity in recent years, it’s a trend with undeniably ancient roots. For Brooklyn residents, including Viljoen herself, it offers the opportunity to learn more about the landscape of the northeast and reverse engineer the natural history of their neighborhood.

Marie Viljoen, forager. Photo: Vincent Mounier

If you were to go to Prospect Park in the spring — when Brooklyn’s foraging season begins — you’d find winter honeysuckles, spice bushes, and flowering magnolias. Magnolia blossoms make delicious fermented pickles, winter honeysuckle makes a delicious flavored gin, and the spice is similar to allspice.

As you walk, 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 plots and find sprouts of hosta, Japanese knotweed, and pokeweed. On this walk you will probably also find garlic mustard. The tender leaves are peppery and later in the season the more established garlic mustard roots are a great dupe for horseradish. In early to mid-summer, you might find milkweed blooms, escaped asparagus, and daylilies. Later in the summer, you can find wild blueberries, mugwort, and sumac.

Autumn rains bring many species of mushrooms. Viljoen found maitake (also known as “hen of the woods”), puffballs, oyster mushrooms, and woodcobs, all in the city. You can also pick crabapples, hawthorns and juniper berries. The truly ambitious can make acorn flour by gathering fallen acorns, shelling them, and soaking them in cold water to leach out the bitter tannins.

Despite the possible bounty, some might be a little put off picking up a staple in a polluted or well traveled park. “I call it the great return of common sense,” replies Viljoen with his singsong South African accent. “He’s making a comeback.”

Japanese knotweed. Photo: Marie Viljoen/Instagram

Viljoen recommends avoiding places that are too close to a path or within reach of a puppy with a full bladder. Generally, she says, the safest part of a plant growing in potentially contaminated soil is the fruit, such as berries and flowers. She also recommends vigorously washing or laundering anything you gather in a public place.

In addition to potential hygiene implications, foraging in urban settings is frowned upon. It is forbidden to remove plants from city parks. To circumvent this, Viljoen had to develop his own ethics for his walks. With regard to so-called “invasive” plants, because of their potential to crowd out native plants, Viljoen does not hesitate to eliminate them. “The parks are woefully underfunded,” she says, claiming that “the foragers help with weeding.”

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

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

Viljoen is proud to say that its walks attract a crowd as diverse as Brooklyn itself. “Everyone in Brooklyn is from somewhere else,” she says. For this reason, Viljoen knows the language she uses to describe the different plants she picks in the city. She avoids calling certain plants “invasive”. Instead, she describes the landscape as “cosmopolitan”.

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

Such is the case with chef and recipe designer Zoe Zhang, who has been a frequent participant in Viljoen walks since 2018. Zhang grew up searching for mussels and jellyfish with her father in China. She now uses various Asian cooking techniques to prepare wild ingredients from the northeast. “I tend to focus year after year on plants that come from Asia,” she says. “I feel a certain kinship with them.”

When Zhang started looking for food in the city, she remembers her friends’ confusion. They wondered what she could possibly find in and around Brooklyn. But Zhang came 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 –– especially sprawling gardens like Central Park –– have the potential to be very diverse. As for 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 foraging feast in the marine park. Photo: Chrisaleen Ciro

Not only is foraging possible, but it can be a powerful tool in reorienting oneself to how Brooklyn, despite being a dense urban metropolis, is irrevocably an ecosystem. Therefore, when Zhang goes in search of food, she takes her relationship with her fellow New Yorkers seriously, whether they are plant-based or not. “I believe some plants want us to eat them and some don’t.” She continues, “It sounds weird to say, but if a plant doesn’t look like it wants to be eaten, I avoid it.” She mentions a wave of serviceberries growing near the Gowanus Channel. “Even though I know that [serviceberries] are delicious, to see that the birds leave them alone puzzles me.

If this interests you –– but you’re not yet comfortable heading to the local park with a reusable grocery bag –– there are other ways to get to know your botanical neighbors. You can join conservation at your local park, volunteer at a community garden, or join a foraging tour like the ones Viljoen leads. But you might be hooked once you taste the feast stuffed in Viljoen’s Herschel backpack.

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


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