Forage Ahead!

Today I joined my friend Greg Monzel of Monzel Herbs on one of his terrific plant walks. The rain held off as we tramped the lanes and fields of Distelrath Farms, an urban farm and the source of my weekly CSA allotment.

As an herbalist, Greg focuses these guided tours on both edible and medicinal plants. After you’ve hung around with him for a little while, you get a new appreciation for the things people normally dig out of their gardens. It seems that everywhere under our feet, there’s nourishment and healing.

Greg teaches us about plantain and its many uses

Greg teaches us about plantain and its many uses

Plaintain, for example, is good for eczema, wounds, and other skin issues, while its seeds are a “poor man’s psyllium.” I doubt I have the patience to collect its seeds, but I like the idea of whipping up a bunch of leaves in the blender with olive oil to make an infusion. I have some off-and-on rashy stuff on my hands, so I might try that.

Amaranth, drought-tolerant and tasty

Amaranth, drought-tolerant and tasty

More tasty than the bitter plantain is amaranth. It is an amazingly hardy summer salad green as well as a source of protein-rich “grain” (actually the seeds).

I’ve never collected the seeds, but I adore amaranth as a green. My partner was introduced to it in Tanzania years ago. There it was called red root and sauteed in a dish called Sukuma Weeki.

When the drought hit us last year, amaranth didn’t even notice. So this year I bought amaranth seeds to plant for a steady and convenient supply. As soon as my lettuce is done–any day now–I’m sowing amaranth in preparation for a dryer, hotter July and August. I can almost taste that late summer salad of amaranth and purslane, a heat-loving succulent high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most people pull both as a weed.

Greg, by the way, says weeds are a state of mind. Many of the things we consider noxious weeds were actually brought here because of their usefulness. Now they populate areas where the soil has been disturbed, working as “succession plants” that naturally build soil fertility.

Knotweed, AKA smartweed

Knotweed, AKA smartweed

Here’s knotweed, for example, also known as smartweed. I remember seeing this pretty little bloom in my dad’s raspberry patch and wondering what it was. I learned today that it is in the buckwheat family. Its leaves and seeds are edible and loaded with resveratrol, a potent antioxidant.

And did you know that you can harvest the seeds of the ubiquitous clover and save them in a jar, for indoor sprouting at some later, leaner date? It’s mind-boggling to realize there is free food all around us, even in the city, that could potentially nourish us in good times and bad.

I’ve learned so much from Greg, starting when I interviewed him for an Edible Indy story on gathering wild foods. Though I’m not nearly as experienced as he is, next Friday, July 5, I’ll have a table on foraging at FoodCon IV, a fabulous event that attracts a thousand or more people every year. I’m beyond excited to be part of it.