For Lisa Rose, author of the new book “Urban Foraging,” her fascination with often overlooked plants that can be part of a healthy diet started with family and grew into a profession and a passion.
An anthropologist with an interest in ethnobotany and herbal medicine, Rose has written three books. His first two, “Grand Rapids Food” and “Midwest Medicinal Plants,” focused on his home state of Michigan. His latest, however, “Urban Foraging,” released in October, takes on a national feel.
“I’ve traveled a lot between the two coasts…so considering this book, I really had to double-click what I’m going to be able to find in most of my areas,” she said. “So in parts of coastal North Carolina, you might have 35 of these plants, while 15 might not be immediately available. The criterion, first and foremost (was) geographical distribution.
The basis of her interest in botany, plants and how they can be part of everyday life began in Flint, Michigan where she grew up. Her father was an engineer and her mother a keen gardener, and both parents contributed to her fascination with plants.
“He was always asking questions,” she said, describing her father. “He was very engaged in the natural world. In fact, he taught me at a very young age that the natural world is the best engineer, that the natural world has solutions to problems of imbalance. There is a natural rhythm, not always pleasant and often chaotic in the restoration of balance.
It was his mother, however, who applied knowledge of the natural world to everyday life.
“My mother was a gardener for much of my childhood, not because it was a hobby, but because it was a convenient and economical way to feed her family,” Rose said. “We had a wild hedge of Concord grapes when I was growing up and my mom would put up about 50 to 75 jars of juice. I mean it was really a foundation of my childhood.
Not all of the plants in the book grow in eastern North Carolina. Aspen, according to the North Carolina Parks webpage “North Carolina Vascular Plants”, grows only in the mountains of the state and even then, rarely. Hyssop, described by the “Vascular Plants” page as “one of the tallest and hardiest native grasses in the state”, has not been recorded in Piedmont or the Coastal Plain.
With 50 plants listed in his book, the choice is vast. Some are well known as edible wild plants, especially blackberries and grapes, although Rose features wild concord grapes from her native Michigan.
Some of his selections are surprising, although reading about these plants one understands why they were chosen.
The prickly pear is an example. Rose suggests many possible uses for the plant, ultimately settling for simple prickly pear syrup. When harvesting the prickly pear, Rose elaborates on the dangers involved, pointing out that the species has two types of sharp barbs that await the careless.
“The prickly pear pads and fruit are covered in large and small thorns. While the large spears are somewhat avoidable, the glochids are bastards that can penetrate the skin and give the appearance of a rash in fiberglass,” she wrote. “The glochids will embed themselves into the fabric, so do your gathering with leather gloves.”
She described for Coastal Review the lesson she learned the first time she harvested prickly pears.
I didn’t realize – It’s not the big thorns that are the worst problem. These are the glochids. They are horrible. I had harvested my first batch of prickly pears using a cloth bag and cloth gloves. It was the worst idea ever,” she said.
Her recommended recipe for Prickly Pear Simple Syrup is “Delicious Simple Syrup for Margaritas.”
A number of Rose’s recipes are mixed drinks, which she says is part of a long tradition.
“In past generations, many plants were kept in a bitter as digestive aids and served as an appetizer. Monks brewed them in the Middle Ages, in France in the 13th century, in Germany. So it’s really a long tradition, maybe more for medicinal purposes, but definitely today for a cocktail,” she said.
Many of the plants Rose talks about are often considered common weeds. Field garlic is an excellent example. Also known, according to the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension webpage, as crow’s garlic, onion grass, deer’s garlic, wild garlic, and wild onion, the plant is common, in especially along the gardens. The plant has a distinct smell that is a cross between an onion and garlic and has the appearance of a spindly green onion.
Her recipe calls for a wild garlic flatbread, but she also notes that the tops make a great topping in place of green onion in a salad. She also writes that the bulb is extremely fibrous and quite difficult to use in a recipe.
Rose also takes readers into the forest. She noted that the needles, bark and resin of pines in general are edible. The needles in particular are highlighted for their culinary versatility.
“Chop the needles and use them as an herb to flavor salads, butters and vinegars for dressings,” she suggests in her book. She also notes that homebrewers can use pine needles to create “a Belgian or wheat-style beer without making the brew too pine-flavored.”
For Rose, “Urban Foraging” is a way to help readers understand the common plants in our lives that may be part of our daily diet – trees, flowers and many more that are considered weeds. The book also reminds us of a largely forgotten history, a time when the search for wild plants was an integral part of life. “Generally, common knowledge that we have forgotten (wild plants),” she said. “We are now about two generations away from this very common practice.”