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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Munching Central Park

Air Date: Week of

We follow Steve Brill through New York’s Central Park, where he helps school children identify the bounty of edible plants growing there. Tour and tour-guide stop to taste several varieties from this unlikely urban supermarket.


CURWOOD: If you're in Manhattan and don't have a garden, where can you go for some pick-your-own organic veggies? Producer Joe Richman has met a man with the answer: Central Park.

(Children and birds)

RICHMAN: Wildman Steve Brill is walking through Central Park with a group of fourth and fifth graders following close behind. None of the kids have had lunch yet, and it's a good thing.

BRILL: Now here's a plant you're going to absolutely love. Okay, take a look at this; come here, kids, and look. It's called wood sorrel. It tastes like lemon. [Kids: "Ooh, ooh!] And everyone's going to get some. And then you're going to see if you can find some of your own. Take a leaf. [Kid: "Mm mm mmm!"]

RICHMAN: There are 18 kids chewing their way through Central Park, and they've all brought plastic bags so they can bring samples back home. In just the last hour they've tried lamb's quarters, which is like spinach but even better for you, explains the Wildman. Plus mulberries, violet greens, and even a little poor man's pepper.

BRILL: Let's have one person taste it. Wait, let's watch him first. Chew on it for a while. What's your name?

CARLOS: Carlos.

BRILL: Okay. Chew on it for a while. Keep chewing before you swallow it, so you get the full flavor, and tell us what happens. He's hitting his chest; it's giving him spasms in his hand.

CARLOS: It's spicy!

BRILL: It's very spicy. Okay, break off leaves and pass them out to people.

RICHMAN: Wildman Steve Brill is 44, with a shaggy beard and a safari hat. Brill says there are certain rules for foraging in Central Park. Don't take more than you can use, don't eat anything within 50 feet of heavy automobile traffic. Unless a plant is dying, don't pull it up by the roots. And don't eat anything poisonous. You have to know what to look for, says Brill, and if you do, it's possible to get 50% of your food shopping done in the park.

BRILL: Red mulberries with white mulberries. There is purslane growing in the park; there's witch hazel, there are all kinds of mushrooms, too. Raspberries that are out of season; there's wild rhubarb and curly dock which are already past. Dandelions also are past their prime, although they will have another season in the fall. Day lilies, which is a delicious flower that you can eat; in the beginning of the summer you can eat the shoots, also. You could just go on forever.

RICHMAN: Wild black cherries, carrots, water mint, mustard, wild rhubarb, field garlic, even coffee beans, can be found in Central Park, says Brill. Of course some of the fourth and fifth graders along on today's tour are busy making their own discoveries.

BOY 1: There's a hair dryer, a bottle, a Coke can it looks like.

BOY 2: There's a beer can. And a beer bottle right there.

BOY 1: Yeah. And...

RICHMAN: It may gross some people out, the idea of eating things that are growing in a grimy metropolis. But wild man Steve Brill argues the plants are pesticide-free. Many have more vitamins than store-bought produce. They're cheap and most of them taste pretty good, especially the June berries.

BRILL: June berries! These are June berries. Help yourselves!

BOY 1: You can just eat them like that?

BRILL: Yeah. The blue ones are the best.

BOY 2: Mmm! They're really good.

BRILL: Yes. Here.

RICHMAN: June berries are related to apples, but they look and taste like blueberries with seeds like tiny almonds. The class surrounds the June berry trees, and while they eat, an interesting thing happens. Joggers on their afternoon run slow down to watch, and after a few minutes they, too, are munching on June berries.

BRILL: Are these delicious or are they delicious? Tell me.

CHILD: Ooooh!

RICHMAN: Wild Man Steve Brill has been giving these tours since 1982. He was a natural foods cooking teacher back then, when someone in the park showed him where to pick grape leaves. He went home, made stuffed grape leaves, and was instantly converted to urban foraging. Of course, the idea wasn't initially so popular with the Parks Department. In 1983 Brill was giving a tour, and eating dandelions, when 2 of the nature lovers in his group turned out to be undercover cops. Brill was handcuffed and arrested, but the media had a field day with the story. "The Man Who Ate Central Park" read the headlines. The Parks Department quickly dropped the charges and instead gave Brill a job as an official tour guide. These days Brill is making a living leading his own educational tours. He gives about 150 a year. And it's become something of a crusade.

BRILL: We've lost contact with the environment, and we have all of these misconceptions. We've got to go back into the woods, into the parks, studying the plants, the rocks, the birds, the insects, the fossils. And realize, as a culture, how valuable our natural resources are.

RICHMOND: Wild Man Steve Brill is a firm believer that you can't learn about plants just by pointing and lecturing. You have to pop them in your mouth. People remember what they eat, he says. But some worry that if the foraging tours become too popular, the park could be over-harvested. Brill thinks that's ridiculous. Not even the Central Park lawnmowers can do damage to most of these plants, he says. And by cutting back some of the overgrowth, plant eaters are actually helping the crops. More importantly, he says, the tours are part of the Wildman Message: that cities aren't the enemies of nature.

BRILL: Cities are actually the best places for people to live, because you don't have to get in the car and waste all this fuel to go from one place to the other. They're living on top of each other, which means each human being is taking up less space and leaving more space for other creatures. And most cities, especially New York City, have lots and lots of large parks and natural areas, which are beautiful. I actually find more in Central Park than I would in a national park because there's more habitat variety.

RICHMOND: A place like Central Park, says Brill, offers forests as well as lawns, meadows, marshes, and disturbed areas, all of which yield different types of plants. And hundreds of those plants, plus recipes, are collected in Wildman Steve Brill's new book. It's called Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild and Not So Wild Places. For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Richman in New York.

BRILL: Everyone help me pull this root up. You're going to be able to make root beer with it. One, two, three, I need more help! [Kids: Hrrrah! Hrrrah!] Okay, this is going to be for the whole class. You take the root.

BOY 1: You can make root beer?

BRILL: Yes. yes.

BOY 2: Free root beer!

BRILL: Smell, does it smell like root beer?

BOY 3: We can make homemade root beer.

BOY 4: Smells good; wanna smell?



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