Edible-plant expert shares foraging lore

Earlier this month, about 40 people headed into the woods and fields to look for food courtesy of Mother Nature.

Russ Cohen, an expert on wild edibles led the expedition through conservation land not far south of the Hollis town line, finding dozens of edible plants, and explain­ing how to identify them and make them into tasty food and drink.

But first, Cohen gave a brief talk on the food safety of foraging. There is no need for fear, he said. Plants are not mushrooms, and nearly always, if a plant doesn’t taste bad, it’s per­fectly edible.

After leading foraging hikes through New Eng­land for four decades, he said, "As far I know, there are no fruits in this area that are both delicious and poisonous. All the trial and error has been already done by Native Americans over millen­nia."

Shagbark hickory is No. 1 on Cohen’s favorite-wild fruit list, and the group saw several specimens on the hike. In October, when the nuts are ripe, Cohen advised, go bik­ing with a backpack and gather all the nuts you can find.

Blackberries and wild strawberries are obvi­ous foragibles found along the way, and Cohen pointed out many not so obvious, including the common wildflower called jewel weed, a poison ivy cure that also has an edible seed pod that tastes like English walnuts.

Cohen’s passion for the natural world was evident throughout the hike, and he emphasized the conservation ethics of foraging. The rave for all things natural has led some restaurants to seek out plants such as elderberry, whose flowers are "hyperventilating the ‘foodee’ world." Once a wild plant becomes an article of commerce, he said, people "could really hammer it."

The group nibbled on the broccoli-like florets of common milkweed and learned about the weed’s importance to the survival of the monarch butterfly. For "karmic payback," Cohen says he helps propagate the weed by gathering and releas­ing its seeds.

At a big stand of wild fox grapes, Cohen said they are "good straight off the vine and into the mouth," and explained how to make stuffed grape leaves that really impress your company "because they are wild and you picked them yourself."

Invasive plant species, which ecologists tend to despise, make great "guilt-free foraging" opportunities, he said, because the more people take, the better. And the group didn’t have to go far to find an autumn olive. The fruit of this invasive tree is ripe in October, when he purees it to make jam, jelly or sorbet, or dries it to make fruit leather.

Cohen’s hike ended in the parking area. As promised, he had a picnic basket full of food and drinks to sample, includ­ing birch tea, black wal­nuts and the autumn olive fruit leather.

He also sold copies of his "Wild Plants I Have Known and Eaten," with all proceeds going to the Essex County Greenbelt Association fund for the purchase of conservation land.

The book covers 41 plants that can be readily found in this area, and ranks each one according to the ecological impact of harvesting. It also has more than a dozen recipes for things such as cattail chowder and strawberry-knotweed pie.

Cohen leads about 40 of these foraging treks a year. The evening before the one in Pepperell, he led a group through Fresh Pond in Cambridge. The day before that, the tour was on Lexington recre­ation land.

"People have the idea" they need a wilderness to forage, he said, "but sometimes the edge of a school ballfield" is the place to go.

The hike was spon­sored by the Nashua River Watershed Associa­tion.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.