Urban Foraging In Portland Is Extremely Cliché But Worth It
True to the Portlandia sketches, Portland, Oregon is a haven for health-conscious people– but that isn’t a bad thing, even when taken to excess. With its seemingly endless array of farmers markets, health food stores, and farm-to-table restaurants catering to all varieties of diets, Portland is an easy place in which to live a lifestyle that nourishes the body, mind, and spirit. And, these benefits aren’t necessarily limited to people who are wealthy enough to shop at these places: Portland’s abundance of public green spaces, such as Forest Park (one of the largest urban parks in the world), make it an ideal city for urban foragers, who hunt for and consume wild plants that– fed by the abundance of rain– sprout up with abundance around the city.
“A seemingly banal residential street can transform into a community garden of sorts, rich with the bounty of food that our ancestors lived off of for thousands of years…”
Not only are these foods fresh, wild, and free of charge, they also present an alternative variety of nutritional and medicinal options than are typically found in a grocery store. For those in the know about hunting for food in the urban wilderness, a seemingly banal residential street can transform into a community garden of sorts, rich with the bounty of food that our ancestors lived off of for thousands of years.
As Portland foraging expert Rebecca Lerner says in her book The Dandelion Hunter, “Every plant has a gift to offer. Plants are food and medicine, paint pigments, twine, incense, tinder, insulation, beauty products – and the list goes on, because before there was ‘an app for that,’ there was a plant for that.”
Some Basic Foraging Tips
Use a field guide, or better yet, have an experienced forager take you around the city, to be sure you won’t mistake any poisonous plants for edible ones. Never eat a plant unless you’re absolutely sure of what it is. Check out local foraging classes led by experts like John Kallas, author of Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate, an excellent Oregon foraging guide.
Many public spaces like center dividers, parks, and even sidewalk cracks are legitimate places to look for food, and if you ask the residents’ permission, so are your neighbors’ yards. If you see a front yard growing wild with weeds, chances are, whoever lives there won’t mind having some free weeding done, and you’ll get to take home a free bag of food! Falling Fruit offers an interactive map for forgers to share and find specific spots. Nature parks and preserves including Forest Park, Powell Butte, Tryon Creek State Natural Area, Marquam Nature Park, and Lewis and Clark State Park make excellent foraging destinations, and you’ll know for sure that the plants haven’t been sprayed with chemicals.
“Leaves and reproductive parts (flowers and fruit) tend to be the cleanest and safest, and if you wash them thoroughly, potential external pollutants can be washed off.”
As far as pesticides and other contaminants go, they might not be as much of a concern as you might think. Many plants do not absorb chemicals into their systems, and if they do, toxins like lead will only be absorbed into the roots. Leaves and reproductive parts (flowers and fruit) tend to be the cleanest and safest, and if you wash them thoroughly, potential external pollutants can be washed off.
Be an ethical forager, and do not over-harvest. Learn about the plants you’re foraging for, and how well they are doing in the area. For instance, nettle is being over-harvested in Portland. Only the top couple of leaves should be taken off so that the plant can continue to grow and thrive. Only take what you need, and be respectful of the plants. In general, certain invasive plants like blackberry and dandelion, which seem to take over Portland in the warmer months, don’t need to be harvested with as much caution.
Plants to Forage in Portland
One of the most identifiable edible plants in the Portland area, dandelion flowers, leaves, and roots are edible and loaded with nutrients. You can make a salad out of young leaves or saute them like spinach, make an energizing and detoxifying tea from the roots, or make dandelion wine with the flowers.
The Pacific Northwest is a hotspot for berries in the summer months. Blackberry, elderberry, blueberry, huckleberry, cranberry, and Oregon grape grow wild here, to name just a few varieties. Loaded with antioxidants, wild berries are delicious eaten raw, and also turned into juices, jams, and used in desserts. Try making wild blueberry leaf tea for its anti-inflammatory benefits.
An invasive species in Portland, chickweed is considered by many gardeners to be a mere nuisance. A small plant with white flowers, chickweed is one of the most nutritious wild foods to pop up in Portland every spring. Eat the flowers and leaves raw, and add them to salads for an added Vitamin C boost.
This powerful member of the mint family makes for a wonderfully calming anti-anxiety tea. Lemon balm can also be added to soups, meat dishes, and sauces for an herbal, citrus-like flavor.
According to Douglas Deur’s Pacific Northwest Foraging, roasted chicory roots, with cacao and coffee-like flavors, are used as a coffee substitute, providing an energy boost sans the caffeine. For the most potent tea, harvest the roots in late Summer or early Autumn when the plant begins to die back. Feel free to harvest as much as you’d like, because chicory root is an invasive European weed, and doesn’t require special protection.
One of the most nourishing plants available on our planet, nettle is filled with iron, calcium, potassium, vitamins A, C, and D, and protein. It’s a powerful allergy treatment when taken as a tea or tincture. Nettle makes for deliciously-spicy pesto, and is a nutritious addition to soups and stews. The tea can also be used as an astringent hair rinse to treat dandruff. The stingers deactivate after being heated or dried, but be sure to wear protective gloves when harvesting in order to avoid being stung.
An excellent aid for respiratory problems, mullein tea has powerfully healing, anti-inflammatory properties. Use the fuzzy leaves for a bitter tea, and the bright yellow flowers for a sweeter one. Mullein leaf can also be rolled into an herbal cigarette for those who are trying to quit smoking tobacco, or for those who want a milder smoking experience.
Pretty much everyone knows what a pine tree looks like, but it’s less common knowledge that pine needles are edible and highly nutritious. As an added bonus, they’re available all year long. Boil fresh needles in hot water to make an aromatic tea that smells and tastes like a Christmas tree. Extremely high in Vitamin C, pine needle tea is a wonderful immune system booster.