Walk Along the Urban Grocery Aisle: Portland’s Edible Fruits, Nuts, and Plants

Have you wondered about an apple tree and thought, can I pick one and eat it? If you’re lucky to live in Portland, you can find that out; you can ask your neighbor; and there’s some motivated people who have already met the neighbors and created Urban Edibles, a wiki with all the fruits, nuts, and edible plants in Portland. There’s a lot of available food in the city: apples, pears, plums, figs, walnuts, hazelnuts, blackberries, and abandoned garden beds.

Michael Bunsen is the founder and web designer of Urban Edibles. He had the idea for a couple years and as his web designing skills developed, he asked his friends to get involved. “When I moved to Portland,” Carly Boyer tells me, “I happened to live with Julie Noble who was getting involved in the project. I had just come from a year-long apprenticeship in herbalism in Eugene. So it was just a natural fit, and my good friend Bobby got involved.” Bobby Smith does work with Portland Parks and Recreation: park rangering, environmental restoration, and education for youth interested in native plants.

The first and most important native plant is Oregon Grape, our state flower, planted alongside government buildings, corporate landscaping, and apartment complexes. “It looks similar to Holly, except it’s not quite as shinny and jagged. This plant is an amazing anti-bacterial, anti-biotic, alterative,” Boyer states. “An alterative stimulates the bodies own immune response. If you catch a cold, your body would respond – but the alterative quickens the process.”

Not quite as prevalent around the city as Oregon Grape, you can find Elderberry in landscaping along the west hills and in suburban areas that recently had been more rural. “It’s used for making wine,” Boyer says. “But the berries are anti-viral, so this is especially good for flu season, intense throat congestion. When you have sore throat, coughing, hacking, it soothes your throat; and it’s really good for children, because it tastes good.” Like berry syrup, Elderberry is naturally sweet. “A lot of times people mix it with honey,” Boyer suggests. “You can make Elderberry candy, and they’re really delicious.”

“The third contender,” Boyer ventures. “Well, Nettles is really significant – but you don’t see it as much – Dandelion is probably the classic example. It’s the classic weed. The one people want to dig out of their yard. It can be used medicinally. The flowers are edible; the leaves are edible. The root is really strong medicine. All of it is a bitter and diuretic. Bitters help excrete your digestive enzymes. So that’s good medicine, if you’re eating a lot of food and having a hard time processing – or getting stomach aches when you eat stuff you’re sensitive to. Bitters are one of the five tastes that has been kinda eliminated in mainstream food culture, but it’s essential to good health. It’s just really invigorating. It’s good for you. The Dandelion root is a liver cleanser and detoxifier. So if somebody parties a lot or eats a lot of junk food – just generally exposed to a lot of chemicals in their work environment or whatever, it’s important to think about detoxification and cleansing, so they can maintain optimum health.”

You might have already eaten Dandelion leaves with mixed salad greens. “They’re best when they’re young; they’re a little less bitter. A lot of mixed greens sold in the health food stores include a bit of Dandelion. So it’s nice to mix in your salad, that way it’s not too overwhelming.”

Urban Edibles is a mediator between people and available food sources. Anybody can post a source of edible plants in the Portland area. Go to the website and select “add sources”. All the instructions are there. “If you want to make a blackberry pie,” Boyer suggests, “go to the website and a pull down menu will tell you if the source is private or public or if you need to ask permission. We try to get really good descriptions, so the ethics are clear. We don’t want anyone harvesting from private sources unless it was volunteered.” With any source the best practice is to ask before you pick. Plants are also a great conversation starter. With the same ease one might talk about a dog when walking in the neighborhood, you can talk with a complete stranger about their garden. “Once the networks of communication are in place,” Boyer observes, “it’s easier to talk about other issues when they come up. Plants are a great platform for community development.”

Boyer leads plant walks. “Urban Edibles started with the fruit trees and the nut trees, and berries,” Boyer explains. “I felt it was really important to educate about the herbal food sources that are often overlooked. The only way to really make a difference is to actively teach and get the basic herbalism of our ecosystem out to the public.” Boyer emphasizes the medicinal properties of plants. “I think it’s really important that people have autonomy with their health. It’s more preventative for the most part,” Boyer says, “but you can do a lot with a little bit of study. People with chronic conditions are just recommended anti-biotics over and over and over again – until their health is totally depleted; their immune system is wrecked.” Boyer suggests a bit of preventive medicine instead of waiting for a problem to develop that requires heavy anti-biotics. “Or people who have adrenal fatigue because they drink so much coffee, there is herbal support for them. Dandelion can reverse the negative side effects of appetite suppression, depleted energy, or even withdrawal symptoms, when taken as a long-term support.”

I ask Boyer what people are most concerned about when they go on walks with her. “A lot of people wonder about toxicity and what is safe to harvest. There is no way to truly know what is happening in a spot, maybe ten years ago it was a parking lot and now it’s a park. You don’t know what’s in the soil, but one thing I feel really confident about is asking my neighbors who’ve owned their houses for long enough. If they do organic gardening, they don’t spray, and I ask to harvest their weeds and create a relationship within the neighborhood – where people know I’m looking for a plant and if they don’t want it, I’ll harvest it. That way they don’t have to weed, and I can know the history of the place I’m harvesting from.”

“Portland Parks and Recreation, on a more technical note,” Boyer points out, “there’s a lot of parks in the Portland area and they do spray in certain spots, but they have to notify the public where those spray sites are.” There’s a lot of acreage in the city, and herbalist do harvest in Portland. “They know how to identify the symptoms of a spray site,” Boyer cautions. “And so it takes research to really have a keen awareness and safety.” Double check before eating something that you’ve never identified before. “People really have to be conscious,” Boyer reminds. “That’s why I do the plant walks, so people know what it is.”

Contact: Carly Boyer, carly@urbanedibles.org

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