Foragers hit the trails in search of food that’s fresh, local—and wild

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Local food advocates teamed up to lead an urban foraging walk in Charlottesville last week. Photo: Annalee Grant Local food advocates teamed up to lead an urban foraging walk in Charlottesville last week. Photo: Annalee Grant

What’s green, local, and tastes great in a soup? A whole lot more than you might think. Several area environmental groups are collaborating to raise public awareness of the many edible plants that grow in Charlottesville and the benefits of eating wild food.

Members of Transition Charlottesville Albemarle, Blue Ridge Permaculture Network, and Cville Foodscapes met Wednesday evening to host a foraging walk along the Rivanna River at Riverview Park. Armed with walking sticks, handbooks, and plastic storage bins, the troupe of foragers hit the trail, stopping to point out edible or useable roots, berries, flowers, and leaves.

“These plantain leaves are great for treating stings—just chew it up and apply it to the wound.”

“This is Ground Ivy. It makes a nice tea, good for colds.”

“See that purple plant? That’s pokeweed, and it’s toxic.”

The walk was a crash course for some of the guests, like local engineer Ryan Kassab, who was surprised to learn that so many of the plants he thought of as brush could be useful remedies or tasty snacks.

“I learned a lot about all the green stuff that just blends in,” Kassab said. “I do a lot of backpacking and hiking, so I like to know what I can eat along the trail in case I run low on food, or if I don’t want to carry much.”

Ann Marie Hohenberger of Transition Charlottesville Albemarle (TCA) said the walk was part of the organization’s initiative to promote eating local and natural, and show people that fresh and local doesn’t only mean farm.

“A really important thing for community resilience and for the general food supply is that people start taking on this knowledge about what plants are all around them, what things are edible, and understanding that this is something that can happen in a tiny space—it doesn’t have to be a dedicated multi-acre area.”

TCA and other groups are looking into the idea of an urban public “food forest,” modeled after Seattle’s Beacon Forest. Until then, they’re focused on getting the word out by hosting more walks, planting edible and useful greens around Charlottesville parks, and labeling edible plants around town so passersby will see that it’s O.K. to stop and pick a few berries.

Hohenberger said city representatives have expressed minor concerns, mostly over the process of implementing new “pioneer plantings” in the parks, which already have master plans in place. Hohenberger said the process of creating a community garden or setting aside space for edible plants would require further public input.

“It’s not insurmountable, but it’s a process that would need to be started and worked through,” she said.

As she walked along the trail in Riverview Park with the other foragers Wednesday, Hohenberger recalled her personal interest in creating a sustainable, local food supply.

“I’ve planted some fruit trees on my own property here in Charlottesville, and I’m really aware that it’s a huge privilege for me to be able to have a little piece of property and to have time to do that gardening,” she said. “I don’t want that to be something that I just do for myself and don’t worry about what anybody else in the community has available to them.”

  • Stephen
  • Ann Marie Hohenberger

    Thanks for this article! The forage walk was part of The Bridge PAI’s “MapLab” series of urban explorations around Charlottesville. Lots more cool events coming up – http://thebridgepai.org/maplab/events/

  • Manuel

    While many wild plants and mushrooms taste delicious, readers might want to consider
    a few things not mentioned in the Cville article of 8-14, “Foragers hit the trails in search of food that’s fresh, local—and wild,” before they head out and collect dinner from local parks. First, many of these items, especially the fruits and mushrooms, are key food sources for our local (non-human) neighbors. Such Riverview Park residents as the gray catbird, brown thrasher, and white-eyed vireo (esp. in the late summer and fall) depend on fruits in the park. Dr. MJ Epps, a Charlottesville native and now a scientist at North Carolina State University has documented over 250 species of insects that depend on mushrooms. In other words, every time we pick wild fruit we are taking it out of the mouth, beak, or mandible of someone else. Second, there is a saying in biology that a tree is just a seed’s way of making another seed. Each time we eat wild fruit and seeds we lower the number of seeds available to found the next generation. Third, many plants and fungi, esp. fungi, are quite good at accumulating toxins from the environment. When growing near roads, they can accumulate high levels of pollutants from tailpipe exhaust. Many urban parks are quite close to traffic. Heavy metal poisoning seems a high price to pay for wineberries.

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