No Snacking: Pokeweed is toxic if improperly prepared.
“Would you look at this, it’s some kind of edible. Oh, it’s just beautiful!” says Lynn Landes, leading a tour with the Wild Foodies of Philly. “I should know what this is, but I don’t. But it’s just wonderful!”
She lovingly strokes the leaves of a tall, bushy plant poking out of the brush on Lemon Hill on a sunny Saturday morning. Overcome by the majestic stalk, Landes delicately plucks off a saw-toothed leaf, and takes a hearty bite. Her face wrinkles. “Oh, that’s just terrible,” she says, spitting out the mystery weed, still smiling.
Gross-tasting plants are a hazard Landes and her Foodies regularly, and willingly, encounter in their quest to experience the city’s edible botanical offerings, using “four senses”: sight, smell, touch and, of course, taste. Landes, a sprightly woman with salt-and-pepper hair, makes it clear up front that she is not a professional botanist and that her tour is solely for “educational purposes.” Officially, foraging for edible plants is prohibited in the city’s park system. “We might nibble around the edges, but we don’t forage. I’m protective of my area,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to forage all this stuff anyway. I wouldn’t have anything left to talk about.”
The folks on her tour, though, might have other ideas. As Landes recounts the culinary and medicinal uses of seemingly common weeds, a number of attendees studiously jot down notes and illustrations of edible plants for future reference.
A Center City resident, Landes organized an online meet-up group three years ago, after interviewing “Wildman” Steve Brill, a New York City-based urban forager who famously was arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park. She now regularly takes groups around Lemon Hill, a location she favors for its proximity to the downtown and its abundant overgrowth. Many useful plants, like the omnipresent pokeweed, also happen to be invasive species, something of which there is no shortage of on Lemon Hill.
A dreadlocked tour participant named Lindsay Duggan regularly chimes in with unconventional advice. Duggan has been studying alternative medicine at an herbal medicine shop in Chestnut Hill.
“You will often see dream pillows made out of this,” she says of a mugwort plant. “I wouldn’t say it’s hallucinogenic; it just causes lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences.”
By the end of the tour, Duggan has pointed out other plants she says can reduce tumor growth and function as an alternative form of birth control.
Landes promises to end the tour with a grand finale: a hidden cache of “lemons” on Lemon Hill. It’s a flourish some tour participants have seen before, and chatter about excitedly. Down a dirt trail, hidden in a copse of trees, is a line of trifoliate orange plants. The citrus plant bears little orange fruits that can be used to make marmalade. They’re not exactly lemons, but they’re close enough.
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