Herb Lore: Why it's okay to eat off the ground in New York City
"Wildman" Steve Brill has gathered a tour group of about 20 people at Forest Park. And soon they set off into the park, headed for the woods. Steve scans the trees and the shrubs. Every now and then, he stops to explain how a nut, berry or leafy weed that grows in the park is actually edible — and even tasty.
“This is the common blue violet, has a heart shaped leaf," Steve says. "The leaves and the flowers are edible and quite good. My favorite plant because my daughter's name is Violet.”
Someone brings Steve a small blue mushroom she found in a mulchy pile of needles at the base of a pine tree. His eyes go wide.
“Oh, a blewit! Everyone come over here," Steve says. “This is a blue mushroom called the blewit. Clitocybe nuda. Grows on the ground, usually under pine debris. It has a blue cap. The gills are light blue, and it has a fat base and the stem has some blue on it too. It's incredibly delicious ... Where was it and is there more?”
Steve and his tourgoers poke around among the pine needles, but they can’t find any more blewits. This is Eric Sarpong’s third time on the tour.
“My friend actually recommended it to me," Eric says. "He does a lot of foraging and growing his own food. So I came out here to try it out, and I had an excellent time. Steve Brill planted the seed in my head, like, I can go out into my local park and forest and get food, so that was pretty amazing.”
Eric now does his own foraging back home in New Jersey. And he finds some cool stuff.
“I found Hen of the Woods mushrooms once," he says. "That was really big for me because it was really cool to find. A lot of burdock, I find goutweed, a lot of that.”
Wildman Steve Brill first became fascinated with foraging after he saw Greek women collecting grape leaves in Forest Park. His nickname, Wildman, did not evolve from his love of foraging. It was his love of jazz — in reference to the jazz standard “Wild Man Blues.” Steve claims to be a practitioner of a rare instrument — the brillophone, invented by his father.
Steve studied pre-med — but decided against medicine or a career as professional brillophone player — and started foraging tours in 1982. His apartment in New Rochelle has a wall full of local newspaper clippings — starting with his first notoriety, when he ran afoul of the city parks department.
“And they were infuriated that I came into their park and was showing people about plants and picking weeds," he says. "They had wanted posters for me so all the rangers could recognize me.”
Steve says they spied on him with binoculars and actually chased him through parks. They finally mounted an undercover operation in 1986. Two rangers posing as a husband and wife signed up for a tour in Central Park.
“At the end of the tour I ate one leaf of a dandelion, and the male ranger ducked behind a tree," he says. "Every park ranger on 81st Street popped out from behind the bushes. They surrounded me in case I was going to climb up a tree, put me in handcuffs lest I bop them on the head with a dandelion. The charge was criminal mischief, removing vegetation from the park.”
The arrest made Steve a local celebrity — and briefly a worldwide one. Everyone from MTV to the BBC covered the story. Steve’s relationship with the city has changed a lot in those 36 years. After the arrest, Mayor Ed Koch saw the publicity and decided to hire Steve to do official city-sponsored tours instead. He worked for the city for the rest of the Koch administration, then picked up where he’d left off with his own tours. No one tries to throw him in jail for eating flowers anymore.
“And I've had people that started when they were kids and and became environmental leaders, founding environmental organizations or doing ecotourism around the world and their first glimpse of nature — because you don't get a lot of this in schools — was coming on foraging tours with me when they were kids. I have some families who three generations have come on my tours," he says.
Steve says New York City’s parks are actually some of the best places in the world to forage. For one thing, New York’s bridges and tunnels do a great job at keeping out larger wildlife that plague other parks.
“So there are no deer in the city parks," he says. "And they plant things from around the world — you're not going to find ginkgos on the Appalachian Trail, for example. There's also more habitat variety. So you can go from a wet area, to a forested area, to a cultivated area to a thicket very, very easily. And each of these habitats has its own sets of plants.”
And Steve has expanded his range outside the city limits — now he teaches foraging classes in parks in Connecticut, New Jersey, upstate New York and Long Island, too. But he says he hasn’t entirely escaped his outlaw past — and he still has to watch his back for local officials in the suburbs who don’t understand the power of foraging.
Wildman Steve Brill has published a few books, including a handbook on foraging in New York through Falcon Guides — a widely respected outdoor guide publisher. He also did a vegan cookbook full of recipes you can make with foraged food. Brill does public tours and also offers private tours for schools, companies and anyone else who'd like to hire him. He's also a natural artist — you can see some of his drawings, paintings and sculptures of plants and mushrooms on his website.