Over a long career outdoors, Russ Cohen has honed his knowledge of wild edible plants, oftentimes called weeds and/or invasive species by the average person.
Cohen is a highly sought after and respected speaker on the topic of edible plants and has spent his professional life learning and educating people on the types of plants that humans can consume directly from nature.
Educated at Ohio State University and Vassar College where he studied law, natural resources, and land planning, today this master of all things growing in Mother Nature’s garden spends his time writing books, at speaking engagements and returning native plants back where they belong in the ground that surrounds us.
We caught up with Cohen the day before his scheduled presentation at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library’s Purrington Lecture Series. His presentation on wild edible plants, a presentation would no doubt be sprinkled with “yummy” anecdotes, yummy being one of Cohen’s favorite descriptors for wild plants that he enjoys eating.
Before jumping into the wide-ranging topic of wild plants, we asked why the drought did not seem to trouble wild plants, aka weeds, to the degree that domesticated plants are suffering this year. His response was simple: evolution. And can withstand swings in the climate from eons of adaptation, he said.
Cohen’s presentation is coinciding with the wild-plant harvest season. “Wild grapes are in season,” he shared, along with edible sumac and wild cranberries to name a few from a very long list. But our conversation touched on other aspects of foraging such as safety and foraging permissions.
On the later of those two areas, Cohen said that the edges of organic farms are prime locations for finding the best wild edibles. But before venturing near private property, he suggested partnering with the farmer or simply asking permission to forage along the edge. “They’ll probably be happy to let you take all you want,” of those unplanned invaders we call weeds. “The soils will be the best for growing organics so it will be the best for wild plants also,” he said.
Earlier in the growing season, new forgers can try easily recognizable wild plants such as dandelions as a jumping off point. “Harvesting the right part of the plant at the right time makes all the difference to enjoying dandelions as food,” Cohen stated.
In spring, the end of April through May before the buds open is the best time to harvest the buds. “Boil them for 60 seconds, they are great in soups or try them plain,” advises Cohen. Thus, we learned that starting with plants you know but have never eaten is prudent.
Cohen also shared a tip for finding certain plants in the spring and summer when discovery might prove difficult amidst heavy overgrowth. He said that in the wintertime canes of the wineberry and autumn olive (not really an olive at all) are distinctive in color and stand out from the rest of the foliage, making them easier to find. Noting their locations, this way makes finding them in harvest season much easier.
The author and educator spoke of the most iconic fruit in the Cape Cod area, the beach plum. He said they are ripe now but that one should look for their creamy, white flower in the spring so the fruits can be found again on Labor Day, the traditional time for collecting the much-loved historical fruit. He said they are the size of a cherry, “…which is large for a wild fruit.”
We also learned from Cohen the importance of educating oneself.
“Don’t use just one source for plant identification, especially internet applications,” he said.
Internet applications can be an incomplete source of information, while books on the topic are much better and, of course, talking with foragers whose depth of knowledge can be trusted.
“I didn’t learn by putting stuff in my mouth,” said Cohen, who cautioned about overriding your body’s warning. “If something tastes bad, it is probably bad.”
And here is where Cohen gave credit where credit is due – to the indigenous people that were here first. “The reason we know all this is because they figured it out!” He expressed his gratitude and appreciation for their ongoing work educating others on wild natural foods.
As a final note, Cohen asked that foragers use, “forbearance and restraint,” when harvesting from the wild to ensure that wildlife can get their fair share of the seasonal bounty. You can find Cohen’s lectures on YouTube.com.
By Marilou Newell