By Neenah Payne
“‘Wildman’ Steve Brill teaches adults and kids about the many common, overlooked, renewable wild edible and medicinal plants and mushrooms that people often destroy as “weeds.” By studying foraging and participating in nature in this non-destructive manner, we can increase our enjoyment of nature, grow healthier, and reaffirm our commitment to preserving and rebuilding our ecological riches.
It’s especially important for kids to have such experiences, and his 10-year-old foraging expert daughter, Violet, often co-leads his tours. THE PURPOSE of this hands-on program is to learn about the environment and get back in touch with nature. By studying foraging and nature, we enjoy our renewable resources and reaffirm our commitment to preserving and rebuilding our ecological riches.”
I was hesitant to sign up for a 4-hour foraging tour through Prospect Park in Brooklyn in December since there had been some pretty cold and windy days in the 30s in November. However, we lucked out with a pristine sunny day on December 4. It’s good I signed up because tours are from March until December. So, I would have had to wait several months for another chance.
I had never walked past the farmers’ market at the edge of Prospect Park and had no idea how beautiful or large the park is. The line from Robert Frost’s poem, “The woods are lovely dark and deep” came to mind. Unlike Central Park where there is a lot of bicycle traffic and it feels very much in the city, Prospect Park allows you to feel you are out of the city walking in the quiet woods. Violet, Steve’s daughter, pointed out that both parks were created by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to provide that sense of wildness and escape from the city not available in the manicured gardens that were popular in his time.
Urban Foraging In New York City
Urban foraging in New York City Central Park provides a small taste of a tour with Steve.
Steve’s site at http://wildmanstevebrill.com/ is a treasure trove of information.
The site links to Steve’s five books, three of which are shown below. Note: Steve signs his books when purchased from his site.
You can also purchase Steve’s DVD Foraging With The Wildman on his site.
The Events/Travel Directions link shows the 23 sites where Steve offers foraging tours.
The Foraging/Wild Plants link includes photos and Steve’s drawings of 58 plants. This information allows you to go “foraging” while sitting at home!
How NYC Parks Commissioner Hired Steve
Steve warns: “You should never eat anything without being absolutely certain that it’s safe — or have someone else try it first” because many plants look alike. He advised us to identify plants by their flower structure rather than their leaves. Steve learned about berries from his mother growing up in Queens, but he started a serious pursuit of edible plants after he saw a group of Greek women picking wild grape leaves.
Steve began conducting his tours in the city’s parks, beaches and lots in 1982. Lectures in public libraries, botanical gardens and exhibitions of his sculpture of mushrooms followed. Steve discussed his arrest in 1986 by undercover agents for eating a dandelion in Central Park! That led to a breakthrough after Steve contacted the media. NYC commissioned Steve to create tours in New York City and he now leads tours throughout greater NY. See the articles and videos on Steve’s site under Media/My Arrest.
Steve discusses his arrest in this video: “My Arrest”
The New York Times reported:
“A sting operation was mounted over the weekend, not in a darkened alley or smoke-filled room, but in the sunlight of Central Park. Park rangers, disguised as ordinary folks. took the tour offered by Steve Brill who gives walking lectures on the edible plants there. The group was made up 11 members of the Columbia University Earth Coalition, an environmental organization, and the two rangers. The rangers paid $20 each, in marked bills.
At the end of the tour, Mr. Brill was arrested by parks-enforcement patrol officers, handcuffed, searched and transported to the Central Park Precinct, on the 86th Street transverse. ‘It’s a violation of park regulations,’ the Parks and Recreation Commissioner Henry J. Stern, said. ‘You don’t want people eating up your park.’
Mr. Brill violated section 145 of the Penal Code and Park Regulations 6, 16 and 29, for several offenses, Mr. Stern said. He received a desk-appearance ticket and was not booked. ‘He dug up various plants,’ one of the two rangers, Lynn A. Sampsell, said, ‘among them sassafras tree saplings, wild carrots, winter cress, cattails. He picked daylily shoots.’ ‘We dug up roots that are extremely plentiful,’ Mr. Brill said. He added that he thought Mr. Stern was mad, because ‘I’m the competition — I lead my own walks.’ ‘Not so,’ Mr. Stern said. ‘We’d welcome him if he did not destroy plants. We’d be happy to license him for these tours.’
The people in the Earth Coalition fear Mr. Stern might put an end to Mr. Brill’s walks. ‘We’ve gone along with the expeditions, to learn about edible plants and how to preserve them,’ Prof. David E. Shaw of Columbia said. ‘That’s the irony.’ Mr. Stern simply wants Mr. Brill to stop picking. ‘If everyone keeps picking,’ the Commissioner said, ‘there’ll be nothing left to pick.’
Steve says Mayor Koch ordered Commissioner Stern to “turn over a new leaf”.
Steve explains that he met his ex-wife when he conducted a Central Park tour in 1999 and she gave birth to their daughter Violet in 2004.
Steve and Violet
Steve’s daughter Violet who is a senior in high school is his partner in conducting tours and sometimes leads tours on her own now. They turn walking through the park into a delightful, informative, and fun experience with their various comedy routines and “hand singing” (called the “Brillophone” shown in his My Arrest video) which Steve learned from his father and handed down to Violet. Steve loves jazz and has used the “Brillophone” to jam with jazz musicians on tours. See “More About Steve” further below.
Steve and Violet have a wild sense of humor that keeps the tour light. There were about 35 people on this tour. Steve said some tours have twice that, but more than 100 people is too much. Steve used his iPad to share his drawings and photos of plants — leaves, flowers, fruits, etc.
Steve shows his paintings and drawings from his “Wild Edibles Forage” app. Here’s one of the American persimmons he painted with watercolor pencils.
Field Trip Discoveries
A student from the Columbia School of Journalism videotaped the tour for a film he’s making for class.
As we began the tour, Steve pointed out Lamb’s quarters and said it’s good to eat the leaves and seeds for vitamin A and calcium. It’s related to spinach and beets.
Next, we saw Field Garlic which is related to onions and garlic, is collected in the spring. The bulbs are gathered in the summer. There is a second growth in the fall. This is a member of the Lily family.
When came across a Blackberry thicket, Violet joked that the Blackberry has lost out to the iPhone!
The group sampled Goutweed Leaves (aka “Bishop’s Weed”) which have three leaves and is related to Parsley, Celery, and Carrots. This is eaten raw March to December. It is loaded with vitamin C and helps with gout.
Next, we encountered some Crab Apples which grow on trees.
Plantain Weed Inspired Band-Aids!
The Plantain Weed comes in two varieties: Long Leaf (March) and Common (April). Common plantain and long leaf plantain are European, although Native Americans learned to use them. Plantain Weed helps heal skin irritations, burns, and rashes. It inspired Johnson & Johnson to create the Band-Aid!
How To Make A Plantain Weed Bandage explains:
“Plantain Weed has traditionally been used by Native American cultures for many many years. It has been shown to contain antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, as well as being anti-inflammatory and antitoxic. The leaves are a treatment for insect and animal bites. The antibacterial action helps prevent infection. The anti-inflammatory helps to relieve pain, burning, and itching.”
Steve’s beautiful pencil drawing of a young common plantain is shown below.
Recipe For Spicy Plantain Chips
Steve said Plantain Chips are delicious and described the recipe. He roasts plantain leaves for scrumptious, wafer-thin chips with his Goutweed Spread — both shown below. See Steve’s site for his The Wild Vegan Cook Book for more tips.
Walnuts: We used rocks to bash the walnuts and reveal the white meat inside. Steve talked about his Black Walnut banana nut cookies!
Mugwort: When we encountered mugwort, Violet explained that “wort” is the English word for “plant” and this one is used in breweries.
Burdock Led To Velcro!
Also see WEED ID: Burdock (Thanks for Velcro!). Burdock root, called “gobo” in Japanese restaurants, is delicious and healthful.
Turkey Tail Mushroom: Cancer Cure?
In a TED talk Paul Stamets, the legendary mycologist, explained that when his 84-year-old mom, Patricia North Stamets, was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer; her doctor gave her just three months to live but recommended she try Turkey Tail mushrooms. Since Stamets carries Turkey Tail mushrooms on his site at Fungi Perfecti, his mother took those.
In this video, Stamets praises the drugs Taxol and Herceptin. However, in a later video, he lambasts Taxol and doesn’t have much good to say about Herceptin. His mother recovered and remained healthy for almost 10 more years until she died in 2019 at the age of 93. Stamets’ Turkey Tail Mushrooms are also available on Amazon.
Fantastic Fungi: How Mushrooms Can Heal, Shift Consciousness, and Save the Planet is an Amazon Best Seller. The Fantastic Fungi film by Stamets and filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg won the 2019 Audience Award for Documentary Feature at the Maui Film Festival.
As we sat to eat lunch near a lake, three swans glided in very elegantly.
Violet is an avid bird watcher and got some great photos of birds on the trip. She recommended the 2012 documentary “The Central Park Effect” which is available on Amazon Prime and as a DVD. Amazon says: “This charming, lyrical documentary reveals the extraordinary array of wild birds who grace Manhattan’s famous patch of green and the equally colorful New Yorkers who schedule their lives around the rhythms of migration”. See the trailer.
Violet also recommended a book, The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature.
The Amazon description points out:
“John James Audubon arrived in America in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president, and lived long enough to see his friend Samuel Morse send a telegraphic message from his house in New York City in the 1840s. As a boy, Teddy Roosevelt learned taxidermy from a man who had sailed up the Missouri River with Audubon….Roosevelt, an avid birder, was born a hunter and died a conservationist. Today, forty-six million Americans are bird-watchers.”
Pokeweed Ink: Declaration of Independence
Pokeweed: Steve pointed out that the juice of the berry was used as ink to sign the Declaration of Independence! See Pokeweed – today an unwanted plant, in 1776 the ink of freedom.
“Today poke ink is being rediscovered by artists, calligraphy folks and school children who are taught how this berry juice became the most widely used early American ink. How many old letters and documents were written with homemade poke ink? Now crafters are making their own poke berry ink for tints and inks for beautiful calligraphy work.”
Persimmons: The photo on the right was taken during the tour and shows that the persimmons were still not ripe because, as Steve explained, this Fall had been unusually warm. The photo on the left shows how ripe persimmons look. When you eat a persimmon before it is ripe, it leaves a very astringent taste in your mouth that can be very unpleasant. However, ripe persimmons are quite sweet.
More About Steve
Steve’s father, Henry Brill (1898-1965), was a prizewinning amateur ballroom dancer in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s on the level of Fred Astaire. His prize when he won the Amateur Dancing Championship of Germany was to dance with Marlene Dietrich. He was also an amateur entertainer.
Steve learned the “Brillophone” from his father. It is an instrument you make by cupping your hands and clapping them in front of your mouth. You form a small, circular opening with your lips, hold your breath, and open your throat as though you’re going to swallow or yawn. Air from the hole above your thumbs forcefully enters your mouth and creates an echo. You create different notes and tones by changing the shape of your mouth and lips. See The Brillophone video.
Steve was a Class A chess player and beat a master in a tournament. He met Bobby Fisher, his idol. He majored in psychology in college, but got into foraging from his love of cooking. His site has many wonderful mushroom and planet recipes. Steve is also a sculptor.
Steve and Violet conducted a foraging tour of Central Park the day after our tour. Steve described his exercise routine which allows him to keep in such fantastic shape at age 72. For three out of four days, Steve does 75 minutes of Hatha Yoga with some light weights and calisthenics. One day, he swims a mile (72 laps at the New Rochelle YMCA in 44 minutes). The next day, he does either one hour of rapid walking or bike riding. The following day, he swims again. Steve takes one day off every four days. He has practiced Transcendental Meditation for 20 minutes twice a day since the mid-1970s. Steve’s nickname “Wildman,” came to him while meditating. Steve says, “I’m quite healthy, although I do have an incurable case of CCD (Compulsive Cooking Disorder)!”
November Tour With Steve In Forest Park
My friend Elba Cornier went foraging with Steve in Forest Park in Kew Gardens, Queens on November 20 and took the following photos.
Blewit Mushroom: Foraging For Blewit Mushrooms
Burdock Leaves: Foraging Burdock For Food and Medicine
Wild Rosehips: Wild Rose Hips Foraging: All You Need to Know
Jelly Mushroom: Edible Jelly Mushrooms — wood ear or tree ear species
Research contributions from Elba Cornier
Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze
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