Foraging for Life in the Suburbs

The weeds in you neighbor can be a gold mine.

| June/July 1999

  • 1. Spruce 2. Juniper 3. Magnolia 4. Juniper 5. Fir tree 6. Japanese maple
  • What nourishment lurks in your neighborhood? Answers on page 38

Many of the tree, shrubs, and weeds we take for granted are actually herbal time capsules, treasured by our ancestors and waiting to be rediscovered. Take a look around your own neighborhood. You may be surprised how wealthy you are.

• Suggestions for Suburban Foraging
• Perfumed Rice 

Euell Gibbons, the forager extraordinaire who sent thousands scurrying after wild asparagus in the late 1960s and 1970s, was once asked how he came to know so much about living off the land. “Poverty,” he replied, with characteristic modesty. People who can’t get food elsewhere, he explained, rely on what’s in their own backyard.

Few take the master at his word, it seems. Most people assume that wild herbs are best gathered in forests and country meadows, never realizing our own yards are packed with promise. Suburban herbalists can expand their harvest considerably without hoeing an extra foot of ground if they take a page from Gibbons and reacquaint themselves with a few herbs that are ordinarily written off as weeds or considered only as ornamentals.

A checkered past

Because it roots readily in the poorest soil, resists pests and diseases, and thrives almost anywhere, common juniper (Juniperus communis) has been a landscaping standby for centuries. I’ve even identified the sites of houses long vanished by the junipers still guarding their foundations. Suburban foragers should get to know these useful, ubiquitous shrubs.

Juniper’s gray-green (when unripe) to blue (ripe) “berries” are actually tiny cones whose scales are so tightly clenched that they appear round. Only female plants produce berries, and only in the presence of male plants, so if you have a lot of junipers but no berries, you probably don’t have both sexes.

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