PORTLAND, Maine — When Zach Rouda walks the streets near his home on Munjoy Hill, he keeps his eyes peeled for tasty vittles springing up through the cracks in the pavement. Rouda is an enthusiastic urban forager, finding lots of wild things to eat, right in the heart of town.
Common, edible plants, often thought of as weeds, grow everywhere in Portland, according to Rouda. Appetizing greenery such as plantain, chicory, dandelion, Queen Anne’s lace, lamb’s quarter and milkweed are not hard to find. They populate highway verges, vacant lots and lawns from Libbytown to the Eastern Prom.
“People are often surprised to find that there is forageable food right here in the city,” Rouda said Tuesday, before leading five people on a foraging tour under the auspices of Rewild Maine.
Rewild Maine is a nonprofit educational organization Rouda formed shortly after moving to Maine from New York. Its purpose is to connect people with the natural world, wherever they live. In addition to urban foraging, Rewild Maine teaches classes on matchless fire starting, hide tanning, basket making and how to turn acorns into flour.
Rouda calls them small-scale, place-based living skills. His aim is to make adherents less dependent on industrial farming and manufacturing.
“My story is: I developed a thirst for a deeper connection with the natural world and moved to Maine, on purpose, to find it,” Rouda said.
That thirst led to a life-changing apprenticeship at Koviashuvik Local Living School in Temple. There, he learned skills for simple living, close to nature. That led directly to founding the more urban-leaning Rewild Maine in the city.
“Since then, I’ve been living in Portland, connecting further with the natural world,” Rouda said.
Rouda started showing others about urban foraging by accident.
“I was encouraged to start teaching by passersby who had noticed me picking cherries and gathering greens,” Rouda said.
They asked him what he was doing and urged him to teach a class.
“I said, ‘Maybe I don’t know enough,’” Rouda remembered. “And they said, ‘Well, you know more than we do.’”
On Tuesday’s walk, Rouda pointed out various wild salad greens and brought samples of cooked items. Among them were fritters made from Queen Anne’s lace flowers and milkweed pods. He also offered bag of roasted acorns and a Mason jar of dandelion wine. Possibly the oddest item Rouda brought was fruit leather made from invasive Japanese knotweed, which is often mistaken for bamboo.
Rouda also warned of common plants that are poisonous. Water hemlock, for instance, looks similar to Queen Anne’s lace and is a deadly neurotoxin. Water hemlock, fortunately, doesn’t usually grow in the same places at the lace.
Deadly nightshade, also known as belladonna, produces berries that look like they could be edible. However, the plant contains fatal amounts of hallucinogenic compounds. Rouda pointed out the plant, growing just off a Munjoy Hill playground.
Part of Rouda’s foraging lesson was just an encouragement to be observant. Hidden in the bushes, just off the same playground, he found a cluster of apple trees. Hanging from their branches were small, ripe fruit. The city is actually dotted with hundreds of productive, yet forgotten, apples trees, he said.
“Just keep your eyes open. Look around,” said impressed participant Tim Bachelder of Westbrook. “We’re surrounded by amazing things. Put your phone down. Look at what’s around you. Turn your earbuds off. Listen to the birds. It’s an amazing place we live in.”
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