An occasional bird darts through the gray, late winter sky. Sparse branches offer nothing to nibble on, so the birds move on.
But it is a group of human foragers that hovers over a Durham backyard this afternoon, minding their steps, bending at the knees and leaning their noses toward the ground. Lindsay Perry runs her hands over a lush patch of weeds, their leaves tiny florets with ends pointing out like stars.
"I'm all about the choice, delicious weeds, and not eating what you can eat just for survival," Perry told friends just moments earlier in her apartment.
The group is collecting chickweed. Some have done this before. To those who haven't, it's a revelation. Chickweed's prolific sprawl assumes the look of just another clover. Its Latin name, Stellaria, refers to its star shape. The common name came about from its popularity with chickens.
But chickweed is not just for the birds. With high levels of vitamin C and other nutrients such as beta carotene, iron, calcium and potassium, chickweed is a plant of Eurasian origin that has grown in the U.S. for centuries as a secret food in the fields.
"It's one of those easiest things to pull up, but it's taking over!" exclaimed Sandy Straw, a farmhand at Coon Rock Farm. She brought a pile of chickweed pulled from the farm's greenhouse. Now, the plant will be ground with garlic and almonds into a delicious pesto.
"It's one of those things that's on the border of food and medicine, like ginger," says Liane Salgado, who focuses on sustainable permaculture designs. She and Perry improvise and organize meetings among friends to learn about, forage for and concoct wild food and herbal remedies.
Today's pesto proves potent and addictive. The only non-natural ingredient on the table is a bag of tortilla chips, as the group devours the pesto in one sitting.
"It takes a long time to prepare it, but you spend zero time growing it," Salgado notes.
Perry pushes the bag of chips aside, whips out a handle of Everclear (the hard stuff) and pulses it in a blender filled a quarter of the way with dandelion root, also foraged that afternoon. Each person will take home a mini-Mason jar of the muddled dandelion root. In six weeks, after days of shaking and a few hard squeezes through cheesecloth, it yields a clear tincture, said to aid in digestion and liver function.
Perry has spent the last couple of years reading books, taking classes (including those from local herbalists Suki Roth, Josh Lev and Kim Calhoun) and spending time outdoors. Her day job as a program coordinator for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle lends her ample opportunity to forage all over the region, collecting a variety of herbs and roots.
This year she launched Full Flower Herbs, her business promoting wild food and medicine through tinctures to support a variety of ailments and moods. She sells at the dtownMARKET at Motorco in Durham and at Carrboro's new monthly Wild Food + Herb Market, and on her Etsy site.
Outside, Perry is guided by instinct, which led her to herbal medicine. "I was having a kind of blah spring," Perry recalls of 2011. "Just inexplicably feeling dumpy and not myself. On a particularly hard day, I made a mimosa flower tincture from a tree in my backyard and slurped it all up. I was chatting, cheerful and full of energy all day. It was a powerful experience."
When foraging, she wears a pendulum that lightly swings from her neck to answer yes-or-no questions about what to pick, and when.
"It's been a revelation to me that plants all around us are actually food and medicine for things we need," she says.
Full Flower Herbs sells tinctures made of native wild plants, including milky oats to nourish the nervous system and elder flower to aid with respiratory issues. The latter is also available as a sweet syrup; people are intrigued by the possibility of curing a cough with pancakes.
Many of us can conjure memories of a grandparent cooking down dandelion greens from the yard, or tales of using wild nettles in a cure-all tea. Modern eaters are discovering wild foods that don't require special tools. So independent inventor and herbalist Josh Lev, Jenny Schnaak of the Abundance Foundation and nutrition student Beth Hopping started the Wild Food + Herb Market to give people access to local wild food. During the market's first event on March 10, more than 500 people passed through Carrboro Commons, patronizing booths selling teas, wild mushrooms, pickled offbeat veggies and more.
"Everybody eats, and most people eat a variety of food," Lev says. "We're giving people the possibility to try something new, and hopefully in a fun, educational way."
Next month's market on April 7 features a cooking theme, complete with a chef demo. Attendees are encouraged to bring a picnic and then figure out how to add wild food from the market to their spread.
"You can get as nerdy as you want to get," Schnaak says. "But really it's about eating and coming at it from an angle you have maybe never considered. Wildness is so enigmatic and unexplored, and this is an opportunity to find it."
Please note: dtownMARKET is now being held the last Saturday of each month.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Call of the wild food."