The Urban Gardener: Foraging Berries in Brooklyn

Last weekend, I rounded a corner in my neighborhood of Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, and—squelch—nearly fell to the ground as my flip-flop-clad feet slid through a dense, sticky mass of...berries?

I found that I was under a huge tree laden with what appeared to be some kind of blackberries, and to boot, my neighbors had put up a sign: "Please Take Our Berries!" I reached up into the tree to try one: it was small and soft, sweet and, yes, reminiscent of a blackberry, although slightly less tart and not as juicy. I started filling my bag with the berries, and—this is a true story—not 30 seconds later, two cars came to a screech on the corner.

A young man with a thick accent stepped out the first car and inquired if the tree was mine. "No," I replied, "it's my neighbor's—I live down the street." Might he help himself to some berries, he asked? "Go ahead," I said, "there's a sign right here that says to take as many as you want."

The young man nodded towards the two cars and suddenly 6 or 7 more people filed out, surrounding me in my berry-picking as we all grabbed for the sweet fruit. The man explained that he and his family were Egyptian, and that the berries were mulberries, or tût in Arabic. He said that they were a prized fruit in his country, and I could see that it was so, as his family chattered excitedly in Arabic, saving some fruit for later and popping some into their mouths. Almost as soon as they had arrived, they were gone. "Bye!" the man cried from the window of one of the cars, "we have to get back home to Bay Ridge now!"

A mulberry tree in a residential area of south Brooklyn.

Foraging is so in right now. The locavore movement has gone beyond sustainable farms to embrace the gathering of roots, nuts, seeds, herbs and fruits that can be found growing either wild or domestic in public places, available for the taking by whomever can actually identify these seemingly commonplace items as foods.

Noma, the much-lauded temple to sophisticated hyper-locavore Scandinavian cuisine located in Copenhagen, Denmark, did much to propogate this trend—the restaurant's head chef René Redzepi scours local beaches, fields, and forests for rosehips, dandelions, sea cabbages and mustard flowers, which he uses to supplement the more traditionally sourced ingredients that comprise his menu. Brooklyn restaurants such as Frej, Beer Table and Northeast Kingdom have gotten in on the action, visiting local semi-wild areas such as Prospect Park to obtain ingredients like mushrooms and burdock root.

Shortly after I graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, an alumnus with a graduate degree in botany led a foraging excursion in Prospect Park. Just a few of the items we gathered were wood sorrel, a delicate, tender, lemony-tasting green; sheep sorrel, a crunchy, moisture-laden, acidic green; lamb's quarter's, a mild weed reminiscent of spinach; and linden flowers, whose honey-perfumed blossoms make a sweet tea when dried or a refreshing infusion when left to sit in cold water.

A closeup of ripe and semi-ripe mulberries.

The availability and staggering variety of the edible plants I learned about on the field trip astounded me. Here I was, a city girl who had spent her whole life ignoring the plants around me under the assumption that they were all weeds, when in fact many of them were delicious, nutritious fruits and vegetables.

From that day forward, I started to pay a lot more attention to the city's flora. I took trips up to the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park, where in late June wineberry bushes explode with the ripe, supersweet fruit that is nearly identical to the raspberry. Armed with identifying photos from that alumni trip to Prospect Park, I went back a few times to gather those greens for salads and soups whose ingredients my friends could not guess at. Most often, though, I took advantage of my geographical location by studying the fruit trees all around my neighborhood.

A view from the inside of a mulberry tree.

South Brooklyn—where I was born, raised, and still reside—has a rich tradition of planting fruit trees. Many of these trees are fig, planted by Greek and Italian immigrants as they were pushed out of more populous areas in lower Manhattan and settled in more spacious—and affordable—homes in Brooklyn. At the end of each summer and early each fall, these trees are laden with gorgeous, heavy sweet fruit; either dark purple or green, which residents use to make jams, jellies, pies, tarts, or simply eat out of hand.

A jar of homemade mulberry jam.

But another common fruit tree you might not notice is the mulberry tree, and its prevalence in New York is due to the efforts of a different immigrant population: those who come from the Middle East. In that region of the world, mulberries are cultivated in many different forms: huge, sweet, soft berries that remain white when ripe; tiny, almost jet-black berries; as well as the medium-sized, sweet-tart fruit that can be found here in the city. Fittingly, it's the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, home to immigrants from countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, where the densest populations of mulberry trees in the city can be found.

Mulberries are in season now all over New York. You've probably passed by them a million times without knowing it: the tell-tale sign is a messy, sticky sidewalk splattered with dark, squashed fruit, and likely a preponderance of birds in the tree above, enjoying the veritable buffet of berries.

Mulberries are excellent eaten raw and unadulterated, or in a jam: their dark, winey color and bright flavor produce preserves that are akin to a cross between blackberry and blueberry. So next time you pass a mulberry tree, take some home and try this jam recipe.

Do You Forage?

How about you? Wherever you live, have you had any experience with foraging, and what do you make with your finds? Let us know in the comments section below!