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#UrsinusSummer: Wild Food for Thought

Summer at Ursinus is when selected students pursue research with faculty mentors. Summer Fellows work on projects they can truly own. Meet Summer Fellow Kristin McGillis ’16.

Walking in Philadelphia alleys, near cracks in cobblestones and by the roots of trees, Kristin McGillis ’16 took careful notes on edible plants most of us don’t notice. On a recent summer day she saw wood violet, paper mulberry, amaranth, watercress, sage wort, Asiatic day flower, plantain, hasta, purslane, and more. Then she joined a small group to try several dishes made with cooked amaranth. “It looked a bit like spinach,” she reports.

As a Summer Fellow, McGillis is walking among urban foragers on city trails and pavements, gaining their trust and learning more about why they hunt for food and what they do with their bounty.

Urban foraging, a controversial practice for city planners and park managers, is a research topic of her faculty mentor, Patrick Hurley, associate professor of environmental studies, who is considered a leading authority in the field. Hurley has written about foraging in Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, and has been interviewed on WHYY. His research considers rethinking environmental management policy toward the urban forest.

But there is a lot more to learn. Enter McGillis, of Metuchen, N.J., who is compiling an ethnography on foragers of Philadelphia. “I want to understand the culture,” says McGillis, who is a media and communication studies major and environmental studies minor.

The subculture of foraging

She views the foragers as a subculture of people who want to take advantage of natural food; and is learning what benefits informal tours provide to them, and the motivations  for attending these meet-ups. While the Ursinus campus has ginko and linden trees, among many others with edible leaves, exploring the edible food on campus does not have the social aspect or exchange of knowledge that occurs on urban foraging tours.

Edible plants are in surprising abundance in the Philadelphia urban parks such as Cobbs Creek in Upper Darby, Lemon Hill in East Fairmount Park and other areas, including historic Philadelphia streets where they grow in lots and along the sidewalks. The number of foragers is growing, says McGillis. She became interested when she took an urbanization class with Professor Hurley last year. 

Turkey tail mushrooms, mustard greens, blueberries…

Harvests from the tours include turkey tail mushrooms, raspberries, garlic mustard greens, dandelion, mulberries, blueberries, Queen Anne’s lace and violet. Others gather plantains, wineberries or wild strawberries among other plants and fruits. Initially some may be wary of mushrooms, but some learn to properly identify them. The result is often a menu of local origin teas, breads, jams, greens and other food and drink.

The foragers learn about meet-ups on list-serves and Facebook groups and exchange information, seeking more experienced tour guides, or using electronic or hard-copy field guides. Tour guides provide information on what species are edible and on safe practices, and they share enthusiasm. McGillis gets contact information and carries out interviews. She says the subjects are eager to talk about their foraging passion. “People are excited to do interviews,” she said. Many “love that the food is free, and they are passionate about it.”

They see it as an alternative to our reliance on cultivated foods. “It’s going back to our roots.”