Foraging the Urban Wilderness—From High-Carb Cattails to Dandelions

“Dandelion Hunter” is an education about the food that grows along our city streets, and the deep history author Rebecca Lerner discovered along the way.
Urban Dandelion photo by Frederick Linge

Where others see weeds, Rebecca Lerner sees food. She’s an expert forager who knows how to create a feast from urban sources: the tasty high-carb cattails growing by a waterway, the vitamin-packed super salad pushing through cracks in the pavement. But it wasn’t always so. Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness is the story of Lerner’s education about the food that grows along our city streets, and the deep history, hidden ecology, and resilient characters she discovered along the way.

Urban Dandelion

Lyon's Press, 2013.

Lerner’s first foray into eating off the urban land of Portland, Ore., was fueled by enthusiasm and curiosity but very little knowledge. She naively accepted a “survival challenge” blogging assignment to subsist only on what she could forage in and around Portland for an entire week (no dumpster diving allowed). A few days into the challenge proved that stinging nettle soup and pine needle tea are not enough to keep body and soul together. She was unable to forage without fainting on this starvation diet and had to abandon the project.

Some serious study of Portland’s flora followed. A season later, Lerner (with help from friends) was able to complete a foraging week with a Thanksgiving feast of boiled wapato bulbs, chestnut flour scones, rosemary rose hip relish, and sautéed road-kill venison. Gathering, preserving, and preparing food that hasn’t been bred, grown, and marketed for convenience is hard work. Lerner got some insight into the complex food culture of Portland’s indigenous inhabitants, as well as a deeper awareness of the local ecology she calls “the wilderness within.”

Along with her engaging, personal story about connecting to nature, Lerner gives tips for conducting your own plant safari. Urban foraging skills, as she puts it, are a sort of “apocalypse insurance.” It couldn’t hurt to have a copy of Dandelion Hunter handy—just in case.