meet johny wildseed: foraging expert russ cohen has a new mission
"Putting stinging nettle balls in the oven," Russ Cohen announces to me proudly when I can't guess what he's doing in the moment that I call. Amid the flutter of taking interview requests and preparing for a conference later in the evening, he is putting the finishing touches on his wild-fitted version of a 1950's-era recipe. He'll serve it as part of his presentation. Swapping frozen nettles collected last summer in for the traditional spinach, he's doing what he loves: "nibbling on nature"-- and then sharing it with people.
In the following interview excerpts we discuss the rad new seed bank in his second refrigerator, what native plants can do for organic farmers, the wonders of the mighty shagbark hickory, and the danger of commercializing wild plants. Anyone interested in learning more about Russ or contacting him for seeds can do so here.
GH: Can you briefly describe yourself and your work for our readers? Let’s start with the work you’ve been doing.
I have been teaching folks about how to connect to the land through their taste buds— to nibble on nature— since I was a senior in high school in 1974. So that’s over 40 years ago. I do about 40 programs a year all over New England and upstate New York, most of which are just walking around with folks in the woods and fields, looking at wild plants and mushrooms, and talking about what’s edible— you know, explain how to identify it, what it tastes like, how to prepare it, if the Native Americans ate it, what kind of vitamins it has, whether it's a weed or invasive, native or non-native, the impact of picking, and all that stuff.
GH: And what are you transitioning into?
RC: I am going to keep doing that, but what I am doing in addition to that is that I am aspiring to be a “Johnny Appleseed” of sorts for native edible species and plant more of them in the landscape, so that there’s more for more for everyone to benefit from, for people, for wildlife, the plants and the birds, pollinators, for everyone to benefit. So I have been gathering the seeds and nuts from native species.
I actually have a new fridge in my basement that’s filled with the nuts and seeds of native species.
As it turns out, most of them need to go through “stratification” (exposure to cold) before they’ll germinate, so the fridge is a good place to store them.
GH: Well that’s awesome. What exactly are you hoping to do with these seeds?
RC: I have been distributing them to native plant propagators and people I know who want to grow more native plants. I am actually going to be contract-growing a lot of stuff. So I’ve been contacting plant nurseries, giving them a bunch of seeds, and say “OK, turn these into plants for me”, and then I'll buy the plants back to distribute to organizations to grow out on their properties. I am giving these plants away. I am not charging anyone for anything.
GH: A good portion of our blog readership are organic farmers. Do you see native plants playing a larger role in their work?
RC: Yes, at least where opportunities exist to grow native species in or around organic farms. Native edible species benefit birds, pollinators and other wildlife as well as offer food harvesting opportunities for people. This is a better alternative than collecting these species from natural habitats, where, unfortunately, I have been distressed to see damage to wild plant populations caused by commercially-driven harvesting.
For instance, there is a plant called a “ramp”, otherwise known as a wild leek, that serves as a cautionary tale. It’s a native species, preferring the same “rich woods” habitat as spring ephemerals such as trilliums and bloodroots. Wild leeks were highly appreciated by Native Americans (the city names Chicago and Winooski are both derived from indigenous names for the plant), and country people knew about ramps and would gather a few to take home, perhaps while out trout fishing or turkey hunting. All that was fine, but then, about a decade ago, the high-celebrity chefs discovered ramps, and the plant experienced a meteoric rise in popularity. Suddenly people were going out and digging up entire patches of ramps to meet the surge in demand, causing harm to the plants and their sensitive habitats.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to dig up a ramp to eat it; picking one leaf per plant, leaving the remaining leaf or leaves attached to the bulb, and leaving the bulb in the ground, is a sustainable and ecologically responsible harvesting method. Ramps planted in organic farms or gardens could be harvested the same way.
What worries me is what might be the next native species that gets “hot” in the foodie world. Unscrupulous over-collecting of that plant might lead to a similar impact to what has happened to wild populations of ginseng and goldenseal, two once common medicinal plants that have been wiped out in many of their former locations.
I’m just raising a danger signal that monetization and commodification of native species can result in people going into natural areas not to commune with nature, but in search of a quick buck. Instead of seeing natural beauty, all they see are dollar signs.
If it were only just one restaurant putting native species on the menu, that would probably not result in an adverse impact, but, as you know, things can go “viral” in the foodie world. And the cumulative impact could really hammer native plants collected from the wild.
GH: I am sure you get contacted by chefs and produce stores that want to tap into your knowledge of wild edibles. How do you respond?
RC: Here’s one example: several years ago, I got contacted by a produce store in the Boston area who wanted to know places nearby where Elderberry plants grow, so they could pick the flowers, make a syrup from them, and sell it at the store. I told them the kind of natural habitat that Elderberries like to grow in, but I didn’t want to tell them a specific spot, because I was afraid they’d just go and hammer it. So what I said instead was, “there are a lot of wonderful delicious weeds and invasive plant species out there. For example there’s a plant called black locust, a non-native species that grows abundantly all over the Greater Boston area. It has delicious flowers that taste like sweet pea pods— (it’s related to peas)- and they smell of jasmine. They’re wonderful. “So if you’re going to commercialize wild plants, can I point you in that direction?”
GH: And how did that work?
RC: They said, “No, we really want elderflower.” They were really focused on the elderflower. So I said, “All right. Then I suggest that you ask a farmer to grow the plants for you.”
As you know, a lot of farm fields are bordered by sunny wetlands and wet meadows. This is exactly the kind of habitat Elderberry plants like to grow in. So a farmer could plant a row of elderberries between the field and the wetland. Then, if the farmer chose to harvest the flowers off those cultivated plants and sell them, this wouldn’t hurt the wild populations of the plant.
GH: Are there are other wild species that you could envision farms selling to restaurants ?
RC: Weeds are the ones I am most comfortable seeing on restaurant menus, because they are plants that don’t have an important ecological role.
If farms said they would like to sell weeds like dandelions, purslane or lamb’s quarters, to restaurants, or put them in CSA shares, I can’t say I have an ecological bone to pick with them. These species are so incredibly numerous, even if harvesting pressure on them greatly increased, we really couldn’t put a significant dent in their overall abundance.
GH: Do you see native plants playing more of a role in the work that many farmers are doing to build wild habitat, reducing water runoff and erosion, building pollinator populations?
RC: Absolutely. It’s the native plants that the pollinators recognize. There has been a relationship built up over millennia where bees and other pollinators have co-evolved with their native food sources. There are complex relationships between pollinators and host plants that we only know a little bit about. In terms of farmers that are looking to be ecologically responsible, allowing native species to flourish in and around their farm is a wonderful idea.
Eating wild plants – weeds as well as natives – can be compatible with farming in many ways— even just feeling like you’re more connected to the earth. I think that what created the Greenhorns and this movement is that young people are very eager to connect to food in a direct way, and not just go to a grocery store and buy everything wrapped in plastic. I am very happy teaching those folks about foraging, because it’s a natural addition to the stuff they are already doing— just to be more curious about where food comes from, and connect to it directly instead of through some kind of big corporate agribusiness.
GH: What made you want to start propagating more wild edibles?
RC: One reason is gratitude: I feel that I have been so lucky to have my life enriched by nibbling on all these wonderful wild plants. Not just natives; all the yummy plants out there, like chicory and burdock and dandelion and lamb’s quarters, I am grateful to them too, but in terms of what I could give back to mother nature, I thought it was mostly native species that needed the help.
Though I am totally supportive of people growing peaches, apples, pears and other yummy but non-native fruits, there’s a lot of people doing that already. There’s a lot of urban orchards, guerrilla grafting, and permaculture. But where there really wasn’t that much energy was in planting native species that were edible. I thought there was an opportunity to enhance biodiversity to our landscapes by adding plants that provide ecological benefits as well as being fun for people to nibble on as well.
GH: What do you think should be on our radar when it comes to planting native edible plants. Do you any favorite wild edible seeds in your refrigerator?
RC: My favorite edible species, of the more than 150 that grow in New England, is our native Shagbark Hickory. It is in the Carya genus, the same one that Pecan is in. Pecans are not native to New England, and even with global warming, I don’t think we’ll have the right conditions to grow pecans— certainly not in my lifetime, and probably not in your lifetime either. So if we’re going to grow a native, Pecan-like nut tree in New England, it’s going to be the shagbark hickory. Now certainly there are many other kinds of nuts native to this region, like Hazelnuts, Beech nuts, Chestnuts and Black Walnuts, and of course Acorns too, but the Shagbark Hickory is the tastiest of all the nuts that naturally grow around here.
GH: How do you prepare them?
RC: I like eating them raw, or toasted a bit and then added to our oatmeal in the morning. They’re really delicious in baked goods. One of the things I make with hickory nuts is Maple-Hickory Nut pie, which is the New England version of a Pecan pie, and virtually everyone I serve it to prefer it over regular pecan pie.
Shagbark Hickories are the species that first got me headed into the direction of becoming a “Johnny Appleseed” for edible native species. Several years ago, I started gathering extra nuts, not to eat, but to turn into new trees. I started making them available to people and sending them to nurseries to grow, and then I started handing out the trees for people to grow these little baby trees into shagbark hickory trees.
GH: That must be some tree! Can you speak to what exactly about this species inspired you to do that?
RC: Just because I love this tree so much that I wanted to help proliferate it in the landscape. I have enough sproutable nuts in my fridge so that if people wanted to contact me and say, Russ I’d like to grow some shagbark hickory trees, I have enough to send them out— those and beach plum pits. Beach plums are another favorite native species of mine.
GH: Mmm. Sign us up! Is there anything people should know growing this tree?
RC: Now one thing that is a little daunting about the shagbark hickory is that it takes about 20 years from when you plant a little nut to when that tree is ready to start producing nuts on its own. Lots of people say “Russ, how can you do that, how can you plant something where you may not even live long enough to see the trees get big enough to produce nuts?” Well, while I would certainly like to get nuts sooner, it’s not deterring me in the least: I already know plenty of places where there are good shagbark hickory trees to harvest from. I am already getting my fair share of nuts. I just think it would be good if the world had more nuts so that people could enjoy them. Someday in the future, we may not be able to depend on California for our nuts anymore, and we’re going to need a local source of them, and isn’t it great that someone like Russ Cohen thought of this and we don’t need to rely on California to ship in nuts for us to eat?
GH: Do you have anything else to add?
RC: So the Chinese have this wonderful saying: The best time to plant tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now. And so that’s the way I look at it.
Interview by blog team member Abby Ferla.