Foraging for Wild Food in Oak Park

There's a lot of food growing free..and it's fun to hunt

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By David Hammond

"We're looking for a grubby alley," Nancy Klehm told our group of about 18 urban foragers.

Week before last, I had posted about the foraging expedition that Klehm was to lead in Austin Gardens.

But then the Park District of Oak Park got wind of it, and explained that this "activity is not in compliance with the Park District code (Rules & Regulations Governing Uses of Park Facilities). In particular you may be in violation of ordinance numbers 7.6, 7.12, 7.16, and 7.17."


It would have been nice using Austin Gardens to forage for edible foods growing wild and free. But after the stern warning from the village -- which seemed to indicate that we could not even congregate in Austin Gardens, let alone eat the foliage -- we went in search of an area around the park that was, to use Klehm's word, "un-preened." That is, we wanted to find areas that had not been cultivated, fertilized, treated with insecticides, or otherwise brought under the control of human hands (PS. Despite the fact that it was relatively preened and off limits, Austin Gardens looks like it has a lot of edible stuff growing).

Wandering in the streets and alleys around Austin Gardens, we found over 24 edible plants (usually considered weeds), all of which we nibbled as we walked. I've included just a few of them in the slide show above.

This was an absolutely fascinating look at ignored nature, the stuff growing in cracks and crevices and behind garages. This is nature that most homeowners don't want: weeds, volunteer greenery, stuff you pull out of your garden and put into a big bag for the Village to haul away. So this exploration of unwanted vegetation offered a fascinating perspective on what we deem fit to eat and what we consider weeds and thus unworthy.

Klehm will be holding another foraging workshop in Austin later this summer; I'll keep you posted and, honestly, you will probably not find a more fascinating and productive way to spend a few hours.

Note: we're not botanists over here, and the nutritional value of the plants, as expressed in this article, are those of Ms. Klehm, whose opinions I, personally, trust.

Reader Comments

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David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: May 15th, 2013 9:54 PM

That fact that garlic mustard is invasive, Sandy, is an excellent reason to harvest it, don't you think?

Sandy Lentz from Oak Park  

Posted: May 15th, 2013 7:23 PM

The garlic mustard referred to in the caption to this article is a seriously invasive plant. It has heart-shaped, serrated bright green leaves and now is blooming with white flowers. Eat it if you choose, but REMOVE IT wherever you see it, before it goes to seed. It will take over, crowding out everything else.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: May 13th, 2013 12:21 PM

Marty, thanks for contributing to the thread. Actually, I thought it was kind of cool the way the forage worked out (i.e., seeking sustenance in grubby alleys), but it's very good to know that the PD does not use herbicides and pesticides. I'll pass comments along to Nancy and maybe we can arrange another forage in one of Oak Park's parks.

Marty Bracco from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: May 13th, 2013 11:12 AM

Jakob, the Park District does not use herbicides/pesticides in Austin Gardens. Mr. Chien is correct is his assessment of the damage foraging can do in parks. That said, if Ms. Klehm were to sit down with the PD, they have a history of being open with local residents and groups for educational & recreational purposes.

Jakob Eriksson from Oak Park  

Posted: May 13th, 2013 8:56 AM

Use of herbicides and pesticides may be one reason for the park's policies. Lawn treatments likely do not follow FDA guidelines for herbi/pesticide use.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: May 8th, 2013 1:01 PM

Sorry, meant outside my window. Really too bad there's no edit function on this site, as there is with Facebook.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: May 8th, 2013 1:00 PM

Douglas, I am surprised to see how much edible stuff is growing in my front and back yards. No need to go to forest preserves; dinner is right outside my dinner.

Douglas Chien from Oak Park  

Posted: May 7th, 2013 9:46 PM

Wonderful article and great photos. It is amazing how much knowledge we've lost compared to our forbearers when interacting with nature. However, excepting non-native weeds like garlic mustard, it is NOT acceptable to forage in parks and forest preserves because of the damage it does. Our natural areas are already so small that foraging can be quite harmful. Sure wish it were not so but we live in a dense urban environment and nature needs protection. So common sense is a good law for this.


Posted: May 7th, 2013 5:33 PM

Thank you for this article! Another thing about "weeds" is that many of them provide necatr for butterflies in early spring (as well as other pollinators), and many are also hosts for different caterpillars too. Our society needs to be more appreciative of all life forms, not just the preened and contained.

Marilyn from Oak Park  

Posted: May 6th, 2013 12:40 PM

Nice write-up and photos! This sounds fascinating and I will definitely hope to make that next tour. I wonder if in the meantime, someone could review a typical and silly application of Oak Park rules, and allow this to take place in Austin Gardens. Once again, common sense in Oak Park is out the window.

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