Interview With Blanche Cybele Derby – Foraging Expert
Pick & Juice Nutritious Edible Greens Growing Naturally Right in Your Own Back Yard!
Editor’s Note: Blanche Cybele Derby is a foraging lecturer, filmmaker and author. She also happens to be my neighbor. Foraging, for those who may be new to the term, is using weeds around your home and community for food. Foraged greens such as ramps and dandelion are commonly used in salads by upscale restaurants. I’m lucky to have had many amazing full-course meals prepared by Cybele and her husband from foraged foods such as berries, shoots, buds, leaves and flowers picked fresh right from our neighborhood. The plants mentioned in this interview are commonly found throughout New England and in other parts of the country. For other edible plants I refer you to Cybele’s wonderful Youtube videos, DVD’s and books available at http://www.tagyerit.com/freefood.htm .
Bob Hannum: Cybele, I’ve wanted to do this for a long time – to interview you for a new chapter on foraging in the next edition of my ebook about juicing, Juicing & Smoothie Recipes That Heal! because in the juicing world greens are superfoods and it’s amazing to me that there are so many edible greens growing as weeds right in our own back yards. You’re a wonderful authority on the subject with 3 books, many popular Youtube videos, and ongoing lectures and walks. This is such a pleasure!
My first question: What’s so special about foraging? Why couldn’t I just go to the store and buy raspberries instead of going off to some special place in town and picking wild ones?
Cybele: First of all: I just love doing it! I love getting outside and riding my bike so I can roam and explore and find new places. Secondly, it’s the ultimate local produce. Most of the edible plants that I forage are no further than a mile from my house. Some are right in my back yard. So it’s fresher than supermarket produce. Another advantage of foraging is that nothing’s been sprayed and fertilized, so I feel that there’s more nutrition in fruits, greens, and roots that I pick. Also I’m not gathering plants from a ‘monoculture’ meaning that it’s not been farmed with acres and acres of the same plants in the same soil year after year. I think foraged food has much more power nutritionally. It gets you out in nature. And it makes you much more aware of the cycles of nature. If you just go to the supermarket and buy something; you can buy raspberries in January. That’s not the way it is in nature. Nature’s cycle is raspberries are ripe in June. They’re there for maybe two weeks and then they’re gone. And then you go and find another berry. That’s what I like – becoming aware of, and following, the cycle of the place I live in. For me, the most important reasons that I forage is to be more aware of nature, and the nutrition from wild plants is so much better than anything cultivated.
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B: Is it better than buying organic?
C: I think so. If you buy organic raspberries from California, it takes time for them to get here. This morning, I went out and picked blackberries. That’s certainly much faster.
B: About those raspberries – let’s say they have a two week cycle in nature. And then you go and pick the next thing that’s ready in nature. Is there any special benefit of eating whatever nature has to give you at the time?
C: That’s the way it used to be. Now you can buy things in February from faraway places that would never grow around here. Many people in the foraging field feel that you should only eat what grows around your area.
I don’t go that far – I like bananas. But, yes, I think it’s really a good idea to eat what comes along. That’s not easy here in New England in the wintertime. Unless you can your foods which they used to do in years past. They would can and have a root cellar and save these things.
So yes, I feel it’s really important to eat with the seasons. I freeze a lot of the berries because I use those in the winter. It makes me feel that spring is coming soon and summer’s coming soon so I like to have those tastes. But those are things that I went and got and froze. Although I do go to the supermarket, I like to try to get what I need from around here.
B: Now you and Charlie just cooked Bonnie and I this wonderful dinner tonight. And could you talk about some of the ingredients you used and their benefits?
C: That’s what I was doing on my bicycle this morning. I was picking berries, greens, and flowers. The greens were Lamb’s-quarters which is wild spinach. And amaranth which is now considered a super-food, but it’s a weed that grows everywhere around here.
B: So if I knew what I was looking for I could easily find amaranth?
C: Yes, but you need to be able to positively identify what you’re looking for, because you don’t want to make a mistake and eat something that will give you a stomach ache or worse.
This being high summer there’s not as many greens available as there are in the springtime. So I picked quite a few flowers: goldenrod, phlox, bee balm, nasturtium, mallow, Rose of Sharon, Johnny jump ups, and bean flowers. Some of the flowers are cultivated. I don’t make a distinction between wild and cultivated because most cultivated flowers were once wild.
I’m mentioning the common names, but it’s important to know the scientific names because many plants have the same common name yet they’re completely different plants.
B: What was the little white one?
C: Oh, the elder flower. I was surprised to find those because they’re usually gone by now. Elder flowers turn into elderberry by August. Many plants have multiple parts that are useful – sometimes the shoot is good, followed by the bud, then the flower, and then the seed. Milkweed is one of those. There were milkweed buds in our salad and clover blossoms.
B: I thought milkweed isn’t good for you?
C: Oh no. Milkweed is a forager’s dream because you can be a procrastinator! If you want milkweed shoots but you don’t get around to picking them and it becomes too late for shoots, you can pick another part of this plant. If you’re too late for the buds you can wait another week for the flowers. If you miss the flowers you can wait another week for the small buds we just ate.
Some plants have to be cooked. Some can be eaten raw. Our salad was essentially a raw salad.
B: Do you have to be careful when you’re foraging?
C: Pokeweed is a plant that you can only eat at a certain stage. It’s a popular edible plant down South when the young shoots are two to six inches high. They are gathered in the early Spring for a couple of weeks. The young shoots have to be cooked in multiple waters which meant that you pour boiling water over the shoots, cook them for maybe 10 minutes, drain that water, and then repeat. There’s a compound in pokeweed that upsets the stomach if eaten raw. It won’t kill you, but you’ll get sick.
Pokeweed (phytolacca Americana) – only the shoots are edible.
So I cook poke in multiple waters and [my husband] Charlie loves it. It’s a marvelous spring green. Very tasty. Down South they used to can it. It was so popular it was on the shelves of grocery stores. And there’s even a song called “Poke Salad Annie” by Elvis. It should be “poke sallet” because “sallet” means any cooked green whereas “salad” means any raw green.
However, this past winter I was in Florida and a woman who is an herbalist said that she knew somebody who’s a fourth generation Floridian who eats uncooked poke with no problems. I was shocked because I’ve always been told that you have to do this multiple boiling. Maybe it’s the soil? It’s different in Florida than it is up here in New England. Could soil have something to do with it?
So what I did this spring was eat a few very young raw leaves. One leaf one day. Nothing happened. Two leaves the second day. Nothing happened. Three leaves the next day. Nothing bad happened. But when I lead walks or give talks I still tell people to do the two boil method. I’d rather be conservative. I always tell them, “Whenever you eat anything new, even a new cultivated food, just go easy on it. Don’t over do it.” Everyone’s digestive systems are different.
B: I heard the same about wheat grass. It’s a favorite green for juicers. Very cleansing. A super-food. But too much can upset your stomach. But some people get used to it and drink it straight. They had to work up to that over time.
C: That’s maybe the same for poke. Build your tolerance. I think our food processing is removing bitterness so our digestive system is no longer used to wild foods.
B: What’s your favorite foraged food?
C: That’s like asking which child is your favorite. Well, I love berries. I just love fruit. And they’re so many great greens especially in early Spring when you need more nourishment after winter. You can’t get fresh local greens unless you have a green house. And a lot of wild greens are available much earlier than anything you can cultivate. Stinging nettle is one the best greens — protein, chlorophyl, and vitamin rich.
B: When I brush up against that plant on the trail, it stings and itches like hell.
C: Yes, but when you put it in a juicer, the stingers break down. And you’ve got yourself a power drink.
C: That’s one green I would definitely recommend. If you’re uptight about the barbs just put a little water over them and simmer for a minute or two. This breaks down the small barbs.
Lamb’s-quarters is another great green. It’s wild spinach. You can get your own quinoa in the seeds from Lamb’s-quarters because they’re related. Quinoa is a South American cousin of Lamb’s-quarters.
Goutweed is another. It’s in the carrot/parsley family. That tastes just like parsley. So again, you can use that instead of parsley. But be careful because it looks like the water hemlock which is among the most deadly of plants. This was the poison used to kill Socrates.
Garlic mustard is another common edible plant. It’s in the mustard family with a strong garlicky taste. Mix it with milder greens such as Lamb’s-quarters which is very mild. Spring is the best time to find greens. Purslane is a very good summer plant that’s super high in omega 3 fatty acids.
C: Super high. And it’s very respected in every country except ours. In Mexico they call it Verdolaga.
B: I’m really curious about that because I know it’s difficult to find omega-3’s in plants.
C: Yes, and the omega-3 in Purslane is the same one found only in fish and flax seed. It looks like a jade plant and it sprawls. It’s mucilaginous which means a little slimy.
B: It sounds like you just need a little so if you don’t like the taste you can add carrot to it or berries.
C: Yes. The taste of Purslane is very green. That’s something you can find when the weather starts to get hot. I usually mix it in with coleslaw. Mix it in with carrots and cabbage and chop it up real fine for a Purslane slaw.
B: Sometime would you point out some of the edible plants around my house?
C: Oh yes. I bet there are sorrels which are very lemony tasting plants. There are two types of sorrel’s: Oxalis and Rumex, but they both taste the same. Just take the leaves and put them in water and they impart a very lemony flavor. Easiest kind of drink imaginable. And if you drink it you can eat the leaves as your drinking it. I’ve made myself a couple of flower drinks. Just put elder flowers in a glass. Pour in water and let it sit for a couple of hours. The flavor is very subtle; sweet. Do the same with milkweed flowers. You could probably do it with rose petals, too. Some of the fragrant ones. But don’t use any flowers that are sprayed or come from a floral shop.
B: But they are some dangers? You mentioned hemlock. Is that something you can come across locally?
B: No kidding?
C: Unfortunately yes. It’s in the carrot-parsley family so there are a lot of edible members of that family. Water hemlock are poison hemlock are in that family. Some people might mistake those two plants for an edible plant called Queen Anne’s Lace which is essentially a wild carrot. And Queen Anne’s Lace grows everywhere. The hemlocks are not as common. But I have seen them around here. So it’s really important. To stay away from that family.
B: I’m smiling because you hear stories about mushroom experts. It seems that every year some famous mushroom expert dies from mistakenly eating a deadly one.
C: Yes, that has happened.
B: Does that happens in the foraging world, too?
C: No, not as much because most plants are not deadly. The water hemlock and poison hemlock are exceptions. Mushrooms are tricky. Usually when I do walks I don’t show mushrooms, unless it’s a big puffball where there’s no poisonous lookalikes. A lot of plants like dandelion leaves are bitter but if you mix them with milder greens, they’re marvelous juicing material full of vitamins A and C. Stick with plants like dandelion which everybody knows. If you’re new to foraging don’t try to learn every plant at once. Going on walks with a person who knows what they’re doing.
B: Are there any poisonous berries out here?
C: There’re some in the nightshade family. Stick with the rose family which include raspberries and blackberries. Any plants in that family have no poisonous lookalikes. Mulberries and juneberries, too.
B: What’s your favorite berry?
C: Juneberry. Most people don’t even know what it is. It looks like a blueberry but it taste like a cherry and an almond. And those trees are all over Northampton.
C: Yes, a lot of landscapers plant them. In the Spring they have beautiful white flowers, and they bloom much earlier than most other trees. They have many flowers and they’re beautiful. Landscapers love them. They’re my favorite berry.
B: I remember you saying once that you keep some of your foraging spots secret.
C: Some yes. I’m like mushroomers, but many of my places are right out in plain sight. One of my favorite trees is right on Main Street, and thousands of people walking by there daily. Usually nobody even asks me what I’m doing which I find very interesting.
B: That makes sense to me since foraging sounds rare.
C: Not any more. When I first started very few people were doing it. Now it seems everybody’s writing a book or making a video or leading walks. Everybody’s foraging for famous chefs. It’s become the latest fad.
B: Could you go to a field that you’ve never been to before and pick something edible?
C: Probably. Actually I’ve done that a month ago. I went to somebody’s house who hired me to walk around their farm and point out what plants were edible. We barely got beyond their front door! There were so many wild edible plants growing all over their yard.
B: That were wild? They hadn’t been planted?
C: That’s right. The fellow was really happy to find out that he had a big stand of lamb’s-quarters which I told him was wild spinach and he said, “Oh, I had trouble growing spinach and now I have it right here. So I’ll use this instead.”
B: Do you do most of your foraging in the open or in the forest?
C: In the open. The forest is too dark. Too many trees. Too much shade. Mushrooming is better in the forest.
B: What about all those forest wildflowers in the spring?
C: There are some edible plants in the forest such as ramps, or wild leek. They appear in mid-April and it’s one of the plants that chefs are crazy about. The leaves are really good. They make a strong juice. I wouldn’t just use ramp leaves in the juice. I’d add stinging nettle and lamb’s-quarters. Wow, what a combination. Ramps also have an edible root. But whenever you forage and gather the root you are essentially killing the plant. So a lot of people who collect ramps just collect the leaves. You want to be a responsible forager. And a plant likes ramps can be over-harvested, especially by foragers selling to stores and chefs. Not the same with invasives which you can forage to your heart’s content.
B: When you say selling to stores are you saying that we can buy foraged produce in a local coop?
B: Can we be confident that these greens or berries have not been sprayed? That they are indeed wild?
C: That’s a good question. You have to trust the person who is picking. One example of things that I’ve seen at Whole Food’s is fiddlehead ostrich ferns. They grow everywhere around here, all along the Connecticut River.
B: Are they edible?
C: Oh yes and one of the best wild foods.
B: So almost anything that’s green is edible?
C: No. I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t touch skunk cabbage or false hellebore – their name’s says it all. Jack in the pulpit will make your mouth burn. Just because it’s green or a flower doesn’t mean it’s edible.
B: You really have to know.
C: Yes. Start out with dandelion and clover. Then move on to plants that are not as well known. Sumac is another plant that you can make a wonderful juice from.
B: Poison sumac?
C: No no. See, that’s the problem with common names. Poison sumac is in the same family as edible sumac, but poison sumac only grows in very wet areas, boggy areas, and has white berries. Edible sumac grows in meadows and along roadsides and has red seeds. You can make a wonderful drink out of sumac by putting the seed heads – called “Bobs” – in cold water. Let them sit for an hour or so and you have sumacade. Like pink lemonade. A little sour so add a little sweetener. But again it’s an easy juice to make without any machine. Some people put it in the sun. A lot of folks believe in using the power of the sun to brew teas and juices.
B: So sumac is good for a sun tea? Anything else you suggest?
C: Linden flowers are marvelous. Just pour cold water and let it steep for an hour. Very soft and subtle flavor.
B: Just the flowers and not the leaves?
C: The leaves are a good sandwich green used like lettuce. In England they call the linden a lime tree, and they have lime leaf sandwiches at tea time.
B: If someone wanted to go on one of your walks, how do they find out about it?
C: On my website or sometimes I advertise it: And usually my walks are free.
B: Cybele, thank you so much. This has been such a pleasure.
C: Let me give you a list of the plants that we mentioned with their scientific names for easier identification.
C: Remember, it’s so important to include the scientific name – genus and species.
B: I will do that. Thank you so much for your time and knowledge.