Food » Food: Year of Idaho Food

The Time is Ripe for Urban Fruit Foraging

Gathering wild plums, apples and blackberries

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Between the rushing gurgle of the Boise River and the bee-like swarm of bike tires on Greenbelt asphalt, I hit the jackpot. Reaching skyward, I pulled a small ripe purple orb from the bent branch of a wild plum tree, hunched like a street urchin under the weight of its fleshy bounty.

Mid-August is the sticky sweet thick of wild fruit season. Though red and black currants have come and gone, scattering their pea-sized fruit along the banks of the river, plums, apricots, blackberries and apples are currently coming on in spurts.

While the city of Boise doesn't plant fruit trees in public parks or in public right-of-ways, a number of wild trees have sprouted up in the moist soil lining the Boise River and along irrigation canals.

"The thing about fruit-bearing trees is we don't allow them on the public right-of-way just because of the nuisance--the mess they make of the sidewalks and the street ... We don't plant any in the city parks just for the same reason," explained Ryan Rodgers, City of Boise urban forestry specialist.

Still, there are a few public fruit trees scattered around downtown--an apple tree that is currently dropping moth-eaten fruit along a sidewalk on 14th and Main streets and a couple of persimmon trees.

"If they're already there and established, we're not going to go in and cut them down, but we don't really do any maintenance of them or harvest any of the fruit ourselves," said Rodgers.

But just because the city doesn't harvest fruit growing on public property doesn't mean the public can't. In towns across the country, urban fruit foraging groups have popped up to keep ripe fruit from going to waste. Websites like Portland, Ore.'s Urban Edibles or Los Angeles' Fallen Fruit offer public maps detailing the locations of produce spots for local foragers. The website Concrete Jungle in Atlanta, which was recently profiled in The New York Times, also offers a database detailing the locations of untended fruit trees on commercial and public property. But the group takes it a step further, donating the "neglected produce" to food banks and homeless shelters.

Last year, local food blog Mundovore created the Boise Urban Foods Google map, which allows the public to pinpoint places where they've stumbled upon wild fruit or private residences with more fruit than they can handle. Though local forager Jasmine Berier is aware of the Boise Urban Foods map, she prefers to find her own spots.

"I Google Map every bush and then I literally track that bush," said Berier.

Berier doesn't want to make her favorite picking locales public knowledge. She forages for sustenance.

"I really depend on feeding my family that way ... My husband was one of the unlucky souls that lost his job when the market took a crash, and I'm a mom of two kids. I had to figure out how I was going to pick up some slack without getting a job because I didn't want to put my kids in a daycare and we couldn't afford it," said Berier.

In the summertime, Berier forages wild plums, apples, black and red currants, mulberries, blackberries and chokecherries. She makes an array of jellies, jams and chutneys for her family to eat and also sells her products on occasion. Though she's an old pro now, Berier initially used technology to figure out which wild fruits were edible.

"I used Facebook a lot of the time to clarify what the genus is, and if it was safe to eat, and when it was normally ripe. Then I'd come back with the kids," said Berier.

Though Berier admitted that some wild tree fruit has a "more grainy" or "woody" taste than its commercial cousins, she said taste varies from tree to tree.

"It just depends on the area that it's in," said Berier. "If it gets a decent amount of regular water then it won't be as woody, as far as I can tell."

Wild fruit trees tend to produce smaller, less cloyingly sweet fruit because they often grow from seeds deposited by animals instead of being grafted from an existing tree. According to apple forager and cider maker John Dadabay, wild fruit trees are generally less susceptible to pests because they have genetically adapted over time to survive in the native landscape.

"Some of your old plum and apricot species, and cherries for that matter, seem to be relatively disease resistant because they're growing out there and producing fruit," he explained.

Dadabay was raised on an abandoned apple orchard in Vermont and has been making hard cider since he was a teenager. He prefers to use old wild apple species, explaining that the slightly bitter fruit makes for a more nuanced and flavorful end product. Around this time of year, Dadabay spends his free time scouring vacant areas around Boise for interesting apples.

"What I have been doing is finding old townsites where the towns no longer exist, and many of the fruit trees are left there and they're wild ... You kind of just have to look; apples are where people were," said Dadabay. "Unless it's a wild crab apple, an apple that you can actually consume is wherever people lived at one time and grew fruit trees."

Inspired by Dadabay and Berier, on a recent searing summer afternoon, I put on some shorts (first mistake) and flip-flops (second mistake) and set out to see what fruit I could gather close to home.

I wound down Eighth Street and snaked behind Camel's Back into Hulls Gulch, using my smartphone as a treasure map. I stopped at each blue teardrop on the Boise Urban Foods map and found, to my amusement, a couple not-quite-ripe blackberry bushes and an abundance of also not-yet-ripe wild rose hips--just like the map promised. Staring down a scraggly mass of dead blackberry brambles that surrounded a patch of ripe, glistening berries like a dry mote, I made a note to dress more appropriately on my next foraging adventure.

"You're definitely going to want to wear long sleeves if you're going to get blackberries," cautioned Berier. "The first time I went blackberry picking was not pretty. My legs were shredded and my arms were shredded. To get to the good berries, you have to kind of make a pathway into the bush."

Dadabay also had some words of advice for aspiring wild fruit foragers.

"Get permission if it's on private property; if it's not on private property, go and don't be greedy," said Dadabay. "Leave apples for other people, just take what you need--apples for the deer and apples for the birds."

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