Prospect Park foraging tours turn invasive plants into home cooking

A foraging tour of Prospect Park, led by
A foraging tour of Prospect Park, led by “Wildman” Steve Brill, seen on April 22, allows New Yorkers to pick edible wild greens from the park grounds. Photo Credit: Lillie’s Victorian Establishment

With a subtle flavor somewhere between garlic and chives, the long, green bunch of field garlic would make a great addition to pasta or a pesto. But it didn’t come from a supermarket. It came from Prospect Park.

On a recent sunny weekend, Steve Brill corralled more than two dozen eager foragers who had traveled to Brooklyn in search of edible plants to be found and picked from one of the city’s largest parks.

On the to-pick list for the day was garlic mustard — its signature taste helps repel bugs, he said, but joked Italian bugs might enjoy it. They were also on the lookout for bunches of goutweed, a substitute for parsley that apparently works well in guacamole recipes, and violets whose leaves and flowers are edible.

“Most of the things you find are invasive plants that are causing harm and things that are completely renewable,” Brill said.

A day after leading the group through Brooklyn’s iconic park, Brill mused over a pot of knotweed and strawberry jam.

“I think people need to have hands on contact with the environment, especially kids, and eat lower on the food chain.”

Brill, who goes by the nickname “Wildman” Steve Brill, started giving the tours 37 years ago, and now leads groups through parks all throughout the city — and the tristate area — on weekends and holidays.

While Brill’s tours are popular, they’re technically against city park rules. According to the city’s Parks Department, people are prohibited from picking “any plants, flowers, shrubs or other vegetation.” Brill said he was handcuffed in 1986 and charged with criminal mischief. But after the arrest, he said, the Parks Department dropped the charges and gave him permission to forage.

“No one has come after me in three decades,” he said. “I still have legal permission to do this.”

One recent Sunday afternoon, Brill led a group of about 30 south through Prospect Park, stopping frequently to point out one vegetable or another that most people wouldn’t notice.

And as the weather continues to warm up, he said, different vegetables and fruits come into season.

“I feel like connecting with where your food comes from is really important and it’s just a great way to do that,” said Shaya Klechevsky, 37, a personal chef from Crown Heights. “I think it’s great to identify these things — this is what the earth is giving us, I’m happy to learn about [its] bounties.”

It’s also just fun to comb the ground for new recipe ideas, Klechevsky added.

“Like I’m actually getting dirty . . . If it’s not getting under your fingernails, then what did you do?”

SoHo resident Jude Fleming, 30, teaches culinary medicine and planned to cook something with the garlic mustard she had picked. She had come to the park with her mom, husband and two dogs: Mango and Chutney.

“It’s kind of interesting and fun, and I could see us maybe potentially coming out and trying to make a pesto or a salad or something from the things that we find here,” she said, joking of the dogs: “They’re natural foragers so it works out really well.”

West Hempstead teacher Yafa Lamm, 59, was on her second of Brill’s tours.

“I like the fact that [Brill] enriches the information,” she said. “The fact that he is very physical in a sense that you can touch it, you can feel it, you can smell it, all of that helps bring the information into one’s mind.”