In the middle of the usual chaos associated with a big city, a group of eager individuals armed with pens and notepads quietly gathered on a Sunday morning near a penthouse at Humboldt Park. They convened to acquire centuries-old knowledge: how to identify edible wild plants.
Tour guide Dave Odd challenges the group to guess the cardinal rule of foraging.
“Don’t eat anything without knowing exactly what it is — that seems like common sense, right?” Odd says. “Well, I don’t subscribe to that rule.”
Odd plucks a petal from a nearby flowerpot and encourages the group to taste it. With his assurance bolstering their confidence, they cautiously sample the petal, surprised by the flower’s invigorating tartness. A professional forager who has supplied ingredients to more than 300 Chicago restaurants for over a decade, Odd explains that begonia petals, enriched with oxalic acid, are often used as a garnish in high-end restaurants. About 30 percent of the city’s plants are edible or medicinal, according to Odd, who operates by what he calls a “90 percent rule” — some entire plant families are edible, and as long as people can narrow down a plant to that family, it is safe to consume.
There is a return of interest in the ancient practice of foraging, Odd says. Initially confined to upscale restaurants willing to pay hundreds of dollars for rare finds like borage flowers and Japanese honeysuckle, foraging has gained traction among urban residents in recent years, spurred by rising climate anxiety and a pandemic that brought the existing food system to a halt. Foraging has even found an unlikely platform in social media. In 2022, Alexis Nelson — better known as BlackForager — won the James Beard Award for best social media account as she educates her 4.4 million followers on TikTok.
“People saw how fragile our supply chain is,” Odd says. “And now everybody wants to know, what the hell can I eat in my backyard when shit hits the fan?”
Since 2020, Odd has been leading regular foraging tours across various parks and neighborhoods — past locations include Antioch Public Library, Carnivore Oak Park, and Elgin Community College — educating groups of around 10 people each time on how to identify edible and medicinal plants across Illinois.
Odd’s interest in foraging took root around age 8, when a camp counselor in Skokie taught him how to identify berries and eat grapevine tendrils. Today, he shares his botanical wisdom with others through a blend of anecdotes and history.
As the group strolls through the park, Odd spots a cluster of tiny yellow flowers known as golden Alexander. He tells the group that the flower yields seeds with a celery-like taste, which can be mashed up into salt to top a Chicago-style hot dog. Steps away, he finds another plant called peppergrass, recognized for its elongated flower cluster that looks like a bottle brush. The weed, also dubbed poor man’s pepper, was once sold in grocery stores as a cheap alternative to black pepper.
Miona Short, 28, who found herself unemployed last year before embarking on her own entrepreneurial journey, says her interest in foraging was in part driven by her desire to economize during her unemployment. The conservation ethos inherent in foraging, she says, granted her a sense of connection and presence within herself.
The practice of foraging has not yet gained universal acceptance within legal systems. Historically, its prohibition was intended to prevent fugitive slaves and other marginalized groups from accessing free food. Modern institutions like city parks and forest preserves still penalize foragers, a ban Odd acknowledges might be justified in efforts to protect wild species.
However, Odd believes that foraging is one of the most responsible and sustainable ways to procure food. Ethical foragers harvest only fruits, berries, and nuts without uprooting the entire plant, allowing the ecosystem to recover quickly. This contrasts with the prevailing agriculture model, which relies on monoculture, where the same species are planted over vast expanses to grow a consistent and marketable product. Research shows that despite its high yield and market efficiency, monoculture can lead to significant damage to wildlife and a higher risk of pest infestations.
“I don’t care how organic or sustainable or fair-trade the organic, hippie food you’re eating is,” Odd says. “It’s still being grown in a bulldozed plot that used to be a forest or a prairie, or some kind of wild area that was cleared for food growth.”
During each foraging tour, Odd aims to introduce at least 50 different edible or medicinal species. The knowledge of five or 10 of these plants could make the difference between life or death in a survival situation, he says.
In the midst of the ongoing environmental crisis, Odd’s mantra found a receptive audience. Byrd Hray-Fisher, 56, says that her interest in the tour partly stemmed from her anxiety about climate change.
“I call it my zombie apocalypse,” Hray-Fisher says. “I don’t really believe it will happen, but I like to be prepared. What if something does go wrong?”
After the tour, Hray-Fisher planned to make some syrups and soda using magnolia flowers from her garden and gift them at Christmas. As an elementary school teacher with a background in environmental science, she says she wants to share the knowledge of foraging with her students and beyond.
“[Foraging] is a lost art,” she says. “People used to know this stuff, and then everything got so automated and we lost these skills. If we can somehow bring it back, that would be pretty amazing.”
To avoid legal complications, Odd encourages people to forage on private properties or in the alleyways and patches between the buildings in their local neighborhoods.
Surprisingly, urban settings also prove ideal for foraging due to the complexity of city landscapes. The diversity of urban ecosystems allows Odd to discover an array of species in unexpected places, such as sidewalk cracks or green patches in parking lots. In contrast, ecosystems in the woods or a prairie tend to be more static, with a homogeneous species composition.
“There are certain plants that like to grow in disturbed areas or in high-pH soil,” Odd says. “It’s really fascinating to be able to point out to people and show them the incredible diversity of plants in the city.”
For city dwellers, foraging has ignited an elevated consciousness and a sense of connection with the urban environment. Sacha Lusk, 27, says that her newfound passion for foraging has prompted her to observe her surroundings with a keener eye and explore the origins of her diet.
Originally a means to cope with pandemic-induced anxiety, foraging has evolved into a steadfast practice for Lusk. She now keeps a ladder and a container in her car, ready for encounters with mulberry trees while driving across the city.
“We take for granted how we get our food,” says Lusk, a restaurant worker who now collaborates with curious chefs from restaurants like Kimski and Valhalla, and provides foraged items for free. Lusk says: “When I walk on the street and find something I can eat every couple of blocks, I wonder, why isn’t this in the grocery store?”
Won Kim, the chef behind Kimski restaurant, enriches his culinary offerings by incorporating foraged items like ramps and mushrooms into his dishes. He also uses foraged mulberries to make desserts.
“It enhances a lot of the seasonality and teaches people that some of these things are available for a very limited time,” Kim says.
For Lusk, foraging has also underscored the complexity of natural systems within urban environments and peoples’ limited agency to control them.
For instance, a location near Costco in Pilsen has been Lusk’s foraging ground for lamb’s quarters — an edible plant characterized by its dusty appearance due to a white coating on its leaves — as well as a camping site for a houseless community. Recently, she learned that a tech giant is set to replace these spaces with a new building, leaving Lusk with a sense of powerlessness.
“It’s sad and there’s nothing I can do to stop it,” she says. “Events like that make you more cognizant of how important these urban green spaces are.”
For now, Lusk remains dedicated to her foraging practice, driven by a thirst for botanical knowledge and an eagerness to delve deeper into the craft. The upcoming maitake mushroom season holds special significance for her. The fungi symbolize her relationship with her father (her pandemic foraging companion) and even graced the menu at her recent wedding.
“Stumbling across something that you had no idea was there before — it is a really good feeling,” Lusk says.