by Seth Morris
I live in Tenleytown, and enjoy gardening and foraging as a way to relax, and connect with nature. On Sunday I was busy collecting chestnuts in my secret spot when Marlene Berlin asked me what I was doing and she generously suggested that, in return for her promise not to reveal my location, I write a little piece on foraging.
Hundreds of years ago, the Piscataway Tribe lived off of agriculture, fishing, and the hunting of bears, elk, deer, and wolves as well as beaver, squirrels, partridges, wild turkeys, and other small game. Apparently, they did not keep Kosher. The tribe also gathered berries, nuts, and medicinal plants.
Even today, there is an endless world of foraging in DC, from the Mycological Association (mushrooms) of Washington, to my collecting native persimmons, chestnuts, black walnuts, and blackberries, enabling us to can step away from our electronic leash and do the same thing our predecessors did a long time ago.
Starting in 1904, the chestnut blight devastated virtually every chestnut tree in the United States. The chestnut trees around here are probably a hybrid of the disease-resistant Chinese chestnut and the native chestnut. After Labor Day every year, I spend a few hours collecting a few bags of chestnuts, bringing them home, and sitting on my picnic bench breaking open the “porcupine” husk surrounding the edible nuts.
These husks are lethal, and I wear very thick gardening gloves while collecting and handling the husks, which are a worthy addition to the compost pile. Fresh roasted chestnuts, gathered locally, are delicious and quite healthy. It also beats spending $10 at Whole Foods for a tiny bag of stale, imported Italian chestnuts.
Another tree native to Washington is the paw paw, a key part of the native diet, and the bark and leaves were also used for medicinal purposes. The paw paw is a genetic cousin of the mango, and tastes like a mix of mango and banana.
The week before Labor Day many Washingtonians gather every year and walk the C&O Canal to pick wild paw paw. I live in Tenleytown and have four paw paw trees that produce prodigious quantities of gigantic green fruit, as you can see from one of my trees.
Most people do not like paw paw fruit, but I love it, and it’s a beautiful tree, with exotic leaves, that produces fruit even in partial shade. The unusual paw paw blossoms are also stunning, and look like something one would see in Hawaii. I have an endless supply of paw paw seedlings, and I’m glad to share with local neighbors.
To would-be foragers: Please note that the National Park Service forbids foraging in Rock Creek Park. And always ask permission before foraging on private property.