A weed pushes its way through the cracks of an urban footpath. To me, it looks like a weed; but to Ben Glaneur it’s a salad vegetable ripe to be eaten.
For the permaculture aficionado who leads walking tours through Brisbane suburbs, the plants we walk past, or even on, every day are potential food sources. It is a philosophy being adopted by high profile chefs like Rene Redzepi, from the world number one restaurant Noma in Denmark. “Lately we’ve noticed a lot of chefs and restaurateurs are interested in sourcing local and sustainable produce,’’ confirms Ben. However his walks also appeal to gardeners and food lovers keen to know more about foraging. We meet on a Vulture Street corner where messages about sofas for sale and offers of reiki healing flutter on a community noticeboard. It’s a busy Saturday morning and urban West End may seem an unlikely place to find wild food plants, but Ben believes edible species grow just about everywhere. As if to prove a point, we walk less than 50 metres before we find our first — a pigeon-pea tree growing in a small unkempt footpath garden. A staple food of northern India, the small brown peas are separated from their pods and cooked in the same way most legumes are. This tree, growing in a public space is an example of ‘guerrilla gardening’ — when someone has planted it here on purpose, explains Ben. He also points out an entire footpath planted with sweet potato, partnered by a conveniently placed rosemary bush, there for the taking.
While in public spaces like this, it is usually okay to gather what you need, foragers should use their discretion when it comes to overhanging gardens. “Some gardeners have abundance, and want people to harvest it. But you need to respect their work. If in doubt, go and ask,’’ says Ben. He points out a curry tree, spreading from a garden over the footpath. “I’d be okay with this. The tree is huge and you only need a little to flavour a curry,’’ he says, plucking a fragrant leaf and crushing it between his fingers. We come across wild species as well as escapees from gardens; a clump of lemongrass that has taken root on the footpath, a bush in a vacant lot boasting scores of little red firecrackers and tart-sweet Acerola cherries growing in front of an apartment block. There’s obviously been an extraordinary effort by both West End locals and a quietly sympathetic Council to provide edible species in the suburban streets. On Boundary Street, Ben bends to pick a little plant from the footpath.
Locally known as ‘thickhead’ or ‘drooping top’, it is a traditional food crop from Africa. ‘It’s delicious in soups and stocks but also nice to munch raw in salads,’’ Ben says. He does not advocate we go around randomly eating plants, but he does encourage householders and Councils to consider researching the different species they should plant in both private and public spaces.
Edible Streets tours run sporadically and cost $15 per person. Ben can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words by Natascha Mirosch | Images by Gillian van Niekerk