INDIANAPOLIS -- On a warm summer morning Greg Monzel’s white pickup truck pulls up to Brookside Park on Indianapolis’ near east side. He hops out with a large plastic tub and his 18-month-old son, Hartford, in his arms.
"Today, I wanted to come back here -- I used to live around the corner from here and so Brookside Park was right out my backyard," Monzel said. "And this will be the fifth year for me of harvesting service berries," (you may know them as Juneberries) "one of my favorite native berries to Indiana."
Many people go to a park looking for a swing set or a jogging path, but the plants beneath our feet and the trees giving shade above contain lots of edibles.
Monzel and Hartford set off into the park. "There are a few trees over here that I’ve harvested from before," Monzel said, but it’s not long before Monzel is pointing out uses for the lawn.
"From my point of view, walking around in a park or woods, or even a sidewalk somewhere, almost every plant at my feet is food or medicine to me," he said. "For a lot of people, it’s just kind of a green wall of plants, but looking out into this grassy area, I can spot easily five species of plants that I can just pick up and eat off the ground."
Stepping through red clovers, black medic and dandelions. Monzel reaches shaded footbridge over a Pogue's Run and spots something tasty. "Oh, mulberries," he exclaims.
Dark purple berries hang from the branches above. "Normally one of my tactics for foraging from trees is to find a branch you can reach and pull it down," he said.
Many have already fallen from the trees, squished into the wooden planks from footsteps.
The berries are very juicy. "They will stain a little bit. You can use mulberries as a dye," Monzel explains.
Monzel pulls a branch down low enough for Hartford to reach, who shovels berries into his mouth without a second thought. His hands and cheeks are quickly smeared with purple juices.
Full of berries for now, the expedition continues.
Monzel is an herbalist by training. He by no means lives off of foraging. In fact, a larger portion of his family’s diet comes from their backyard gardens. Calling himself an opportunistic forager, he picks berries and plants when he finds them on hikes.
"Going into the wild and even just getting a little bit of this or a little bit of that from wild foods can make a difference, I think, in the nutritional content of your diet," said Monzel.
Train whistles and helicopters can be heard off in the distance. Urban foraging lacks a certain Emersonian Transcendentalism. In other woods, this isn’t Walden Pond, but we’ve found some ripe service berries.
"These are beautiful, plumb service berries," Monzel noted. Hartford plucks them out of the plastic bucket almost as fast as his dad adds them.
"One reason I wanted to show you gathering berries in particular is that it’s well within the regulations of the city for harvesting in parks," said Monzel. "You can gather nuts and berries from trees and shrubs in city parks in Indianapolis."
On another stop, Monzel spots some wild carrot on the edge of the park. This one takes some care, wild carrot has a look-alike that is less appetizing. "One close relative to the wild carrot is poison hemlock," he said. "It’s something you don’t want to misidentify."
Monzel advises people interested in foraging to learn the plants you can’t eat first, since there are fewer of those.
On the way back from the walk, Monzel takes stock. "We’ve seen two species of mulberries, wild grapes, elderberries, plum, service berry and wild cherry. So that’s seven different types of wild fruit we’ve seen just on a short walk."
A short walk, but a belly full of berries.