By Howard Meyerson
Lisa Rose was smiling when she handed me a leaf and asked if I wanted to taste it, humorously questioning whether I was brave enough to eat it. It was long and green with serrated edges, plucked off a nettle — a stinging nettle as some call them — a plant I grudgingly know.
“Roll them (so the hairs are inside) and it won’t sting you,” Rose advised, showing me how and popping one in her mouth.
“The nutrient value in these — oh my gosh,” Rose gushed with characteristic enthusiasm. “It’s high in plant protein, about 20 grams per serving and it’s delicious.”
Skeptically, I followed suit, still uncertain about chewing it up, anticipating a flash of pain. But its flavor was distinctive, even tasty — something akin to spinach.
It went down without incident, a perfect coda for our walk through a local park where we sampled a variety of plants from chicory and elderberry to sumac and monarda fistulosa, a plant from the mint family similar to oregano.
It is also known as bee balm.
Rose is a professional herbalist, writer, teacher and wild food forager. Her new book, “Midwest Foraging; 115 wild and flavorful edibles from burdock to wild
peach,” is a must-have for anyone who likes to forage. It was published this summer by Timber Press and is a remarkable piece of work, offering beautiful photos and hundreds of useful tips about when, how and where to harvest edible plants.
It is available online and from a variety of booksellers.
As we walked through the park, we chatted about the ethics of picking wild edibles. They play an increasing role in the local-food movement and are offered at chic dining establishments.
“Gathering nuts and parts (of plants) is one thing; in national parks, you can gather parts, but physically removing the plant is another thing,” said Rose, who resides in Ada with her two children and Rosie, her golden retriever.
“Local parks don’t have (the same legal) language to protect the plants. I’m not sure that it has been a problem, but I’ve watched chefs take out bags of ramps (wild leeks) and post it on Facebook. I’ve watched ramps disappear from Grand Rapids.
“Poaching happens. And it is poaching.”
A family affair
Rose came by her field instincts as a young girl growing up near Lake Michigan.
She recalls her mother’s overgrown vegetable garden. What grew was served at the table, or was canned or made into preserves. Wild edibles were part of the family table fare.
“Wild foods were part of my childhood,” said Rose, who studied anthropology as an undergraduate before getting her Master’s Degree in public administration and non-profit management.
She eventually founded Mixed Greens, a nonprofit focused on school gardens and nutrition education that eventually merged with Blandford Nature Center, in Grand Rapids, where she became the executive director in 2007 and 2008.
Today, Rose is busy as a full-time writer who focuses on health, wellness, herbs and foraging. She teaches classes and does private consultations.
Her blog and business — Burdock & Rose — can be found online at burdockandrose.com.
Scroll down the page there, and you will find an inscription to her father, the dedication from her new book. It says: “To my dad for teaching me to listen to the earth.”
It is something Rose does very well. She is concerned about the conservation of wild plants and human health and nutrition.
They are inextricably entwined, she said.
“My dad passed away last fall. He never got to see the book. He was a visionary,” Rose shared when we had stopped to taste the green, spicy leaves of the monardo fistulosa, while a handful of bumblebees lit on its pink blossoms.
Bee balm long has been used as a medicinal plant by Native Americans.
“My dad said pay attention to the bees. We were in his garage. It was 1984. He would tell me ‘If we don’t take care of the bees, we won’t have any of the fruits you love.'”
Rose handed me one of the small green leaves. The flowers leaves and stems can be eaten, used as spice or boiled to make tea. I chewed it up without hesitation. Strong hints of Italian food followed.
“Delicious, isn’t it?” Rose asked.
It was. I had to agree.