The weed eaters
Edible plants grow throughout our towns and cities: in verges, margins, berms, parks and empty sections, along driveways, pavements and hedgerows. The trick is knowing what to look for.
A dozen women gather in the shadow of Maungawhau/Mount Eden, a volcanic cone and popular park in the centre of Auckland. We met each other on the internet, in a Facebook group called Super Rad Babes Who Do Fun Things, an attempt at community in this fractured city where none of us live anywhere long enough to put down roots. One woman I met when I rented her apartment. Another is my powerlifting coach. Another is about to teach us how to forage for food.
I’m here because I’m very interested in plants, and I’m very interested in eating them, but I have no idea which ones taste nice.
Bella Burgess is a weed controller and a park ranger, two jobs that enable her main hobby: foraging. She and her partner, Nate McKenzie, spend their spare time tracking down edible plants, and McKenzie, a chef, supplies some of New Zealand’s best restaurants with wild ingredients. Some of those wild ingredients grow along their driveway.
Foragers have a code of ethics, says Burgess. She never takes more than a third of something—she leaves a third for the plant itself, and another third for things that eat the plant. But that applies only to introduced plants. When it comes to native species, she takes little, and collects only in times of plenty. Anyway, she says, most native plants taste revolting—edible, but unpalatable—so foragers usually seek out weeds.
“There are so many introduced weeds to gather,” she says. “Honestly, you can just take as many of them as you want. Most of them shouldn’t be there.”
Burgess leads us along the small dirt paths criss-crossing the maunga, up and down its steep woodlandy sides, stopping us every few minutes to point out something new. We eat wild brassica, which tastes like spicy broccoli, and pick the pea-flavoured tips of vetch, and the bitter green leaves of pūhā, a weed I’ve pulled out of countless gardens. Nasturtium flowers have a burst of sweetness, then heat. The young leaves of the pink flamingo tree taste like meat—one woman christens it “beef leaf”—while oxalis flowers are tiny explosions of lemony flavour. “They taste like Fruit Bursts,” says my powerlifting coach.
Burgess finds a lone feijoa tree and shows us how to pinch the petals from around the flower while leaving the stamens intact to develop into fruit. You can do this with all kinds of citrus flowers, she says. The petals taste just like what the flower will become.
“I’m sure a lot of you know this one,” says Burgess, as we round a corner and the sharp scent of onion weed reaches us.
“The flower stems are like a triangle—they’ve got three sides. That’s how you can tell them apart from snowdrops, which are poisonous. And snowdrops don’t smell oniony. This is one of my favourites, grows absolutely everywhere, really hard to get rid of if you don’t want it. And you can eat every part of it—so flowers, stems, leaves, bulbs. All edible. Really good as a spring onion replacement.”
“If you pull up onion weed in a park, people will think you’re doing everyone a favour.”
She pulls out a jar of pickled onion-weed bulbs and passes them around for us to try.
“It’s like Noma, isn’t it?” says one woman, referring to the Danish restaurant that made foraging fancy. Noma, often declared the best restaurant in the world, made chefs everywhere start looking under their own feet for flavours, for the taste of a place.
Burgess learned about foraging in London, where the English have special words for different forms of it. Brambling for berries. Scrumping for apples. But New Zealanders often think that foraging is a form of trespassing, she says, and laughs: “We’re such rule-followers.” The idea of eating part of a public park seems illegal. If you could just pick a snack wherever you went, surely everyone would do it. Surely it’s not allowed. Surely there’s a catch.
Perhaps there is. Don’t collect anything at dog height, warns Burgess. Knowing what to eat also involves knowing what you can’t eat. She points out Queen Anne’s lace, which tastes like peppery carrots, and its lookalike, hemlock, which kills.
But my favourite is a spray of white blossoms, which Burgess reaches up to pick from a tree with long, dangling fronds. This is a black locust tree, she says. The name makes zero sense.
By now, the sun has set and the sky is violet, the dusk thick with humidity as I follow the group down the side of Maungawhau, picking blossoms from the stem and popping them in my mouth several at a time. If the colour green had a flavour, this would be it. They’re as crunchy as snow peas, but sweeter, more fragrant, with an aftertaste like honey. They look a bit like wisteria, I decide.
“Can you eat wisteria, too?” I ask.
“They taste like old socks,” says Burgess. “I’ve tried multiple times, but they still taste like old socks.”
The lights of Auckland glimmer in a single layer beneath us. It feels like we’ve all been let in on a secret, one that exists in plain sight in the middle of the city. We carry the secret home in our bellies.
On a country road in Canterbury, fields bisected by hedgerows, Peter Langlands is cruising for elder trees. He’s promised an Auckland restaurant a box of elderflower, and it’ll probably be the last one of the year: the flowers are starting to turn floppy, tiny green berries appearing.
Langlands spots something in the berm and we pull over. A small embankment separates road from field, with a tangle of weeds stretching towards the sky. He walks up to one of the tallest ones, reaches down to grip it close to the ground, and pulls. A long, pale root pops free, sprinkling dirt. Then the fragrance hits me, sweet and earthy, and I can identify it by its smell: parsnip.
I wade through the weeds to one and tug: resistance, then it gives. The whole plant, root to leaf tip, is taller than I am.
This berm is particularly good, says Langlands. When I look closely, I can see the scribble of weeds resolving into plants I now recognise: hedge mustard, yarrow, mallow flowers.
“I mean, you’ve got huge biodiversity on roadsides,” he says.
On this side, at least. Across the road, the berm has been cut back, and there’s nothing to collect.
Langlands—former fisheries observer, bird researcher, fishing guide—is something of a nature freelancer. When he talks about hunting for mushrooms, or listening for the boom of bitterns in a wetland, or trying to turn wild plantains into crackers, he has a serious, childlike concentration about him, and a quick, shy grin that’s gone in an instant.
Lately, Langlands been deluged by requests from chefs to take their staff on foraging workshops. Finding what grows within five kilometres of their restaurant, that kind of thing. He’s off to Kaikōura tomorrow to do just that.
A car pulls up and idles beside us on the road. Murray Dulieu owns these fields and is wondering what we’re doing. Langlands shows him the bouquet of parsnips, and Dulieu says he’s planning to get onto mowing this bit in the next couple of days—not the embankment but the berm. No one in Canterbury wants to leave long, dry grass lying around, not on the cusp of summer.
We pop around the corner to Dulieu’s house, where Langlands advises puréeing the berm parsnips, and Dulieu’s wife, Nellie, contemplates its possibilities.
“You get a more intense flavour out of wild plants,” says Langlands.
“Did you leave any for us?” she asks, joking. She turns to her husband. “Bring some back and I’ll cook it up and use it.”
When we finally reach one of Langlands’ usual elderflower spots, the trees have been cut back, flowers gone. He’s not fussed. This happens in foraging: you lose some places, gain others. He finds another hedgerow straight away.
“These ones here are really primo,” he says.
Up close, the flowers are arrayed like a burst of fireworks exploding from the stem. Under our feet is a blackberry bramble, and when the sun comes out, the scent of the ripening berries rises to mix with the strange fragrance of elderflower: a combination of honeydew melon and cupboards that no one has opened for months.
Langlands forages for restaurants maybe two days a week. He could do it full-time, but he doesn’t want to. “I’m not really doing this to make money. It keeps me covered, but it really just allows me to do more things I’m interested in,” he says.
Like what? “Develop recipes with chefs, develop food resilience on a local scale with chefs, work in with a lot of the key environmental-advocacy issues. It’s really the bigger-picture part of it that excites me.”
The part where Langlands teaches people to value the world around them differently, to see it properly, bringing it into focus. If he’s a revolutionary, he’s the gentlest one I’ve met. “There’s definitely an act of defiance or rebellion with foraging,” he says. “It’s pretty subtle, but there is. Just cause you’re taking stuff from overlooked areas.”
But he’s concerned about the gradual disappearance of what he calls “edge environments”—the lush hedgerows and verges. “A lot of the edge environments have been converted into farmland, especially along the larger braided rivers,” he says. “If you go north of Christchurch it’s quite different. It’s a lot more intensified than this.”
“We need feral parks,” says Bella Burgess, as we cross the newly cut grass down to the estuary on the edge of Te Atatū. Across the bay I can faintly see the silhouette of Auckland’s skyscrapers.
Mown grass is a desert for foragers—and everything else, too. Lawns, I’ve learned, are a good way of keeping everything out. Yet up to 20 per cent of New Zealand’s public spaces are mown grass, like this one.
Overseas, councils are experimenting with “no-mow” meadows, and there are a couple in Auckland, but it’s a hard sell. A lawn is tidy. A lawn is responsible. A lawn shows that you are a good neighbour.
Having a wild meadow out the front is the visual equivalent of playing loud music at 11pm on a Tuesday. And so Aucklanders spend about $131 million every year on their lawns—and that’s not counting how much the council spends on mowing parks.
Burgess’s partner, Nate McKenzie, is ahead scouting for coastal greens. He places a small electric scale down on the sand so he can weigh what he’s collected so far.
“Just a wee bit of samphire,” he says.
“Are we going for the nice green stuff or would you like a mix of colours?” asks Burgess.
“Nah, go with the really nice green stuff,” says McKenzie, and he holds some out to me to try. It’s salty and crunchy: “The acridness you get right at the end there disappears after blanching,” he tells me.
This will be a garnish, McKenzie tells me, like most of what he forages. “These are supporting characters. These are just to add depth and interest into a dish.”
This coastal plant, with its fleshy, jointed stem, is also called ureure, which translates from te reo as “penis penis”. It’s easy to imagine people laughing at it as they pass by.
McKenzie keeps careful records of what he takes, and where, and how well each plant recuperates from a harvest. There’s still the faintest Southland accent in his voice. He’s from a tiny town, Benhar, which used to be known for making toilets. The McSkimming ceramic factory closed in the 1980s, but back in the day, everyone had a McSkimming loo. Burgess, who grew up in Auckland, remembers looking at the town on a map as a kid and thinking, “What kind of a name is Benhar?”
We head out to the west coast, passing through the slatted light of nīkau palms, and McKenzie is delighted to find that a patch of beach spinach has resprouted enthusiastically after his last visit. He snips unblemished sprigs, while I’m no help at all. I sit on the ground next to the bush and eat it leaf by leaf. It’s like ordinary spinach, but more interesting: crunchier and lemony.
New Zealand used to have really great coastal plant, says Burgess, and it used to grow all over the place: Cook’s scurvy grass, so named because it provided early European visitors with necessary vitamins. Now, it’s a cautionary tale. It’s been eaten so extensively that it’s critically endangered.
If everyone foraged, would we strip the land? Wellington author Johanna Knox (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, Ngāti Ranginui, Tangata Tiriti), who wrote the book on foraging in New Zealand, thinks that eating the environment is a pretty good way of reconnecting with it. She reckons foraging could resurrect the idea of the commons—not just the tragedy of it. It could bring back the concept of places that are used and maintained by people for each other—and for future generations.
That idea has been largely lost from the Pākehā world, but it’s remained intact in te ao Māori. Despite the destruction of traditional food-gathering areas, despite the theft of land, the depletion of resources, and the loss of kōrero about how different species are prepared—despite all of that, the philosophy of how to gather food sustainably remains intact. It’s the concept of kaitiakitanga.
“A big difference between Western environmentalism and Māori kaitiakitanga is how they see humans in the environment,” says Knox. “So in Pākehā conservation, it’s like, ‘We must keep these areas pristine. Nobody can take anything from here,’ but in te ao Māori it’s like, ‘People are part of the landscape. It’s a reciprocal relationship, so of course we’re taking stuff.’
“So I come at foraging from the perspective that if you get right out there and involve yourself in the landscape—which means taking what you can, but respectfully and sustainably and at the same time giving back—that’s just a really good way to do things.”
Raglan ecologist and rongoā practitioner Mahuru Wilcox (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Ranginui) echoes Knox. She forages native plants traditionally used for medicinal purposes for her small business, Hau Botanicals.
“How can you teach people to value something if you can’t connect to it?” she asks. “These [plants] are valued because they were important as kai or as rongoā or they were important as ancestors, as tūpuna. If you’re really thinking of our world around us as our tūpuna, as our ancestors, how would you respect your tūpuna? So using those principles for how you connect.”
Wilcox seeks the permission of her local iwi to forage, as she isn’t living within the rohe of her own iwi. She gathers according to the maramataka, the lunar calendar, and only when plants are healthy and flourishing. That means there are limits, she says. Living things aren’t available on demand. During last summer’s long drought, she collected nothing between December and April.
Even in the most densely populated parts of the city, plants move through the cycles of the year. Retreating into their roots to conserve water, springing forth with new shoots. Exploding into colour for a week or two.
“It’s such a reminder in your daily life as a human that everything has a season,” says Wilcox.
Over time, you start to see it: the living calendar, the shifts in weather and sunlight reflected in the plants changing, day by day, in all the gaps between the fixed and immobile parts of the city.
Whether due to the COVID-19 lockdowns or a heightened interest in survivalism, there was a surge of interest in foraging in 2020. Knox’s book is being reissued, and Langlands has been commissioned to write one.
“People are scared,” Knox says. “There’s some sort of deep kind of need, I think, that kicks in in times of disaster, even if you don’t admit to yourself quite what you’re fearing. I think people do, deep down, have quite apocalyptic fears about control being taken away from them, and I think people just really want to know that they could rely on themselves and their own skills if they had to.”
It’s a romantic ideal. None of New Zealand’s foragers are assembling entire meals from plants. But it speaks to an impulse from urban New Zealanders—the vast majority of us—to become more adept at nature.
Imagine being able to name everything you see—the flower that tastes like Fruit Bursts, the flower that tastes like old socks. Nothing around you a stranger.