At 11:45 AM on Sunday, December 1, America's go-to guy for foraging, "Wildman" Steve Brill will lead one of his world-famous foraging tours of Central Park, his last public event of his 31st year of foraging tours, beginning at West 72nd St. and Central Park West.
Thanks to its varied habitats and combination of native and introduced species, Central Park is a great place for edible and medicinal wild plants and mushrooms in late fall, even on the last foraging tour of the year. Herbs, greens, nuts, berries, and mushrooms will all be in season simultaneously.
The spectacular fruit and berries will surprise even seasoned naturalists. Tart crab apples will be everywhere, and they're ripe only now, when they appear rotten. Bite into one and you'll be astonished by the flavor and texture of very tart applesauce or tamarind.
Another great fruit that is only good at the end of the season, and when it looks rotten, is the American persimmon. Smaller that the commercial Asian variety, it has way more flavor. But you have to wait until it's ugly and ripe before you bite into it, or it will taste terribly astringent. This is the last wild fruit of the season to ripen, but it's so good, it's well worth the wait.
Another fruit is the pod of the Kentucky coffee tree, growing a few minutes walk north of the Boathouse. The seeds inside the inedible pods and on the ground make the world's best-tasting caffeine-free coffee substitute, even though this leguminous tree isn't related to coffee.
Burdock is one of the tastiest and most healthful root vegetables. It's an expensive detoxifying herb when you find it in health food stores, but it abounds in cultivated areas throughout Central Park. Remnants of the decaying leaves reveal the taproots' locations.
Sassafras is another tree that grows in thickets throughout the park. You can boil the taproots of the invasive saplings (which park workers weed out) to make a tea, and chill the tea and add sparkling water and sweetener to make root beer. You can also use the outer layer of the taproot as a spicy seasoning, like cinnamon.
Everyone will also find plenty of leafy green vegetables on this tour. They include chickweed, which tastes like corn on the cob, garlicky garlic mustard, bitter-savory dandelion greens, and field garlic, which you use like chives.
While most nut trees are already out of season, Central Park's ginkgotrees will be at their peak. Inside a malodorous orange fruit you'll find a white, almond-shaped kernel with a soft green nut inside. This Chinese delicacy tastes like a combination of green peas and Limburger cheese. Sold in health food stores and advertised on TV, Ginkgo biloba improves circulation and immune function.
Given enough rain beforehand, gourmet oyster mushrooms and Japanese enoki mushrooms may be emerging from trees and stumps, a fitting close to the 2012 foraging season.
The 4-hour walking tour begins at 11:45 AM, Sunday, December 1, at 72nd St. and Central Park West. The suggested donation is $20/adult, $10/child under 12. Please call (914)[masked] at least 24 hours in advance to reserve a place. For additional info, visit [masked].