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Within 60 seconds of arriving at Crosby Farm Regional Park, Hope Flanagan starts rummaging for firewood amid the leaf litter in a stand of silver maple trees.
She’s about to lead a group of about 15 people on a foraging lesson on a cloudy, 36-degree April afternoon. Flanagan, 64, has been sharing her passion for plants and the outdoors in various capacities since she was 2 years old and mistook a yellow water lily root for an animal.
Flanagan, who is Seneca, grew up in New York and Wisconsin, and learned to forage from elders. Now, she serves as a community outreach and culture teacher for Dream of Wild Health, a nonprofit organization that manages a working farm in Hugo, Minnesota, and runs programs such as the Indigenous Food Network. Its mission is to restore the health of Native people and rebuild sovereign food systems (that is, food production that is self-sufficient and sustainable).
Such work is important in Native communities, which experience some of the worst health effects of the industrial American food system. Indigenous people are 1.5 times more likely than white people to have obesity and almost three times as likely as white people to have diabetes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s a tough job to undo years of surviving on white flour and sugar,” Flanagan says. “So how do you start rebuilding ways of connecting with tribal people and traditions?”
A big part of the answer, Flanagan believes, is connecting young Native people with elders. She learned most of what she knows about “picking” from Ojibwe elders who foraged in northern Minnesota. And she’s been teaching young people in Minnesota in various forms since graduating in 1982 from the University of Minnesota with a degree in education. Across her career, she has taught in an Ojibwe immersion classroom, worked at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum, spent six years in drug and alcohol prevention for Minneapolis Public Schools, and even worked at Ranger Rick magazine in North Carolina.
Today she’s leading a group drawn from organizations that partner with Dream of Wild Health. In the busy season, Flanagan leads multiple groups per week, including youth groups at the farm in Hugo.
Crosby Farm Regional Park—at 500 acres, the largest natural park in St. Paul—overlooks the juncture of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. This is the area known as Bdote by Dakota people, and Fort Snelling by European arrivals. In addition to the floodplain forest we’re exploring today, waterfalls gush here in spring and a hidden slot canyon beckons to hikers.
We’re also just a couple of miles from the airport.
Crosby Farm is a good place to learn about foraging, Flanagan says, though she usually heads out of the city to find a better ratio of plants to people. Now, Flanagan pulls on a black skirt dotted with yellow and blue and red flowers (it goes over her jeans) and black Lacrosse hiking boots. The group has gathered at the shelter near the parking lot. She arranges the wood in the firepit and shares a story from her elders that explains why plants help humans, the weakest beings.
“The trickster took pity on the people and said, ‘OK, plants and animals, what can you give? Offer at least one gift,’” she says. “So every plant and animal has gifts for the humans, and our job is to find out what they are.”
Flanagan looks around as the group gathers. “This is a great place for woodland nettles,” she says. “I should go get some now.”
She’s off to the silver maples, returning with a grin and a bundle of seven or so nettles, a familiar forest plant, with clusters of ridged leaves. (Foragers often use scientific names for accuracy, as a lot of common plant names may refer to a dozen totally different species. This woodland nettle, for instance, is Laportea canadensis. Good to know before you put an unfamiliar plant on your plate.)
One gift of this native plant, Flanagan explains, is that its fiber can be used for fish nets. She demonstrates how to do it by bending it in the middle and rubbing the two halves together. Another gift is the leaves, which are high in vitamin K and have a buttery taste when cooked into a tea or vegetable stock.
It feels like we’ve been let in on a secret, hiding in plain sight. Indigenous Food Network program coordinator Kateri Tuttle books Flanagan for foraging outings as often as possible. By getting people excited about hunting for foods and medicinal plants through elders such as Flanagan, “people can incorporate those foods and be the master of their own health journey,” Tuttle says. “Foods have been so colonized.”
Ojibwe elders from northern Minnesota taught Flanagan how to tune in and listen while foraging, or “picking.” She recalls that she learned Ojibwe after a dream from which she awoke, sobbing, because she couldn’t understand the language that eagles were speaking to her. An elder told her learning Objibwe would help her to better hear nature.
“All of a sudden you’ll hear, ‘Me! Pick me! I have a gift to give,’” Flanagan says. “Or, ‘not me!’”
Either way, she says, always put down tobacco as an offering before taking the life of a plant.
A chickadee twitters, and Flanagan follows it to a balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera).
“By the end of February, you can pick the buds,” she says. Before picking one, she counts them, explaining that she doesn’t want to take more than the plant can sustainably spare. She squashes one tiny bud, and passes it around for people to sniff. You can use it for pain relief, she says. It’s especially potent when simmered in bear fat.
“Ooooooh, yay!” she exclaims several yards farther down a path. “This is exciting. This little feathery one.”
The delicate white flower is a spring ephemeral, she explains, called Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), because they look like little white pants. Spring ephemerals bloom in the first weeks of spring before leaves appear on the surrounding trees, she says.
“I just want to thank this plant for being here,” she says. But then she warns us not to eat it—“it’s really toxic. Be careful. You can die.”
Nearby, though, she points to a perfect plant for eating: garlic mustard, or Alliaria petiolata. The non-native species, with green leaves that look like they’ve been cut by a pinking shears, is not native to Minnesota; in fact, it’s a fast-spreading invasive plant that naturalists abhor. But it makes a great pesto, she says.
“And these that are just uncurling are violets!” she says, a few feet later. “All violets are edible, and they’re high in Vitamin A.”
We’re trodding our way down a muddy path toward Lake Crosby. It’s slow progress because Flanagan finds so many treasures that most people would overlook. She gushes at each stop, and it’s hard not to catch her enthusiasm.
“I love this one,” she announces of a wood avens root (Geum urbanum) with its clusters of three leaves. “It’s a really astringent root. You can grind it to a powder to stop bleeding.”
Flanagan is standing just off the path in a sea of brown leaves and brush. Derek Nicholas, a nutritionist at Division of Indian Work who collaborates with Dream of Wild Health, points to a red oak leaf.
“This is a good find!” Flanagan exclaims, pointing out an oak gall attached to the leaf. An insect has buried an egg in the leaf, creating the fragile brown ball. She tells a story about the trickster—a familiar figure in Ojibwe oral histories and stories—shrinking into a gall and rolling across Lake Superior.
Different climate, different plants
Parts of Crosby Farm lie in a floodplain, and in spring the waters often rise up into the park. But in recent years, the landscape has seemed more unsettled. Earth has washed over and buried some of the paved pathways. Dozens of ash trees have blown down—victims of the invasive Emerald ash borer. Flanagan attributes it to climate change, which has altered the landscape of foraging, she says.
She points toward another non-native species next, tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatrica), which has displaced the native elderberries that used to thrive here.
“Everything is a roll of the dice now because of climate change,” she says—and not only at Crosby Farm, but in northern Minnesota as well. “The Earth is really struggling with biodiversity and climate change is making it multiple times harder. A lot of the areas I would pick were on fire last summer. And no way am I going to pick berries when the bears and birds don’t have enough to eat.”
The fires up north last summer were a wake-up call, she says. She points back to the garlic mustard. “That’s the perfect example,” she says. “It toxifies the soil for native plants. It builds colonies so the native plants can’t come up. The non-native species are coming from an environment where they were controlled by the environment, so here they don’t know how to live in balance.”
[Story continues after the break]
Foraging in Minnesota: If you go
If you want to try foraging yourself, it’s important to know two things from the start: where you are legally allowed to pick, and what’s safe to pick.
Many states have blanket no-picking rules, Flanagan says. Minnesota offers many places to forage, but it can take some digging to figure out the rules.
“You have to do the homework or get permission from people to pick on their land,” Flanagan says.
University of Minnesota extension education Amy Rager, a forager herself, says that picking on someone’s land with permission is a great place to start.
“Private property where you know the owner is the best place,” she says. “And there are many people with private properties who would let people forage, but they’ve never been asked.”
Another option is a Minnesota State Park. Foraging is allowed in state parks if you’re using your findings for personal consumption. Picking wildflowers, however, is not allowed in state parks—even if they’re edible.
The rules that govern foraging in city and regional parks are complicated. For example, “harvesting” is permitted in most Minneapolis city parks, but “foraging” isn’t. It may sound like a nuisance, but call the local parks department before you head out. (The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also offers some tips on foraging and invasive plants.)
Another prime rule: Don’t mess around with safety.
“You have to know what you’re going to pick,” Rager stresses. “Don’t guess. You can die.”
When her kids were little, Rager told them to think, “red, you’re dead.” Red is a warning sign in nature, she says: “It signals, something is different here.” There are exceptions (think berries like strawberries and raspberries), but it’s an easy rule that may help you stay on the safe side.
Other suggestions for newbies: Go with experienced foragers, and pick just two things to hunt for your first year.
“Learn everything you can about those two, including how to cook with them, and then every year add two more,” Rager suggests.
When you find something you want to pick, make sure you leave enough for the plant to reseed itself and grow again, Rager says. Good foragers never pick more than half, she says, and Flanagan’s rule is “count to 13; pick one.”
Also, look up scientific names of plants in a guide like Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers, Flanagan suggests, since common names can refer to many different plants. Or check a reputable website such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Lastly, Flanagan says, “be present in the moment,” she says. “Be thankful, speak up for plants and water. The objective is to stay in balance with your mind, emotions, body and spirit. If we don’t have that we won’t survive.”
Five feet away, she finds a copse of young hackberries. Known in the plant trade as Celtis occidentalis, this is a common street tree in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But most locals probably don’t know that the berries taste like dates, she says, and the branches can make longbows.
She rhapsodizes over Virginia water leaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) and greets juneberries (Amelanchier spp.) that taste like blueberries and feature seeds that taste like vanilla. “I get really happy when I see these,” she says.
She points out motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), and pauses in front of black sanicle (Sanicula canadensis). “There’s a lot I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know how to use this.”
But within yards, she points to a half-dozen more familiar plants, rattling off their names and uses. There’s mullein (Verbascum thapsus), its soft leaves glittering with raindrops: She uses this one for tea or mixed with tobacco for smoking or offerings. There’s dandelion, known in Objiwe as milkroot (Taraxicum officinale). It’s not native to Minnesota, but you can use the whole plant: the root for a tea or coffee substitute, the flower for wine.
While she walks, she stops to pick up a plastic bottle, a piece of styrofoam, and a discarded plastic bag, tucking them under her arm.
Everywhere Flanagan looks, she sees a useful plant. Bladdernuts (Staphylea trifolia), which has leaves shaped like footballs, only appears in the shade, near big rivers. The nuts taste like almonds—if you can get to them before animals do. Wild grape vines (Vitis spp.) can be boiled into a drink for blood purification. Or eat the foxy grapes in September.
“Do you worry about pollution in an area like this?” one of the participants asks, standing near a hill that’s washed out from the rain and the snowmelt.
Flanagan sighs—clearly, the answer is yes.
“I pray about it,” she answers. “I put down tobacco and ask, am I supposed to pick here? But…food you buy in the store probably has more pesticides and herbicides…so, eat as clean as you can.”
Someone points to a thick root with leaves sprouting out of it.
“Ooooooh, oooh, oooh, oooh, exciting! This is a controversial one,” she explains. Naturalists aren’t sure whether Arctium lappa, also known as burdock root, was here before Europeans settled in Minnesota. “You’d pay a lot of money for burdock root at a co-op,” she says, snapping it in two to reveal the white center. (If the center is yellow, she notes, don’t eat it).
It tastes like a woody carrot, she says, and can be mixed with dandelion root for a medicinal tea. The leaves can be used to wrap duck before you bake it in an underground oven.
‘Out in the woods, it was safe’
Flanagan stops at a glen on a hill near the lake, pointing out goldenrod, field daisy greens, wild ginger, and trout lilies along the way. Areas like this, with plenty of leaf litter, are rich in spring ephemerals, she says. Then she eyes the group to make sure everyone else will be able to follow her down a steep hill off-trail. She credits plants for keeping her young.
At the bottom of the hill, she points to a bright green sprout with shiny leaves. “Yay! Thank you for being here,” she tells the much-sought-after wild ramp, or Allium tricoccum.
Flanagan rarely stops smiling during the walk. Being in the woods has always erased Flanagan’s worries, at least temporarily. Growing up in New York and Wisconsin, she often retreated to the woods.
“Inside the home it didn’t always feel safe and it was scary, but out in the woods it was safe,” she says. “You get to know the plants and how dependable they are. When they come up it’s like seeing old friends: ‘Oh, there you are.’”
And this day is no exception. She laughs.
“Doesn’t this just lift your spirit up? It’s so great to see young Native folks out here. I’m just happy.”
Plants communicate through the air, she tells the group, and they contain uplifting aerosols. Despite the misty, breezy cold that has chilled us, we will likely feel better later tonight, she says. It’s another gift of the plants.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR NOW
Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris)
Look for this succulent in moist or marshy areas. Thick stems grow 1-2 feet tall, topped by large yellow flowers. Parts of this plant are edible, but other parts are toxic; newbies should admire this one without consuming it.
“Zigzag” goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)
Look for this in woodlands. The leaves have pointy tips and jagged “teeth,” and the stems often zigzag, making it easy to identify.
Aunt Lucy (Ellisia nyctelea)
This plant is everywhere, Flanagan says, but people often miss it. Spot it by its hairy stem and wide leaves divided into 7-13 segments.
WHAT TO TRY COOKING
Nettle (Utrica dioica)
“Stinging nettle is everywhere,” Rager says. “And now is the time to cook it.” In addition to pesto, you can swap it out for spinach in almost any dish, she says.
Cattails (Typha latifolia)
Cattails have lots of edible parts, Rager says. The tuber has a cucumber-y taste. You can even use the pollen as a substitute for flour. In the spring, try boiling and eating them like corn on the cob.
WORKSHOPS: FORAGING 101
The Indigenous Food Network isn’t currently offering workshops for the general public, but community partners can find info on upcoming walks here (If you would like to learn more about partnering with Indigenous Food Network or Dream of Wild Health, contact Kateri Tuttle at email@example.com).
You can also find local workshops offered by other local foraging experts, including: