Professional forager Dave Odd confidently declared that you could start a Sunday tour at Wilson Skate Park by identifying five edible plants right under your feet. Stepping forward, he pointed to a dandelion and called it “the most obvious edible plant.”
Growing in all temperate zones, there will always be some type of dandelion nearby, Odd said, and every part of the plant is edible.
One of Odd’s favorite parts are the flowers, which he said can be fried or made into vegan honey. But the real prize of the dandelion, according to Odd, is the root. He said the root can be cooked and eaten “just like potatoes.”
At his latest Eat the Parks event, Odd led a group of about 20 collectors around Montrose Beach and Montrose Point, identifying the names and uses of dozens of trees, flowers, grasses and mushrooms. Participants did not search for any of the identified plants. Instead, Odd taught the participants what features to look for when searching for edible plants in the future.
Odd said he held the event in various Chicago neighborhoods, Illinois state parks and cities throughout the Midwest during the April-October growing season, but Sunday was the first time he led a group in Montrose Beach and Montrose Point. .
He said he didn’t know what the group might see in the area before taking the tour.
“That’s the fun of it,” Odd said. “I choose new places all the time.”
Odd said there are entire families of plants and fungi that don’t have toxic members. Throughout the event, Odd taught participants how to narrow down plants to specific families that are always edible.
Shane Alden, whom Odd described as his protégé, occasionally chimed in to point out a plant. Odd said he met Alden last year on one of his tours, and is watching the tours so he can lead his own foraging parties in the future.
As the tour passed through the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, Alden pointed out Queen Anne’s lace, also known as the wild carrot plant. Some new collectors may confuse wild carrot with poison hemlock, she said, since they have similar flowers, but the key to identifying Queen Anne’s lace is the hairy stems.
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“Queen Anne has hairy legs,” he joked to the group.
Christy Jackson, a first-time Eat the Parks participant, said she found Odd’s Facebook page after searching for groups related to mushroom picking. She said that she was surprised to see so many edible plants growing in such an urban area during the tour.
“I didn’t expect there would be so much around us that you could eat,” Jackson said. “That you can, as she mentioned a few times, just pick up and lift and toss on your pancakes for a little extra nutrition.”
And for those mushroom-loving pickers like Jackson, the highlight of the tour was when Odd saw a yellow chicken of the woods growing on a hawthorn tree while the group was still near the skate park.
Odd said the mushrooms are named for their flavor, “it tastes legitimately like chicken,” adding that someone could revolutionize meat substitutes if he or she could grow the mushrooms reliably. To the astonishment of the participants, Odd said that he had never seen a chicken of the woods in Chicago before Sunday.
“I’m amazed that this is here,” Odd said.