I Harvested Fruit in the Middle of New York City

If we thought of our cities as more than concrete and steel, we'd see the ecosystem around us. Ilana Strauss

Some people can't venture into the countryside to look for wild plants and animals. Instead, they pick fruit in the most unexpected place on the planet: New York City.

Marissa Jansen* leads a group that plants gardens in the city and explores the "nature" of their urban environment through walking tours and harvests. Jansen treats street trees and bushes as ecosystems, rather than ornaments.

She isn't the only person to view the city landscape in this light. Groups like Backyard Harvest, Forage Oakland, the Philadelphia Orchard Project and the Portland Fruit Tree Project teach people how to find fruit trees in their areas as urban foraging increases in popularity everywhere.

Fallingfruit.org, for instance, provides an interactive map showing potential harvests around the world. I found out that I can pick honey locust, small-leaved linden and ginkgo fruit on the block by my apartment. I'd never tried any of these plants before, likely because they just aren't popular in grocery stores. But that's the point: there are thousands of edible plants in the world; local stores carry only a fraction of them.

(*Marissa Jansen is a pseudonym. She asked that her real name be withheld.)

Mulberries everywhere

Fallen mulberries on a Brooklyn street
There's fruit just lying around the streets of Brooklyn. Ilana Strauss

To learn more about this hidden world in plain sight, I joined Jansen's group on a mulberry harvest in Brooklyn.

The city is full of mulberry trees, which grow delicious berries that ripen in June. People generally don't pick them; rather, they just let them fall on the ground. (City people think fruit comes from supermarkets, not trees.) As a result, it's easy to spot mulberry trees because the sidewalk underneath is stained a bright purple and covered with berries in various stages of decay.

We walked a few blocks and came to a mulberry tree. As we were picking, a young woman walking down the street stopped us.

"What are you doing?" she asked. We explained and offered her some berries. She was hesitant at first, but she eventually took to our strange enterprise and picked with us for a while. An old woman across the street was much more enthusiastic, yelling out encouragement as we picked.

As we searched for more trees, Jansen pointed out other edible plants. A grape vine here, garlic plants there ... I'd walked by these plants a million times, but I'd always thought of them as decorations. Now, the city looked different to me. It wasn't just a heap of concrete and wires. Rather, it was a real ecosystem with plants and animals, just like any other.

More urban, less garden

A small bulldozer places the remains of a city garden into a dumpster
This is what was left of a community garden we were going to visit. Ilana Strauss

By the end of the harvest, we had a tough time finding more trees.

"I think there’s one in a community garden nearby," said Jansen.

We arrived at the garden, only to discover a bulldozer instead of plants. Ironically, the city had decided to tear down the garden that day to replace it with apartments. All the plants were gone, including rose bushes that Marissa said may have been growing there for over a hundred years.

"It was so beautiful," reminisced Jansen, sadly. "So overgrown."

The garden was now a wasteland, plants in a Dumpster.

"I wish they'd at least let people know before they tear these things down, so we could take the plants," she sighed.

As fate would have it, only one plant was left standing: a mulberry tree. The construction crew let us sneak in and pick some berries.

"We used to pick berries around the city in Puerto Rico," reminisced one member of the crew.

I popped a plump berry into my mouth. Out of all the berries I'd picked that day, that one was the sweetest.