Outdoor Fun

Foraging for edible delights on county soil

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While your city friends fight the crowds at Fairway and Zabars, paying top dollar for gourmet produce, you’ve got something better here in your own backyard: your own backyard. Westchester is brimming with organic wild foods, hidden anywhere there’s greenery. 

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I’m a naturalist who leads foraging tours throughout the region, and I’ve found that those daring enough to sample these wild foods are always amazed by their quality and quantity. (With apologies to Westchester Magazine, who needs “20 Meals Under $20” when you can have unlimited meals for nothing?)


  Common Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)


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What it is: The leaves of this plant taste like lettuce but with more oomph. Eat them raw or cooked.

When to pick it: Early spring to late fall.

Where to find it: In meadows and fields, along roadsides, near the seashore, and in unkempt gardens. I gather them on little-trafficked side streets in towns throughout Westchester.

How to identify it: The plant has long, lobed, toothed (serrated) leaves similar to its edible relative, the dandelion, but is bristly, and not thorny. The leaves are hairless. In early spring, the leaves radiate in a circle from the roots. In mid-spring, the plant bolts, reaching up to four feet tall, with a hollow stem and alternately configured (single), broad-based, triangular, stalkless leaves that taper at the base and clasp the stem. Older leaves turn grayish-green. The many yellow flowers, which bloom in the summer and fall, look like dandelions’, only smaller and fringed. The globular, white seed heads are also similar to but smaller than the dandelions’.

Nutritional bona fides, lore, and folk-medicine uses: An excellent source of vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and iron.


  Gingko (Gingko biloba)



What it is: The gingko tree’s dull orange globular fruit, which grows on female trees only, smells like…vomit. But be brave, for a hidden treasure lies within—a beige, almond-shaped, thin-shelled nut, enclosing a jade-green seed. The kernels can be eaten as an appetizer, or in soups, stews, or Asian dishes.

When to pick it: The fruit ripens in late fall.

Where to find it: When my wife-to-be lived in Fleetwood, we’d gather gingkoes from the lawns of apartment buildings opposite the post office, and no one ever complained. You’ll find gingko trees on urban and suburban streets and in cultivated parks.

How to identify it: The gingko is the oddest tree in Westchester (or anywhere else, for that matter). Its leaves, two to three inches across, are fan-shaped, with veins diverging from the leaf base and continuing to the leaf’s far end. The slender tree grows up to 90 feet tall. Inconspicuous strands of green, wind-pollinated flowers bloom in early spring. Unlike any other tree, the short, stubby twigs, most visible in the winter, look like bullets.

Nutritional bona fides, lore, and folk-medicine uses: Gingkoes provide bioflavonoids that increase circulation, strengthen capillaries, and, reputedly, improve memory. 

Notes on handling and preparation: Discard the fruit wearing rubber gloves, to keep your hands from smelling and to avoid the poison ivy-like rash the fruit sometimes incurs. Rinse the nuts in a colander and toast 30 minutes in a preheated, 300˚ F oven, stirring occasionally (raw nuts are poisonous). Tap the nuts with a water glass to crack the thin shells and remove the edible and delicious kernels.



  Puffballs (Clavatia and Lycoperdon species)



What they are: Puffballs are among the best tasting and easiest to identify mushrooms. Sauté them, add them to soups, stews, or casseroles, bread and bake them, or grill them. They have a rich earthy flavor, and a texture like marshmallows. But be very, very careful! There are no poisonous species of puffballs but one look-alike, the poison pigskin puffball, can make you sick enough that if you ate them, you’d wish you were dead!

When to pick them: Puffballs appear mainly in late summer and fall. Eat them in their immature states, when they’re white and very soft inside, like cream cheese.

Where to find them: Throughout Westchester’s woods, fields, and lawns.

How to recognize them: The giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) is the easiest to recognize. It grows on hard-packed soil or well-manured pastures, and looks like a white soccer ball, beach ball, or mass of Styrofoam.

Pear-shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme) grow packed into large troops, on dead logs and stumps. They’re off-white, pear-shaped, and the size of a golf ball or smaller. Look for them from mid- to late fall.

The gem-studded puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) is about the same size as the pear-shaped puffball, only it grows in the grass, and its surface is studded with tiny spines. They are most common in early autumn.

Caution: If you cut one open and there’s a cap, stem, and gills inside, you could have a deadly Amanita mushroom. And if it’s hard or purple-black inside, you have a poison pigskin puffball (not a true puffball), which causes severe gastrointestinal distress.

Nutritional bona fides: Wild mushrooms provide chitin, a non-soluble fiber that reputedly lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol. They’re also a good source of disease-fighting antioxidants.


  Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)



What they are: Wineberries are like store-bought raspberries, only much, much better! They’re great raw, or added to pies, sauces, jams, ice cream, etc.

When to pick them: The berries are at their peak when they’re dark red, usually in mid-July.

Where to find them: This common wild raspberry species grows in thickets and along the edges of woods throughout Westchester. My family and I gather them in the Nature Study Woods in New Rochelle every summer.

How to recognize them: The bristly, reddish, woody, arched stems, called canes, are even easy to recognize in the winter. The leaf is a three-parted compound (divided) leaf, similar to poison ivy, but the roundish leaflets (subdivisions) are toothed (serrated), and whitish underneath. A small, white, five-petaled flower blooms in the spring. Large, hollow, juicy, faceted, seedy raspberries ripen from orange to bright red, then to dark red. There are no poisonous look-alikes.

Nutritional bona fides/preparation notes: Wineberries provide vitamin C and various antioxidants. If you purée the fruit, strain out the
hard seeds.


  Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta)

What it is: One of the most common and best-tasting wild foods that adds a wonderful lemony flavor to any dish.

When to pick them: From April through October.

Where to find it: In gardens, backyards, meadows, and edges of fields.

How to recognize it: This medium-sized, non-woody plant has a small, three-parted compound leaf and a small, radially symmetrical, five-petaled yellow flower. The three leaflets are distinctly heart shaped. Don’t confuse yellow wood sorrel with clover, which has three oval leaves—no hearts. The fruit is a capsule less than one-half inch long, filled with tiny, globular, reddish seeds.

Nutritional bona fides: The edible leaves, flowers, and fruit capsules are rich in vitamin C.


Naturalist-Author “Wildman” Steve Brill leads foraging tours in the Greater New York area. He has authored three books. But he’s still best known for having been handcuffed and arrested by undercover park rangers for eating a dandelion in Central Park! To learn more, visit www.wildmanstevebrill.com.


The Must Follow Rules

For Safe Foraging


Before you go hunting for some of Westchester’s best free eats, here are some important tips for safe, ecologically responsible foraging:


1. When it doubt, leave it out (of the foraging basket)

Some poisonous wild plants resemble edible species.  


2. Start with low-risk items

Learn to recognize a few species that lack poisonous look-alikes and follow them through the seasons before expanding your reertoire.


3. Pick with precision

Watch what your picking so poisonous plants don’t inadvertantly wind up in the same bag with the edibles.


4. Test nibble

Eat small amounts of any new food the first time, in case of allergies or other unusual bad reactions.


5. Don’t be greedy

Collect only a small fraction of very common wild plants where they’re abundant. This makes for more efficient foraging with no ecological footprint.


6. Choose your hunting grounds with care

Avoid contaminated or sprayed areas such as railroad rights-of-way, which are sprayed.


7. Remember that where there’s nature, there’s dirt

Rinse off your harvest before preparing it.





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