One person's weeds are another's gourmet lunch. There's plenty of bush tucker to be found in your neighbourhood if you know where to look, as Katherine Kizilos discovers.
On a sunny spring day Adam Grubb, self-styled weed enthusiast, is picking his way over stepping stones in the northern reaches of the Merri Creek. Clumps of watercress crowd the water's edge, shaded by hawthorn and willows. On the surrounding banks rogue artichokes grow, along with dock, plantain, sow thistles, dandelions, wild carrot and periwinkle.
Lord of the manna: Adam Grubb studies food that can be gathered for free in the city.
Photo: .Rodger Cummins
For the past four years, Grubb has been acquainting himself with the medicinal and nutritional qualities of these plants that thrive on neglect, often in poor soils, on marginal land. He is an urban forager: a student of nourishing foods that can be gathered for free in the city. On this glorious morning the weedscape looks idyllic: the hawthorn and wild roses are in flower and birds are singing in the tree tops.
Grubb is heading for his favourite patch of wild food on the creek - a plum grove, which he says yield the sweetest, most delicious plums he has ever tasted, "like eating cherries". He says his interest in weeds sprang from his work as founding editor of EnergyBulletin.net, an online site dedicated to the proposition that petroleum production has peaked and that our present way of life cannot continue indefinitely.
During his years as a voluntary researcher on peak oil, Grubb began to wonder how city dwellers would feed themselves if agriculture based on petroleum products - chemical sprays and fertilisers, long-distance trucking and refrigeration - became unviable. Other countries have turned to their sources of wild food in times of crisis. Grubb says that before the Argentine economy collapsed, for instance, the government distributed edible weed pamphlets.
As a forager, Grubb observes some rules. He says it is important to identify the weed correctly before attempting to ingest it and to check whether the plant has been sprayed and if it is growing in a clean environment (he avoids the watercress growing in the Merri Creek). Private property is respected, but fruit hanging over fences and lanes, or growing on abandoned blocks, is fair game. He also leaves enough for others who may need it.
EnergyBulletin is now edited in the United States and Grubb is working on another online project, eatthesuburbs.org, which is concerned with "creative suburban adaptations to peak oil and climate change". He recommends two books on local weeds: Useful Weeds at Our Doorstep, a self-published book by Hunter Valley herbalist Pat Collins, which can be ordered on the internet, and Australian Weeds by Gai Stern, published by Harper & Row in 1986.
"I started supplementing my diet with weeds. It became one of those interests that feeds on itself. You are getting fresh, yummy food. And (you get to) walk around the neglected parts of the city and find something of value there." Grubb has made a cold-sore ointment from blackberry nightshade (according to Collins, the common southern Australian weed is wrongly called deadly nightshade); says wild rosehips taste like fruit roll-ups; cooks up onion weeds as a vegetable; has made plum wine and Japanese salted plums from the foraged fruit; and last year collected six types of wild mushrooms - again, correct identification is crucial - as well as preserving foraged quinces and 40 or 50 kilos of foraged apples.
Fruit trees that have sprung up from seed or that grow on abandoned blocks are not always considered weeds, but the definition of weeds is highly subjective. In South Australia, for instance, olives have been classified as such.
"It's like weeds have a strong desire to live," says Grubb. "One of the reasons they proliferate is because they can handle difficult conditions. They can access nutrients in poor soils. They may be very water efficient." He argues weeds can also be seen as "pioneer species preparing the way for future ecosystems".
The self-sown plums, when we find them, are growing in a satisfying tangle of urban forest. In the shady understorey are clivers (the berries can be made into a coffee substitute, says Grubb, although he has never tried them), blackberries and ivy; the plums rise above them and on the upper storey more willows provide a majestic canopy. The site provokes contradictory emotions in Grubb. As a student of permaculture, he is interested in how these introduced species have, on their own accord, created a self-sustaining community that could provide food, medicine and fuel for the humans living nearby. Yet he is also uncomfortably aware that because these plants are classified as weeds, they may be under threat. At any time, well-intentioned "nativists" - people who believe indigenous plants have a greater right to live than introduced species - might clear them away.
"We have this idea that we can lock nature up as a museum piece and that if we don't touch it, it will be natural," he says. "A friend of mine was trying to talk his mum into pulling out her vegies and planting natives instead. So one day at lunch his mum made a tomato salad and served it to everyone but she gave him a plate of gum nuts and said: 'Eat this'."
Grubb is not against native plants, but he argues that the impulse to rid the environment of the wild plants Europeans have introduced needs to be re-examined. His study of weeds had led him to ask questions: why do we demonise these plants? Can we put them to better use? What can they teach us?
The same questions occur to Dr Srebrenka Kunek, co-founder of the cultural research and development practice Kunexion. She believes our attitude to weeds is deeply connected to Australian culture and history, and that we can learn much from them. It is no accident, Kunek believes, that immigrants and refugees are the people in this country who are likely to know the most about weeds.
Kunek's interest in weeds and in people who are marginalised in Australia stem from her own experiences as an immigrant. A Croatian, she arrived in Australia as a child and was raised by her father and grandmother in suburban Surrey Hills. Her grandmother turned the back garden into a vegetable patch and used the weeds in the lawn for medicinal purposes - for curing bee-stings, say. "We called them plants, we didn't call them weeds. The idea of weeds is part of the culture of invasion," says Kunek.
Kunek's perspective on common weeds such as chickweed and purslane, nettles and salsify makes sense to Adam Grubb, who has done his own thinking about why we nurture some plants in well-tended garden beds and let others fend for themselves on railway tracks and roadside verges. Grubb believes the split has come about because of our own mixed feelings about our occupation of this continent. "We try to destroy the things we subconsciously identify with," he says.
By studying them, cooking them and teaching others about their virtues, Grubb and Kunek are not only making good use of what is freely available, but are also helping us to see that what grows wild in neglected places might also have the capacity to nourish and heal us.