In Which ‘Wild Girl’ Meets ‘Wildman’

Brill, steve and violet species, with sassafras

I first heard of “Wildman” Steve Brill four years ago when I was studying wilderness survival in upstate New York. My classmates told me he was the expert on wild edible plants. Steve’s been teaching in Central Park since the ’80s, has penned two vegetarian wild food cookbooks, a wild food iPhone app, a couple field guides, and has probably been in the media more than any other forager.


The press adores him for being both quirky and quotable — in June he told a reporter that wineberries are “very dangerous, because when you eat them you die of happiness,” — and he regularly uses his platform to advocate for foragers and guerilla gardeners under attack. He was outspoken this summer, for instance, when New York officials threatened to enforce a foraging ban. In short, Steve is an important and highly respected figure in the scene.

So when I found out I’d be heading to New York in mid-October on literary business, I was excited to go on his 4-hour foraging tour of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. His 7-year-old daughter, the adorable Violet, served as co-teacher for the class. There were 37 people signed up. One made my day by introducing himself to me as a fan of this blog (Hi there, Christian!).

Lady's thumb

The Brills covered common weeds like curly dock (which Steve told us not to confuse with Larry Dock or Mo Dock), burdock, wood sorrel, chickweed, dandelion and pokeweed, and also taught us many delectable wild foods I haven’t seen in the Pacific Northwest, including Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioica), field garlic (Allium vineale), lady’s thumb (Polygonum persicaria), goutweed (Aegopodium podograria) and sassafras, among others. During the lunch break, they fed us homemade vegan truffles and identified blewit mushrooms. I learned a great deal and I wholeheartedly encourage you to go if you are ever in New York. The tour is not only kid friendly, but dog friendly. Yes, dogs are allowed.

Technically Steve’s tours are illegal, but no park rangers have bothered him about it in more than two decades. It’s not a secret; he talks about this in the local papers frequently.

While there, I ended up buying Steve’s field guide, and it is quickly becoming a favorite. I like that it’s a giant paperback illustrated with drawings instead of photographs. Drawings can be even more helpful than photos because they offer clearer outlines. I also appreciate the friendly, conversational tone of the writing and the years of first-person experience that come through in the plant descriptions. (These are qualities I admire in Sam Thayer’s books, too). Of the unpalatable common plantain, Steve writes, “You’ll love eating them…if you’re a rabbit or gosling.”

Field Garlic

There are fun quips sprinkled throughout, such as, “Nothing that smells like onions or garlic is poisonous, unless you’re a vampire.” You get a really good introduction to important botanical terms, recipes, a primer on herbal medicine, and most importantly, a thorough treatise on hundreds of wild plants from coast to coast, many of which are urban. (The back cover says there are 500!). I highly recommend adding this book to your library.

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10 thoughts on “In Which ‘Wild Girl’ Meets ‘Wildman’

  1. Rebecca, love your blog. Just wanted to mention that lady’s thumb grows really well on our farm in Battle Ground, WA, a half hour north of where you are in Portland. I love it. It’s got a sweet friendly nature and I rarely weed it out of the garden. If you want to seed some near you, come up in springtime and we’ll dig some up for you to bring home.

    My bee gardens are more weeds than flowers, just the way I like it.

    Keep up the good work.

    Jacqueline Freeman
    Friendly Haven Rise Farm

    • Thank you Jacqueline. I find that plants often are invisible to me until someone teaches me about them, and then suddenly I see them in places I never noticed them before. Maybe this will happen with lady’s thumb!

  2. Great article, Rebecca.

    There are field garlics like those just upriver from you in the Goldendale area. They’re common in my buddy’s field. I’ve also seen them in central Washington near Quincy.

  3. That was the first foraging book I ever got. I could do with a little less of the quirkiness and humor, but it has tons of useful information. I would recommend Thayer and Kallas books first, but brill does cover a lot of great plants that they don’t.

    • I find that all those books have different strengths. Thayer seems to me the most in-depth and comprehensive; Kallas has very good photos and and explains how plants change shape as seasons change, and has good nutritional info, but his scope is limited as he only covers weeds so far; and then Brill has the illustrations, lots of very good naturalist info., and covers the most plants. Sure, his quirkiness may not be everyone’s taste, fair enough, he’s quite goofy, but I think it’s very useful.

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