Book Review: Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness

Jul 11, 2014


“Hi, I’m your neighbor, and I’d like to eat your weeds.”  In her book “Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness,” author Becky Lerner accepts her editor’s challenge to survive for a week on the wild plants growing within Portland’s city limits.  She quickly discovers that collecting leafy weeds and brewing pine-needle tea costs far more in energy than it provides in sustenance.  Exhausted and near starvation, she gives up on the experiment by the end of chapter 2.
Fortunately for both Lerner and her curious readers, failure doesn’t stop her.  Accompanied by her side kick, a Chihuahua-terrier mix named Petunia, she learns about the range of foods available in a Pacific Northwest urban environment, including plants used historically by Native Americans.  
While Lerner predictably gets a good grounding in edible plants and nuts, their seasonal variation, and harvesting and storage methods, she also makes a few more unexpected discoveries.  I found the interplay between foraging practices and Oregon state law fascinating – for example, in a state park, you can collect the berries but not the roots of Oregon grape.  Whether or not you can use meat from roadkill depends on whether the animal is regulated for hunting.   One of her discoveries:  life’s a lot harder as a solo forager.  She soon assembles a band of quirky buddies, ranging from a wilderness survival expert, to a “freegan” dumpster diver, to the resourceful neighbor who harvests road kill.  By the end of the first part of the book, Lerner successfully completes a second week-long challenge culminating in a wild-food potluck Thanksgiving feast.
She keeps us enthralled as subsequent parts of the book tell the story of learning the medicinal properties of native plants, as well as her thoughts on sustainability, the xenophobia about non-native plants, and the ethics of foraging.  
At first I was disappointed that there were no illustrations.  Then, I realized this is not intended as a guidebook.  Instead, it’s a fascinating and accessible chronicle of one woman’s journey to prepare for the future that may await us all.  I’m a convert – I’ll never look at roadside weeds (or roadkill) the same way again.