From purslane to garlic mustard, weeds have a talent for popping up exactly where we don’t want them.
But Tama Matsuoka Wong doesn’t fault them for that. A professional forager based in New Jersey, Wong thinks weeds are the most resilient — and tastiest — plants around.
Wong runs a “wild farm,” called Meadows + More, on her 20-acre property in Hunterdon County in western New Jersey. There, she propagates over 200 varieties of her favorite edible wild plants, all native to the landscape, and sells them. Her clientele ranges from New York City’s top chefs to curious home cooks.
Though Wong spent her childhood picking mulberries and dandelions around her parents’ New Jersey home, she didn’t rediscover her passion for foraging until she moved back to the Garden State after a decade working in Tokyo as a financial services lawyer. She attempted to grow fruits and vegetables at her home garden, but when the crops failed to flourish and invasive wild plants overtook her plots, she was ready to throw up her hands.
But one day, she hosted family members from Japan who recognized the pesky weeds.
“A lot of the species are actually from Asia,” she says. “My relatives, when they see them, they think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so good to eat.’ So I put two and two together like, oh, it’s not that bad. There’s a way I can use this instead of feeling depressed all the time.”
Wong realized that she could save time and headaches by forgoing her labor-intensive garden to hunt for food around the creeks and forests on her own property. What began as a hobby turned into a full-time profession when, in 2009, she brought wild anise hyssop to the receptionist at Daniel, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan, for chef de cuisine Eddy Leroux to sample.
Leroux was inspired by the unique flavor, which is reminiscent of mint and liquorice. He whipped up two dishes for Wong, who was dining at Daniel with friends later that evening: a starter of shrimp and melon with anise hyssop vinaigrette and a dessert of anise hyssop and yuzu sorbet.
Soon after, Wong became the restaurant’s resident forager, regularly delivering pawpaw, stinging nettles, wild rose thorns and more to the kitchen.
Wong quit her day job to learn as much as could about wild plants — with the help of books, field tours, and expert advice from botanists and ecologists. Her business grew to include collaborations with other New York City chefs; partnerships with farmers, to help them cull invasive species and manage wild plants on their land; and workshops on how to identify and pick edible weeds.
And in 2012, Wong and Leroux teamed up to write Foraged Flavor. The cookbook incorporates 72 different wild plants in its recipes and doubles as a field guide for aspiring weed-pickers.
“It’s one thing to plant it, but then how do you make it delicious?” Wong says. “I think that’s the fun part.”
Wong also delivers lectures on wild plants and the essential role she predicts they’ll play in the future of our food systems — which are more fragile than most people realize.
In the past century, our society has shifted from subsistence farming and foraging to commercial agriculture. In those years, we ditched wild plants in favor of cultivating the narrow selection of fruits and vegetables you find at your neighborhood grocery store.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers choose to cultivate only 200 genetically uniform, high-yielding plant varieties.
“We’re only eating a very small number of species,” Wong says. “And it’s becoming more and more like that, as things are more mass produced.”
Meanwhile, experts estimate that of the 300,000 plants growing in the wild, between 4,000 and 7,000 are edible. But most of us haven’t heard of them, let alone tasted them.
The monoculture that defines our agriculture systems doesn’t just keep us in a food rut. It makes the sector extremely susceptible to shock. Droughts, locust swarms, disease and more can eradicate entire species at any given time, leaving us with very little crops to consume.
“We should all be property managers,” Wong says. “We should be looking at the plants that are edible and try to work with them and figure out how to cultivate them and how to eat them, so that when we start to lose species, we have others that are there.”
In Wong’s view, even after mainstream crops die out, wild plants will last. They’re tough species — just look at the dandelions that fight their way through sidewalk cracks.
“With cultivated plants, you have pests that you keep away, you water them, you fertilize them,” Wong says. “A wild plant has to survive on its own. If a bug chews part of it, it sends chemicals to survive, to heal.”
Those chemicals include phytonutrients and antioxidants, which also help humans absorb vitamins. That means wild plants aren’t just self-sufficient but also chock full of nutrients, making them just as healthy as superfoods like kale.
“It makes sense, just from a basic common sense point of view, that our bodies would need these,” Wong says of wild plants. “This is what we evolved eating. We didn’t evolve eating Fritos corn chips.”
Wild plants are also healthier for the environment. They require very little maintenance, negating the need for pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation and other taxing inputs.
And allowing wild plants to flourish in their native habitats enriches biodiversity, preserving ecosystems and contributing to soil health. Plants also draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and nutrient-rich soil can store it for hundreds of years, making soil management a crucial climate change solution.
Despite these benefits, Wong says that the community of wild plant enthusiasts is small. Identifying, cultivating and cooking with weeds requires a specialized set of knowledge that has yet to spread.
Wong is attempting to change that, in part by selling a newly-launched line of bottled iced tea called “I Am a Weed.” The drink is made from American sumac, a species of plant that grows on the edges of forests and sloped fields.
“It’s nothing new,” Wong says. “It’s been enjoyed by the Native Americans as a tea and tonic, because it’s very high in vitamins. You only need six seconds for someone to drink and realize it’s delicious and refreshing. And then people will start to value it, and then maybe you get people who want to propagate.”
The drink has seen a surge in popularity since the spread of COVID-19, as have Wong’s other products, including packaged plants like nettle tips, ramps and garlic mustard. Meadows + More’s site has received so many online orders that Wong and her staff have been working seven days a week to keep up. Her email inbox is also full of questions from those looking to forage on their own.
Wong credits this newfound enthusiasm to the fact that many are ditching grocery stores, which are full of opportunities for exposure to the virus and are selling out of staple items in the face of unprecedented demand.
“Before, people would think, ‘Why go and try and figure out what that plant is? I can just go to the grocery store and it has a label,’” Wong says. “But now it is not fun and it is not convenient to go to the grocery store.”
And considering the proven benefits nature has on mental health, venturing outside to forage for mushrooms and nettles seems like a social distancing-friendly method to ease pandemic-induced anxiety and despair.
Wong hopes this trend continues and more people realize the value of preserving and making use of the wild plants right in their backyards. When they do, she’ll be ready to lend her expertise, as well as a recipe or two.
“The weeds are the ones that are going to survive,” Wong says. “They’re going to be there, so I better start working on this [business] now, so I can tell people, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, that’s good to eat.’”
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project. It was originally reported by Brianna Baker for Next City, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.