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Foraging helped me discover a world of free fruits and veggies

Daniel Wood

Updated April 20, 2023 at 2:36 PM ET

As a child I made yearly sojourns to my grandparents' home in California. Next door, in the middle of chest-high weeds, sat a lush grapefruit tree. The property was vacant; ivy climbed the walls, the windows gathered dust and grime. But the grapefruit tree sat in the midst of the neglect and despite it all continued to simply be fruitful.

As the youngest and smallest, I would be hoisted over the fence by an uncle or cousin to retrieve giant softball-sized fruits for our morning juice. The novelty of this made an impression on me. Here was fresh fruit that nobody wanted. And it was free. Free! And maybe just a little illicit. All you had to do was jump a fence (and we know that some of the best memories involve fence jumping).

This set me on a long journey toward urban foraging.

<strong>Daniel Wood</strong> is a UX designer for NPR's News Apps team.
/ Daniel Wood
Daniel Wood
Daniel Wood is a graphics editor for NPR's News Apps team.

Of course, there are foragers out there who put me to shame. They mean business. They forage rare mushrooms and laboriously process pokeweed into long-forgotten delicacies. I guess we're even foraging seaweed now.

But for me, it's about simple, tasty fruit. Urban and suburban fruit that someone planted but long ago decided was a hassle. Peaches, to me, are the real crown jewel of urban foraging. They're around, but rarely get quite enough water while developing. Plums? Easy to find around me. Sour cherries? Delightful and surprisingly common, if you don't mind the occasional worm. Let's not even get into the oft-overlooked serviceberry or the (tasteless, in my opinion) white and black mulberry.

This isn't forbidden fruit — this is forgotten fruit, and believe it or not, it's everywhere. Don't believe me? Let me give you just a few examples.

A tart Montmorency cherry tree in Washington, D.C.
/ Daniel Wood
Daniel Wood
A tart Montmorency cherry tree in Washington, D.C.

The DSCC tells me to get lost, and opens my eyes

I came to D.C. after finishing college and spent most of the past decade living and biking around the verdant Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Early on in my time in the city, I was biking when I noticed a dramatic old apple tree hanging over a wall near the Supreme Court. My mind ran wild, imagining this as a tree that had been on this stately property for hundreds of years, probably planted by some senator or congressman.

I picked two apples and took them home, but they weren't ripe. Every day I passed this tree and, weirdo that I am, dreamed about the pies I'd make with these apples when September came.

When the apples finally ripened, I tried to find the owner of the tree and ask for permission to pick at least the ones hanging over the sidewalk. I probably could have just done it, but I asked anyway. I walked to the door of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and knocked. No one was in, so I gave them a call the next day.

They told me to kindly screw off. The next week the tree was drastically cut back. Travesty of travesties. If I ever get to interview a Senate candidate, I'll be sure to ask them their position on apples.

But after that my eyes began to open.

A "surfeit" of plums

The next year I noticed a cherry plum tree near Stanton Park, loaded with small fruits hanging 5 feet overhead. I tasted one. It was tart, sweet and refreshing. Scribbling my number on a sheet of paper, I left a note asking for permission. The owner quickly texted her approval back to me, saying something along the lines of "Please do! We have a surfeit this year. Just don't stand on the fence to get them." Surfeit. I always liked that ... a veritable surfeit.

I jerry-rigged a fruit picker with a broom stick, a wire hanger, and a pair of pantyhose and returned, dragging my fiancée (now wife) with me. We picked about a bushel on a humid June evening, as the stuffy Capitol Hill commuters walked past, shooting us odd looks.

You get used to the looks, when you're picking fruit in a city. By this point, I'm strengthened by the glares, the scoffs, the incredulity. "Ew, what are you doing? Are you sure you can eat that?"

Left: Daniel uses his homemade fruit picker to forage cherry plums in Washington, D.C. Right: Cleaning the plum haul.
/ Daniel Wood
Daniel Wood
Left: Daniel uses his homemade fruit picker to forage cherry plums in Washington, D.C. Right: Cleaning the plum haul.

Yes! It's a fruit tree. And it's making delicious fruit! And you're ignoring it! How rude!

And with all our plums we made a jam. It was too tart, if I'm honest, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I had made 8 pints of half-decent jam from plums that everyone else except the birds thought was garbage.

In an ever modernizing world, where we drift further and further from subsistence (for good reason I might add), the act of foraging provides us an opportunity to remember our biology; to recall the simplicity of survival. All the things I thought I needed — the accolades, the cool vacations, the meaningful job — pale in comparison to a delicious piece of neglected fruit.

Ponce de Leon's mangoes and a garden-like city

Recently, my wife and I got to visit Puerto Rico for our fifth anniversary. After a long, hot day of exploring the forts and streets of Old San Juan, my wife and I were exhausted and dehydrated. We had wandered onto the grounds of Ponce de Leon's 16th century mansion, Casa Blanca, but were at odds about whether it was worth exploring. Blood sugar was crashing and we were about to get in one of those classic vacation arguments about nothing in particular.

We walked around the old house and into the well-kept gardens. I smelled something sweet, then stepped on something squishy. I looked down and found ... mangoes. Small mangoes falling from an ancient mango tree overhead.

And it was a gift. Perfectly ripe, sweet, and juicy. This mango single-handedly salvaged our day.

Some fellow tourists were walking past. I excitedly told these strangers about the amazing opportunity of mangoes. They avoided eye contact and continued walking.

In the beginning of the Bible, there is a garden — Eden — filled with all kinds of trees, "trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food". It's described as a perfect paradise — uncultivated, yet fruitful. Raw, wild, untamed. Most people know this story.

But many do not know that the very last chapter of the Bible brings back this motif, and twists it. There, in the midst of some absolutely bizarre apocalyptic prophecy, is a description of the new paradise. Except instead of a raw, uncultivated wilderness, we find a lavish city with streets of gold and gates of pearl. Through the center of this city runs a wild river, which is lined on either side by "the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month." Here we see a garden-like city, where the goodness of mankind and the goodness of nature can be married together, not at odds.

Now, Capitol Hill is a beautiful neighborhood, but nobody would accuse it of being paradise. Despite this, in moments of foraging from a forgotten tree, I get a foretaste of this prophetic vision. I see a city that is not damaging nature but instead is mingled together with it, at peace. I see a fruitful future, where we can feed ourselves good food in safety, prosperity and equity.

But mostly, I see a tempting plum that everyone except the birds is ignoring. Lift your eyes — the trees might be brimming with fruit.

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Daniel Wood is a visual journalist at NPR, where he brings data and analyses into complex topics by paired reporting with custom charts, maps and explainers. He focuses on data-rich topics like COVID-19 outcomes, climate change and politics. His interest in tracking a small outbreak of a novel coronavirus in January 2020 helped position NPR to be among the leading news organizations to provide daily updates on the growth and impact of COVID-19 around the country and globe.