Foraging on Campus

By Ben Riggleman

Did you know that SMCC’s South Portland Campus is full of wild-growing edible plants? There’s ample foraging here. However, there are some safety concerns you should be aware of before you make campus flora a major part of your seasonal diet. This piece will first describe a variety of wild foods the author has enjoyed on campus, and then, rather awkwardly, tack on a health warning that he is still digesting. It is hoped that the reader will at least come away with more information about a little-known world at SMCC students’ fingertips.

You’re probably seen the wild apples. They’re the most high-profile wild food. Perhaps the most well-known of the campus apple trees is not, strictly speaking, on campus; it’s the one on Benjamin W. Pickett Street, just past the smokers’ corner. Every student who has parked or walked under it at this time of year knows how prolific it is: you can hardly traverse the sidewalk without squishing its fruit. Fewer know just how tasty these apples are. They’re at least as sweet as your average store-bought Macintosh, and not any tougher.

You can’t beat the Pickett Street tree for flavor or volume, but it’s by no means the only option. The author also recommends a tree just off the paved shoreway path behind the Computer Science and Engineering Center (CSEC), whose greener fruit is reminiscent of Granny Smith, and several trees near the CSEC parking lot. There are also several small cultivated apple trees between the Horticulture Building and the Baykeeper Building (which is owned by the Friends of Casco Bay). Horticulture department chair Cheryl Rich told the author these trees are all free for the picking.

One day while the author was photographing the trees near CSEC, he saw a man and a young girl picking up drop apples. They had a large wicker basket. The man shook the tree while the child, who looked to be about four, picked up and inspected individual apples with curiosity, occasionally plunking one in the basket when the mood struck.

The man, who identified himself as Stephen, had borrowed a cider press from the Portland Tool Library. You can too, at no charge. The Portland Tool Library has more than one cider press, and as of this writing, several are available according to its website. (However, please read to the end before you decide to make cider from SMCC apples.)

About as common as apple trees here on campus, but less well known, is Prunus serotina, the wild black cherry or rum cherry. The fruit of this mid-sized tree is jet black when ripe, and tiny, with the bigger cherries about the size of garbanzo beans. It can appears alone or in pendulous clusters on branching stems. There’s a proportionally large, inedible pit in each fruit, so the way to eat these cherries is to suck the juicy flesh from out around it. The leaves are oval shaped and finely toothed on the edges.

(You should look up any unfamiliar plant online or in a guidebook and familiarize yourself with its characteristics before sampling it.)

Unfortunately, all the black cherries around campus have dropped or shriveled by now. You can still see them on the ground; they carpet a certain section of path between security headquarters and the Campus Center parking lot. In its prime a couple weeks ago, the tree responsible was a thing of wonder. Its fruit tasted like store-bought cherries — but nearly as sweet as honey.

There are at least nine other cherry trees on the South Portland Campus or immediately outside it. They’re all worth trying, although the author has found them to be less sweet and more bitter or astringent like wine.

There is a small row of deliberately planted highbush blueberries in a dividing strip in the large parking lot between the CSEC and HVAC buildings. The author saw a couple out picking them on the day of this writing.

Sumac is often mistakenly believed to be poisonous; in fact, the most familiar species, Rhus typhina, has long been used to make tea in North America. When steeped in hot water, its berries produce a lemony drink. There’s a ton of sumac around the ruins of Fort Preble.

On the beach you can find wild bay leaves — to put in your ramen — and large rose hips from Rosa Rugosa, good for making jelly.

One underutilized fruit-bearing shrub is ubiquitous not just at SMCC, but practically every roadside in Maine (and most of America): the autumn olive or autumnberry, Eleagnus umbellata. This pretty, silvery-leafed invasive can produce buckets’ worth of tiny, red berries whose unique taste is somewhat like raspberries or cherry tomatoes. What’s more, these berries contain lycopene, a sought-after antioxidant, in concentrations five to 16 times higher than those of tomatoes, which are the most common source of this nutrient.

SMCC has plenty of autumn-olive bushes, and Bug Light Park is completely overrun with them. However, picking in Bug Light Park is not advised; the area used to be an industrial shipyard, and the soil is probably heavily contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins.

Notes of Caution

The same danger is a possibility at SMCC, since the campus was once a military installation. Wanting to be sure of the safety of campus foraging, the author contacted two members of the Horticulture department, Cheryl Rich and Dave Palm. Mr. Palm teaches a class on soil quality.

Both professors had done foraging or cultivation on campus, and neither were worried by the idea of this article; they were both fans of local apples and had made sumac tea. Professor Palm said, of soil contamination, “Being an old fort, there is a potential.” But, he added, he’d be more concerned about lead-paint residues from the older buildings, and most apple trees were at a safe enough distance from them. No soil tests had been done to his knowledge, but, he said, “I wouldn’t really worry about it, myself.”

However, Ms. Rich said that when excavation was done for Surfsite Residence Hall, the soil was forbidden by environmental regulators from being removed from the area because of contaminants attributed to an old dry-cleaning facility on the site. The soil, she said, now makes up the base of the Surfsite parking lot.

The author reported this bit of campus history to Professor Palm, whose emailed reply was much more circumspect: “I would want to look at the report to see what the contaminants are,” he wrote. “We should also look at the history of the location to see what it was used for in relation to the rest of campus.

He acknowledged, “It could be an isolated situation in that location and the other areas of campus may be fine.” But, he said, “The only way we can determine the safety of foraging around the rest of campus would be to have the soils tested around the edible plants.”

Because of the many unknowns about soil quality, the author would recommend against harvesting any wild foods on campus in quantity, and would probably not make cider or preserves from them. However, a little light snacking does not seem intolerably risky.

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