by Amanda Smith
On a warm Sunday afternoon in Palm Harbor, Florida, 11 curious plant lovers gather in John Chestnut Sr. Park to meet none other than Green Deane, the “most watched forager in the world.” Amassing over 3 million views on his informative YouTube channel “Eat the Weeds,” Green Deane is more than just a nature boy – he’s a practical and philosophical expert on edible plants and he’s not afraid to share the wealth of his knowledge with others. In fact, he’s a truly prolific educator, dedicated to helping Floridians all across the state learn to “eat wild,” just like him. Attend one of his on-location foraging classes offered in various state locations, and you’ll get more than your money’s worth in wild snacks you pick right there on the trail, as well as plenty of advice from Green Deane himself on how to make your own backyard an enviable edible haven.
“I definitely came for the gardening advice,” says Katie, 60, an attendee at Green Deane’s foraging class in Palm Harbor. Katie, a St. Petersburg resident and retiree, found out about the class through Deane’s website and says it was also her desire to reconnect with nature that drew her to the class. “Our modern world doesn’t leave us with a lot of options to feel close to the earth,” she says. “So I try my best to make our backyard as much a part of the natural world as I can. When I found Deane’s website and learned he taught anyone who wanted to learn how to forage, I knew I had to check it out.”
Katie and others follow Green Deane as he meanders through a Florida state park, the famous forager points out a stunning number of munchable plants at every turn – rattling off their latin names, where to find them and how to prepare them – and it’s crystal clear he’s no amateur forager. In fact, he comes from a long line of plant pickers and eaters.
“Both my mother and my grandmother foraged particularly when they wanted to gossip without men around,” Deane revealed. “They would go walking in the forest and I would see what they picked. My personal ah-ha moment came when I saw wild raspberries one day and made the connection between them and raspberries sold in the grocery stores.”
Decades later, Deane’s childhood discovery that he could feed himself right from the comfort of his local forest has blossomed into a life devoted to nutritious wild edibles, and the development of a knowledge base that serves as a personal way of giving back to his fellow hungry human. Through his how-to YouTube videos, his blog musings and his classes exploring the very best of Florida foraging, Deane seeks to serve not only those hungry for flora, but modern society as a whole – the evolution of which has left its members dramatically nature-starved.
“For most of human history, nature has been humanity’s grocery store, pharmacy and hardware store. It sustained life,” he muses. “Now most people are estranged from nature. I think reintroducing people to their heritage and how that can make them feel is a worthy and moral goal.”
Deane, now 66, began educating others about the fascinating world of edibles about a decade ago or so, as “life wound down.” He says his impetus for making his love of edibles a public pursuit happened when he became intrigued at how little those involved in the green movement knew about the green world around them. “I really started making the educational materials for friends,” he said. “It just grew from there.”
Deane freely admits Florida’s unpredictable climate, varying geography and overwhelming number of imported ornamentalS makes it quite a difficult place to forage. “But if you can forage in Florida you can forage anywhere,” he says – and notes one of the state’s highpoints is that those who know where to look really can find significant and varied edible plants every day of the year.
One trip with Deane around Tarpon Lake certainly makes it look like a breeze, as students steadily chomp little root vegetables and hand-picked wild cucumbers, stopping only to stare at the leaves that surround them – marveling at what suddenly feels like a whole new (edible) world.
While some of Deane’s students attend looking for a closer relationship to nature, good edible gardening tips, or just an interesting way to spice up a vegan diet, personal chef Shane Richeson attended Deane’s Palm Harbour class on business. His mission: introduce the fabulous world of Florida foraging to the clients he elaborately cooks for.
Founder of the delightfully creative instagram account @PlateLickersAnonymous, Richeson says his role as a personal chef allows him more freedom to experiment, and foraging reveals to his guests a side of food they might not know at all.
“When I incorporate foraged food into a traditionally formal recipe, there’s something very intriguing about it to my guests. It really adds a talking point and a wow-factor to the dish.”
Deane echos David’s sentiments of approaching foraging as a special way to reinvigorate one’s concept of food. “Wild plants, and cultivated wild plants, provide new flavors, textures, nutritional profiles, and bacterial compliments as well as being unmodified and less chemicalized – all of which appeals to health and socially conscious people. Besides, knowing you can do something, like find your own food is empowering. It has its own satisfaction – just in and of itself.”
SACRED TEA IN PLAIN SIGHT: YAUPON HOLLY
Cited by NPR in 2015 as America’s Forgotten Native ‘Tea’ Plant, the leaves of the Yaupon Holly tree are yours for the picking at John Chestnut Sr. Park. Over 1,000 years ago, Native Americans prepared the leaves as tea for energy (it’s loaded with caffeine), and even used it in purification rituals. Now sold in trendy tea shops in Austin, TX and Asheville, NC (pictured) here are a few tips to forage and prepare the tea yourself: 1. Pick young leaves & stems. 2. Lightly toast them in the oven at 300* until they start to brown. 3. Add 1 tbsp of mixture to 2 cups boiling water. 4. Steep for 3 min. and enjoy.
Green Deane’s top picks
for cultivating backyard edibles
Purslane: Deane says this easy-to-grow edible is a nutritional powerhouse.
Spanish Needles: A native Florida edible with a reputation for being invasive and a little hard to love, it’s also easy to grow and popular for its ability to attract wildlife.
Groundnuts: A more substantial snack, groundnuts are high in protein, and Deane notes, cultivars are available.
For more on these and other wild edibles, visit Deane online at EatTheWeeds.com.