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Life & Times Locavore: Fabulous food forests

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Posted on: June 6, 2024

By IMKE AHLF-WIEN

Whenever I visited Hyattsville’s two food forests this April and May, I found myself all alone. I felt like an intruder as I picked a few leaves from the large clusters of fleshy sorrel or harvested some seemingly untouched sprawling sea kale.

Was nobody else aware that the produce is, in fact, free to all? According to the city website, both the Emerson Street and McClanahan food forests ‘are open year-round for community members to harvest seasonally available fruits and greens.’ Where, then, was the community?

mulberrie on the tree
You can find mulberries — along with blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, serviceberries, jostaberries, elderberries and currants — in season at the Emerson Street Food Forest.

On a cloudy May morning, Dawn Taft, Hyattsville’s arborist and environmental programs manager, takes me on a tour of the Emerson Street Food Forest, located at 4515 Emerson Street. She is excited to see it in such good shape: The beds are well mulched, the grass freshly mowed, and the first mulberries and strawberries will soon be ready for harvest.

The Emerson Street Food Forest, near Alternate Route 1, was inaugurated by former Hyattsville Mayor Candace Hollingsworth and opened in 2016. Taft explained that the idea was to bring the community together in a safe space; it became much more than she ever expected and has helped turn the neighborhood around. She said she’s especially happy to see how families gather here on summer days, children’s mouths dripping with juice from freshly picked berries.

Dozens of edible plants, interspersed with pollinators, are grown here without the use of chemicals. I count eight different kinds of berries: mulberry, blueberry, strawberry, blackberry, serviceberry, jostaberry, elderberry and currants; several kinds of nuts, including pecan, walnut and hazelnut; as well as apples, cherries, figs and pawpaw, pears, persimmons and pomegranates. Even the kiwi fruit, Taft’s greatest pride, is showing its tiny fruits for the first time. Sorrel and sea kale cover much of the ground. Most edible plants have a name tag and a QR code to help visitors pull up basic information, including simple ideas for preparation and the month when the plant will be ripe.

The McClanahan Food Forest, conveniently located near the Hyattsville Crossing Metro station, at the intersection of Oliver Street and Jamestown Road in West Hyattsville, is much smaller than Emerson, with a living-room feel, according to Taft. A few benches invite visitors to slow down, enjoy the greenery, and pick some produce. There’s plenty of sea kale and several varieties of berries, as well.

sorrel
Most edible plants at the city’s two food forests have a name tag and a QR code to help visitors pull up basic information, including simple ideas for preparation and the month when the plant will be ripe.
Photo credit: Imke Ahlf-Wien

Food forests, also called ‘forest gardens’ or ‘edible forests,’ have been around for thousands of years. From Mesoamerica to Mesopotamia and Rome, these ‘foodscapes’ were often included in the gardens of palaces and villas, but the concept of bringing them to urban areas is quite new. They are part of a nationwide trend to increase food security, availability and accessibility, while also promoting sustainability and healthier lifestyles. According to an April 2023 The Conversation article, more than 85 community food forest initiatives can be found throughout the U.S.
Emerson Street Food Forest neighbors praise the food forest and its impact on the community.

Freddie Reed, whose adjacent property has been in his family since the 1970s, still recalls the years when the lot was empty and dismal. Nowadays the space is well used, he says. Reed described how he particularly enjoys seeing children flocking there to play ball, pick berries and climb trees, while still respecting the space.

Romi Singh, who has leased the auto repair and body shop on Emerson Street for 15 years, said he has noticed his customers enjoying the serene park while they wait for their cars to be serviced. Just recently, a customer told him how happy she was to be able to look up information about the food forest’s edible plants on her phone.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people would use the serene spaces of Hyattsville’s food forests- to gather, chat and play, and even feel free to pick some produce to add to their dinner tables? The recipe above gives you an idea how to use an abundance of berries and is simple enough for chefs of all ages.


Berries are not only delicious, they are also antioxidant powerhouses and provide plenty of fiber. You can use any kind of red, purple or pink berry – or a combination – for this pudding. I used freshly picked mulberries and strawberries, but even frozen berries work well here.

Ingredients:

1 cup mulberries, diced
1 cup strawberries, diced
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 cup brown sugar, divided
4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose or gluten-free flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
cup boiling water

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 F and grease an 8-by-8-inch square baking dish. Add the berries, and drizzle with maple syrup.

Place the dish on a baking sheet. In a large bowl, whisk cup brown sugar and butter until fluffy. Add milk and vanilla; mix well. Add flour, baking powder and salt; mix until ingredients are incorporated. Spoon the batter over the fruit and evenly spread to the sides. Mix the remaining cup brown sugar and cornstarch together, and sprinkle over the top of the batter. Carefully pour boiling water over the mixture. Do not stir! Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until top has a golden-brown crust. Serve warm.


Imke Ahlf-Wien is a nutrition educator with a passion for fresh, locally procured foods.

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