Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Cataloging the fruits, nuts, and herbs hidden in the sidewalk foliage.
Last summer, Ethan Welty stopped buying fruit. He didn't need to pay for it anymore: he could pick nearly everything he needed from the trees on the streets of Boulder, Colorado.
At first, he scanned the canopy for apples to use in his home-brewed beer. But there was more. Hanging in the sidewalk foliage were peaches, apricots, walnuts, mulberries and plums. And so Welty, a PhD student researching glacier movement, began to map the urban orchard.
In March, he and Caleb Philips, a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, expanded that database into Falling Fruit, a website that catalogs more than half a million urban trees with edible products. In the two-dozen cities where Welty and Philips have obtained municipal planting data or teamed up with local foragers, there is something to eat on nearly every corner.
How edible must a plant be to merit inclusion on Falling Fruit's map? It's not all peaches and pears. "There's a lot of gray area," Welty confesses. "A lot of judgment calls to be made."
To harvest the sap that produces maple syrup, for example, it's preferable to tap the sugar maple, a plentiful North American species. Falling Fruit counts over 50,000 sugar maples. But in a pinch, its cousin the silver maple can also produce syrup -- so Falling Fruit counts the silver maple, too, but only when sugar maples are scarce.
Other options aren't entirely obvious. The most common trees are the honey locust and the small-leaved linden, neither of which produces anything you'd recognize in the supermarket. But linden flowers can be used to make a tea popular with herbalists, and honey locust seed pods -- large and crescent-shaped -- yield edible seeds and pulp. (These are not to be confused with the seeds of the black locust, which are poisonous.)
"Apparently beer can be made," Welty says of the honey locust. "We'll see. I'm still learning, too."
There are more familiar items here too: over 5,000 examples of cherry, pear and apple trees, not to mention olives (4,442), plums (1,424) and almonds (343). And these figures, by and large, account for only a handful of U.S. and Canadian cities.
Welty hopes urbanites will begin to see the nutritional value in their surroundings. "All the momentum behind urban foraging will drive the planting of fruit trees," he imagines. "Maybe we could begin to build more edible cities deliberately."
Welty and Philips aren't alone in envisioning cities as orchards on a scale that goes beyond the occasional backyard garden or urban farm. In San Francisco, a group called Guerilla Grafters has used grafting technology to make bare trees grow fruit. In Seattle, Beacon Food Forest has received over $100,000 in grant money to plant an edible urban environment in Jefferson Park. A fashion designer named Ron Finley become a local celebrity when he planted 1,500 square feet of vegetables on a sidewalk in South-Central Los Angeles.
But there has been backlash from all sides. Guerilla Grafting is illegal. The city of Los Angeles fined Finley because his garden was out of compliance with its landscaping guidelines. In the New York Times last month, Mariellé Anzelone, an urban conservation biologist, criticized food-centric urban planting as ecologically selfish, designed to cater to human nutritional needs at the expense of the insects and birds whose role in pollination and seed distribution keeps the ecosystem functioning.
|Common name||Count, on Falling Fruit|
But the biggest barrier to planting fruit trees in cities, Welty says, is the mess. The smell of crushed gingko berries is enough to make even the most adventurous and hungry urbanite wish for an elm or ash tree.
That's where the map comes in, encouraging people in New York, Toronto, Washington D.C. and elsewhere to think with their stomachs.
Why put all the cities on one map? "We wanted to do it at a scale that will make for a story that other people will be exposed to," Welty says. "To have 600,000 locations is a way to amaze people by the sheer magnitude of what already exists, which is one way to think about how we could do it better."
The real test will be this summer, when Welty returns to his local forage spots in Boulder, now broadcast to the world on Finding Fruit. If the trees are picked, it will be a testament to the map's influence.
And if not, what better consolation then some free, fresh fruit?