Dear CityLab: There’s an apple tree leaning over the fence in my building’s courtyard. Is it safe to eat one of the apples?
Well, that depends, in part, on where you are. But let’s take Boston as an example.
For years, Wellesley professor and geoscientist Dan Brabander passed Boston’s wild fruit trees without knowing they were there. Then the League of Urban Canners, one of a growing number of urban agriculture enthusiasts, got in touch.
The League, or LUrC, oversees a far-flung urban “orchard” of 100 trees scattered throughout the Boston area, mostly around Cambridge and Sommerville. These are trees incorporated into designed parks and streets, but also vestiges of functioning nineteenth-century orchards, which dotted a more rural south Boston of yesteryear. With permission from their owners, LUrC members prune and harvest from these trees each year, eventually transforming their urban harvest into urban preserves, urban ciders, and urban jams.
But as LUrC told Brabander, the group was suddenly very worried about the safety of their project. A test had revealed that one member had particularly high levels of lead in their blood. Had the harvested fruits absorbed toxic metals from their urban environment?
Brabander took the question to his Wellesley lab of undergraduate researchers. With help and guidance from LUrC members, the team—Brabander plus undergraduates Ciaran Gallagher, Hannah Oettgen and Disha Okhai—collected 166 samples from peaches, apples, cherries, and herbs. Then they took them back to the lab.
The study’s results—which the team presented at this month’s annual meeting of the Geological Society of America—are pretty great for urban ag-vocates. (I had to.) The urban fruits’ concentrations of lead and arsenic do not present “immediate concern,” the researchers wrote. Furthermore, the micronutrient levels were often higher than the foraged fruits’ commercially available counterparts. Calcium and iron levels were higher in all the fruit samples tested, for example, and potassium, zinc, manganese, and magnesium were higher in some. The researchers suspect this is because urban soils are not as taxed as those used to raise commercial crops. Over time, some types of farming can deplete the nutrients in the dirt.
Great! So does that mean that all urban fruit is probably safe to munch on?
Not quite. Use common sense when collecting, the team warns—fruits grown on superfund sites or right next to major highways, for example, might have absorbed some of the yuckiness that surrounds them.
Urban foragers should not, however, be discouraged by the less than beautiful fruit varieties found in nature. “The physical appearance is not what we see in our commercial varieties,” Brabander says, putting it delicately. “[But] we’ve tried some of these ourselves, and they’re incredibly wonderful to eat.”
Urban fruit trees are not the sole solution in fruit- and vegetable-deficient urban areas, but city harvesters have found that they can help. In 2014, one Seattle group collected nearly 14 tons of urban fruit from around the city, donating more than two-thirds to community groups like food banks and schools.
Back in Boston, visitors and locals should feel free to just grab the fruit out the trees. While you’re up there, among the branches, might as well take a bite of the local heirloom, the Roxbury russet, first discovered in 1696. Word has it the apple is great in urban ciders and pies.