"Wildman" Steve Brill will lead a foraging session through the...

"Wildman" Steve Brill will lead a foraging session through the grounds of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum & Planetarium in Centerport this spring.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Did you ever spot some tasty looking berries in the woods and wonder if they were edible — or, possibly, poisonous? You can learn about and take home some wild plants that are both safe and delicious at the Vanderbilt estate or at one of the other "Foraging With the Wildman" adventures with Steve and Violet Brill happening around Long Island this spring.

"Foraging With the Wildman" is one of several horticultural programs planned for the spring/summer as the historic gardens are restored for the season, notes Beth Laxer-Limmer, associate director of education for Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum & Planetarium in Centerport.

The group will venture out around the mansion and into the woods to forage with the Brills on March 13. "I think this will be awesome," says Laxer-Limmer. "Steve assures me that there will be plenty to find here on the ground along the estate."

Plants and puns galore

Brill, 72, of New Rochelle, whose motto is "getting closer to nature, one bite at a time," has been leading foraging tours for four decades. He discovered the world of wild edibles years ago while bicycling in a park in Queens. There, he observed a group of women picking grape leaves, picked some for himself and went home to make a tasty stuffing from the foraged plants.

Before long, he was buying books on edible wild plants and experimenting in the kitchen with his foliage findings, learning through trial and error one plant at a time. Pre-internet, the budding naturalist had to rely on foraging books that were woefully short on information on where to actually to find the plants.

"I was having so much fun with this that I decided to lead foraging tours, which began in April 1982," says Brill, whose tours throughout the greater New York area are sprinkled with lots of fun facts and more than a few silly jokes.

"I do the recipes, the history, the folklore, mythology, all my worst jokes," he says.

Early springtime finds

During the early spring tours, the seasoned forager expects to see lots of cold-resistant plants growing close to the warmer ground.

One plant he anticipates finding is hairy bittercress, a common mustard plant, which, he says, "tastes like its relative watercress, but much better." Field garlic, a plant related to onion and garlic, should also be visible.

Traipsing through fields, you might find flavorful wild carrots, which are firmer than the commercially grown varieties and best eaten cooked rather than raw.

Ripe for picking will be twigs of the black birch tree, which taste like wintergreen, and were used by Native Americans for pain relief. The twigs are traditionally used in tea, but Brill prefers them to flavor his tapioca pudding.

Sassafras, which tastes like a combination of root beer, cinnamon, and anise — and is excellent in baked squash — will be plentiful at the edges of trails and in the open woods, Brill says.

Participants will be warned about poisonous plants, such as poison ivy, whose appearance changes throughout the seasons. "In March we’ll be finding it without the leaves, and I’ll show you how to recognize it," he says.

Inspiring environmentalism

Recommending foraging for plants because, "there’s no environmental impact, they’re delicious and they’re healthful," he adds that doing so is also fun and "gets people into nature."

Some kids who started foraging with Brill back in the 1990s have since founded environmental organizations or are doing ecotourism, he says.

Ruben Rameles, who serves on the steering committee of Friends of QueensWay, an abandoned rail line in central Queens which is being turned into a walk/bikeway, recalls taking a foraging tour in elementary school with Brill that stuck with him. A couple of years ago, Rameles organized a community outreach foraging tour with Brill near the QueensWay rail line at Forest Park.

"His tours had a significant impact," says Rameles, 33, of Woodhaven, who is executive director of the Queens chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Violet Brill, 17, who coleads the foraging tours, patiently puts up with her father’s jokes, most of which she’s heard over and over again.

"He is an environmentalist, so he recycles his jokes," she reasons.

Having gone on her dad’s tours since she was an infant, Violet simply loves nature and being outside.

"Now, being able to teach and inspire others to take care about the environment and share my passion, is probably my favorite part," she says.

Foraging With the Wildman Tours

April 10 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m at Belmont Lake State Park.

April 24 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Sunken Meadow Park, Rte. 25A and Sunken Meadow Parkway, Kings Park.

May 21 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Hempstead Lake State Park, 100 West Lake Drive, West Hempstead.

For all tours except the Vanderbilt, register at wildmanstevebrill.com or call 914-835-2153. Suggested donation for other tours: adults, $20; children under 12, $10. Tours cancel due to heavy rain, but will go out with light showers.

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