Nance Klehm, Founder of Weedeater Street Medicine, Exploring L.A.'s Edible and Medicinal Plants (No, Not That Kind)
|Nance Klehm searches for chickweed (yes, that's a real thing, and no, it's probably not whatever you think it is)|
"I'm not just out here foraging because it's free," promises Nance Klehm on this sunny Sunday morning wander through the wilds of Echo Park. She's the founder of the roving Weedeater Street Medicine classes, a seasonal triptych of the edible and medicinal plants of Los Angeles. "I always want to look at what's precipitated out of my landscape -- what zone I'm in," she says, purposeful and intriguing as we pick plants out of the medians and sidewalks and shrubbery and eat them.
The pursuit of wisdom is not without its pitfalls. Yet Klehm -- her face lined and worn like that stark and stunning photograph of the migrant pea picker taken by Dorothea Lange in the 1930s -- inspires instant confidence and trust. She points at an unkempt median choked with weeds and turds. "This is a car zone, a dog zone, so I usually don't take from there."
Recent rains have opened up a great green world of promise sweetly inhaled as more joggers take to their paths, the sound of a church service in the park getting louder, mingling with the laughter of babies on the shoulders of giants. She pulls handfuls of chickweed from an ignored bush sprouting off the side of a tall brick wall. "Chickweed is known as something that chickens will go crazy for, but it's full of omega-3s and it's really tender and really delicious now. I'd eat the tops of that."
She hands over some of the strange, tart plant. Not bad. So are we going for taste, or effects? She pauses, chewing thoughtfully. "It depends on what you're going for. See, I think lettuce is a crock of shit. There's a lot more nutritive value in this -- A's, C's. I usually just eat it raw. You can eat the whole thing. If you mix that with a little bit of lemon or bitter orange in a salad, it's awesome." Its delicacy gives way to subtle hints of crunchy dirt.
Chickweed is also a medicinal plant. Crushed into mush, it becomes a salve for rashes, burns or other irritations. She rubs its watery essence into my hand. The cooling sensation is startling in its soothing immediacy.
"Another really good green is nasturtium. Then there's wood sorel ... ." Has she had anyone eat something during a Weedeater walk and not feel good afterward? She chuckles knowingly. "No, because I don't introduce you to those plants. I keep it safe because people are not paying attention."
Nibbling on the peppery nasturtium doesn't make it go down particularly smoothly. But its taste does bring a brief pang of regret that we can know all about the lesser works of Henry Miller and the assorted lineups of the Masters of Evil while knowing essentially nothing about the natural world around us.
"Wow, this is amazing," she enthuses, discovering patches of sow-thistle. "Most every plant you see is from Europe or Asia. It's not indigenous. Our entire landscape is Eurasian meadow -- and that's across the United States, except for certain select areas."
We move on to unexpected floral finds: a single stinging nettle growing lonely in the parkway. It's a medicinal herb that stimulates blood flow. Europeans scour themselves with nettles in saunas to alleviate arthritis and other joint pains. We move on to shepherd's purse, its crushed leaves a coagulant for the wounded; to warming, soil-strengthening wild mustard; and to stomach-soothing mallow flowering at the side of the trail. "If you want to risk the dog pee, you should try some. It won't be the first time you've had dog pee." Now she's getting personal.
In the park, Klehm explains her fascination with the lay of the land. "This is really about a relationship: to a place and to your own body. This is a direct way of taking care of your health and connecting to a place."
She scrambles for a better vantage point, looking for plants she may have missed, telling the story of the people who survived the scurvy of the Siege of Leningrad by chewing vitamin C-rich pine needles.
Is urban foraging ultimately about survival?
"It's gastronomic, but it's also survival skills, plus me being into the plant spirit and straight-on street medicine. You can take it any way you want to. Neo-primitivists are into this, chefs are into this, moms who are trying to do alternative activities with their kids are into this. And I have people who are intent on healing themselves."
I left Nance Klehm as our time was up, seeing her, as I drove away, making yet another great small discovery in the shady green mundanity of the morning. That's the essence of urban foraging: the search for something in the natural world that nourishes and inspires, inside and out.Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.