Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Hedgerows

Hedgerows are overgrown strips of land separating two fields or other open areas. Hedgerows typically serve as home to a wide variety of plants, birds, animals and insects. With rampant development eating up farmland at an alarming rate, hedgerows become fewer in number with each passing year.

But another kind of “hedgerow” is popping up, and these, too, serve as sanctuaries for a variety of plants and other critters. I refer to the ditches, vacant strips and similar undeveloped slivers of suburban real estate found between stores and businesses. Every town and city has them, too, and they are visible reminders of what once grew and flourished in a once rural but now urban landscape.

This morning, while waiting for the auto dealer to put a set of snow treads on my Ford Focus, I took a stroll along the retail strip located between Route 1 and downtown Belfast, Maine. Here, parking lots and chain drugstores have replaced woods and fields. I can remember one place, now paved over and home to Duncan Donuts, Sears, Subway and several other chain stores, was once a family farm. I remember the school bus stopping there to let a boy (whose name I forget) off each day. Who ever thought that such a dramatic change would ever take place?

Anyway, these chain stores and other retail businesses, while close together, often have 10-foot-wide patches of unpaved real estate between them.

Many, if not all of these “suburban hedgerows” hold a wide variety of useful wild plants. In fact, urban foragers need not make the trek out to rural locations in order to find useful plants. All they need do is check out the in-town hedgerows.

Today, November 28 was unusually warm. Most of the snow from the pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm had melted, revealing green grass as well as a variety of edible plants. For instance, I saw common sorrel, curled dock, dandelions and common plantain. Most of these plants were in good enough shape to be used for food.

I wondered, though, what would happen if I decided to do some foraging here and someone confronted me. What would I tell them? I came up with several nifty answers, including, “Oh, I’m the Taraxacum (dandelion) inspector,” “Be careful there…this stuff is Glechoma hederacea (ground ivy),” and “It’s okay…I’m going to certify that your Thypha latifolia (cattails) is healthy.”

Upon discovering these urban oases I now realize that no matter how much we dig, cut, build and pave, we cannot stop nature. The plants will go on, no matter what. And that knowledge pleases me no end.

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