By Erik Baard
This Easter weekend you expect to see an energetic, toothsome creature energetically digging for carrots. You just don’t expect him to be a guy named Steve, or that one of his favorite patches is in Manhattan.
“Wildman Steve Brill” is a self-described forager who leads tasting tours of urban parks, and publishes guides and wild plant cookbooks. Indeed, he was arrested once on orders of then-NYC Department of Parks and Recreation Henry Stern for “eating my parks.” Brill has since made peace with the authorities.
The ancestor of agricultural carrots, pale purple-white like the inside of a clamshell, enthralls him. “They’re delicious, and make great cakes, cookies, and soups. And they hold together a lot better than commercial carrots,” he enthused. Eat them early in their lives; the long, edible taproot soon becomes woody and tough.
But might they be, counter-intuitively, less nutritious than mass-market varieties? After all, the wan root (shown above in a photo by Steve Brill) lacks the orange flare we associate with beta-carotene. Actually, the original strains are also nutrient rich.
The wild carrot, part of the Apiaceae family, is also known as Queens Anne’s Lace and Bishop’s Lace for its fine, biennial flowers that bloom in summer, to the delight of butterflies. But it’s not as fussy as those monikers might imply. “They thrive in sandy, overgrown areas,” Brill noted. As with all things in New York, the key to a worthwhile gathering of wild carrots is location.
Brill remembers his first, uninformed, sampling. “I was quite disappointed. I was using field guides by botanists who wouldn’t know a kitchen if it fell on their heads,” he recalled. “The carrots were as small as the graphite in a pencil.”
Two places where populations of this Old World invasive, but widely tolerated and still cultivated, plant are robust enough to satisfy Brill’s discerning palate and hearty appetite are Manhattan’s Central Park and Inwood Hill Park. A few other places where naturalists have noted Queens Anne’s Lace include Kissena Park in Queens, Prospect Park in Brooklyn (and its flowers have even been spotted poking out of a chain link fence near the Atlantic Yards), and along the waterfront of Staten Island. Some good nearby suburban spots for wild carrots include Westchester’s Untermeyer Park and Tibbets Brook Park, and Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Just keep your eagerness in check or you might face a greater hazard than Peter Rabbit did in Mr. McGregor’s garden. “That plant has a deadly look-alike, water hemlock,” Brill warned.
So please, stay among us for a while longer by paying due caution; losing Socrates was enough. Besides, the Wild Carrot Society sounds like it would be a lot more fun to join than the Hemlock Society. Make sure you go first with an experienced plant scientist or naturalist, and keep this check list of distinguishing features in mind: bi-pinnate and tri-pinnate leaves, steams and leaves covered with fine hairs, and a root that smells like a carrot. Another reassuring sign can be a red flower at the center of its pale bunches.
Others, recognizing the unusual chemical properties of Queens Anne’s Lace have investigated its use in folk medicine as a contraceptive. That’s an application that exceeds the wildness of public park tours, even when led by “Wildman Steve Brill.”
And now we hope find wholesome motivation to go a-digging by perusing a few recipes from the quirky Brits at the Carrot Museum.