Where the Fruits of Autumn Might Include a Summons
Dainty white zinnias were blooming in Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan last week. Fragrant lavender trembled in the breeze. And delicate gray tufts of lamb’s ear were visible in the terraced Heather Garden overlooking the Hudson River.Soon, autumn will bring other signs of the season. As the leaves on ginkgo trees turn vivid gold and their fruits plop to the ground, many Asian visitors will come to load plastic bags with the fallen fruit, whose nuts are considered a prized delicacy.
“They wear latex gloves because ginkgo flesh is very toxic,” explained Jennifer Bremer, a gardener for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, who was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and carting perennials in a wheelbarrow.
Nor is the ginkgo the only plant that attracts foragers, at Fort Tryon and other parks. For instance, when the hawthorne berries ripen, said Anna Malmude, a gardener in dirt-smeared pants, “the birds, squirrels and Russian women go nuts.”
Gardeners at various city parks have also observed foragers, who seek plants as both food and medicine, taking away jewelweed, pokeweed, mulberries and linden berries.
Foraging for plants, which is not solely an activity of immigrant New Yorkers, can violate the law. A person prosecuted for severing, mutilating or unnaturally removing a plant can be fined up to $4,000.
Admittedly, the Parks Department does not view the problem of illegal foraging as a major one. Jesslyn Tiao, a department spokeswoman, said summonses for foraging violations were issued only infrequently. “Over all, this is not extremely prevalent,” she said.
But, she added, the department is currently trying to track down one particular forager who has been gathering huge amounts of flowers and fern fronds in Inwood Hill Park, not far from Fort Tryon, and trampling on rare native species.
Sometimes park workers delicately intervene. Cordelia Lawton, a Fort Tryon gardener, recently confronted a woman who was picking berries from bushes in the park. The woman spoke little English, but from what Ms. Lawton understood, she was collecting medicinal plants for her ill husband.
“There’s a delicate balance between preserving your garden and preserving your relations with the community,” said Ms. Lawton, who didn’t pursue the matter.
Moreover, parks officials are quick to explain that not all foraging is against the law.
“Basically, anything that falls to the ground — leaves, fruits, nuts — is fair game,” said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, noting that the seasonal ginkgo collectors were actually doing the parks a service.
“What people can’t do is pick or cut,” he said. “We encourage people who want produce to visit greenmarkets.”
By JENNIFER BLEYER