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Forager Digs Up Food On 'Eat Your Weeds' Walk In Westport

Ethnobotanist Hayden Stebbins explains how to prepare garlic mustard, a weed found in many backyards, at the Westport Public Library. Photo Credit: Meredith Guinness
Ethnobotanist Hayden Stebbins speaks to the crowd on the "Eat Your Weeds" tour in Westport. Photo Credit: Meredith Guinness
Ethnobotanist Hayden Stebbins explains the characteristics of the tree of heaven plant in Westport. Photo Credit: Meredith Guinness

WESTPORT, Conn. — As Hayden Stebbins sees it, the natural world is a fascinating place filled with things to see, hear — and eat.

“My mission is to show people the world around them,” said the ethnobiologist and forager. “Once you learn about one plant, it’s one shade of green. And there are many more out there.”

Stebbins stopped by the Westport Public Library recently to lead “Eat Your Weeds,” an informative hour-long stroll along the town’s picturesque Riverwalk that drew dozens of aspiring backyard botanists. Along the way, he explained to families that many of the so-called weeds that pop up in their yards, in the woods and along roadways are actually edible and often quite nutritious.

According to Stebbins, who holds a master’s degree in sustainable horticulture and food production from Schumacher College in England, weed is just a word for a plant you don’t know how to use yet.

Just steps from the library’s patio, Stebbins yanked a few leaves from a garlic mustard plant growing along the path. Aptly named, as the leaves taste and smell like garlic mixed with mustard, the species is a member of the brassica family.

“As far as I know in this part of North America, all brassica species are edible,” Stebbins said. “It’s like wild broccoli rabe.”

He advised the crowd to sauté some or add it to a salad earlier in spring because eating garlic mustard leaves later in summer “is like putting wasabi in your mouth.”

The root can be grated and used as a kind of horseradish, he said.

Many plants have medicinal properties scientists are studying, Stebbins said. Researchers have found that wild oregano growing at higher altitudes have more concentrated oils that have antiseptic properties. One researcher is studying ways to use the plant to combat MRSA infections, Stebbins said.

He introduced the group to some of the peskiest of invasive species in the area, including Oriental bittersweet and ailanthus, which looks similar to sumac and has allelopathic effects on neighboring plants.

“It makes it harder for them to grow,” he said. “This is an antagonistic plant.”

The library hosts several gardening and nature programs each year. Next up is a free talk on composting at 7 p.m. on Sept. 8. For more information, visit the website . For more information on Stebbins, visit his Facebook page .

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