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)
Nance Klehm searches for chickweed (yes, that's a real thing, and no, it's probably not whatever you think it is)
Eden Bakti

"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.

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"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.

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