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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: The Rockland Forager

by Susan Hellauer

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa BoutiqueDying To Bloomand Strawtown Studio.
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“Here, try this.” My guide handed me some leaves plucked from the top of a common weed. Had I not already spent some time with British-born self-styled “forager” Paul Tappenden, I would have politely declined. But, because I trusted his expertise and because the top of the plant was a bit taller than any dog I knew of, I bit off a leaf and chewed. “It’s nice. Tastes spinach-y,” I said. “I told you so,” he answered. “It’s called lambs quarters, and it’s good for you too.”

Tappenden is the Rockland Forager, but you may also know him as the gifted painter whose murals can be seen in the Nyack Village Hall lobby, outside La Fontana restaurant on South Broadway, and in galleries and private collections all over. You’ve also doubtless seen his scenic artwork in hundreds of popular movies of the 1980s and ‘90s.

Rewind some more and find Tappenden, born and raised in hungry postwar London, taking off in his early 20s, after a few years as a teacher, to hitchhike around the world, singing or sketching for his supper. While on the road in South America, a spur-of-the-moment side trip to the Amazon jungle lit his passion for the edible and medicinal plants in plain sight all around us.

Paul Tappenden, the Rockland Forager. Photo courtesy Suburban Foragers via Facebook

World voyager to Rockland Forager

It was easy to scout Tappenden sitting at an outdoor table at Nyack’s Art Café: He’s tanned and trim, wears a leather outback hat, with a salt-and-pepper braid hanging out the back.

In 1976, the multi-talented world traveler-on-a-shoestring wound up in New York. “But life with that Amazon tribe, who lived off only the forest that surrounded them, continued to inspire me to study nature,” he said. Tappenden bought reference books and, while working for 25 years as a scenic artist in the film industry, studied everything he could find about plants.

During the 30-plus years since he moved to Nyack with his wife Kathy (who works at Nyack High School), Tappenden transitioned from his film career to full-time work as an in-demand mural artist. But his interest and intensive self-education in useful flora never abated. “Now, I forage for plants daily; and if I’m not foraging, I’m cooking them, eating them, or doing something with them,” he said.

paul tappenden

Paul Tappenden’s iconic La Fontana restaurant outdoor mural. Tappenden also painted the Nyack Panorama mural in the Village Hall lobby. He created images for the Nyack Gateway welcome sign, and for some of the DPW vehicles. Image courtesy Paul Tappenden

Granted, I’m a city girl, but why have I never heard about foraging, or even thought about looking for wild edible plants in plain sight? “Americans are behind other countries in this way,” Tappenden said. “Our food supply has become completely corporatized. We’ve been brainwashed into believing that all this [pointing to the Art Café’s lush greenery] isn’t food.”

Cures what ails you

As we wrapped up our talk, I asked Tappenden to take me on a small foraging trip. I imagined we’d need to go to Clausland Mountain, or up the Hook. “No, no! We’ll stay right here, in Nyack,” he said. “There’s plenty here. That’s the point.”

But before taking off on our Nyack mini-forage the next morning, we took a basement tour of Tappenden’s collection of medicinal plants, dried, preserved in alcohol or oil, made into tinctures, teas, or salves. “Here’s my 100% effective go-to for colds and flu—elderflower.” He opened a repurposed gelato jar. “Now’s the time to get down to the marshes and gather it for the year. Then there’s mugwort—absolutely amazing for nighttime leg cramps, for instance. . . . I believe that whatever grows locally is the most effective.”

rockland forager

The Rockland Forager’s herbal “library” in the basement of his South Nyack home. Photo: Susan Hellauer

Tappenden strongly warned, however, that preparation and use of plants for healing was not for the neophyte. Doing what he does takes extensive study and experience.

Food at your feet

After sampling the spinach-cousin “lambs quarters” and some nutty, unopened sweet-pea buds, we walked no more than a dozen steps down Brookside Avenue to a stand of jumbo white post-rainstorm mushrooms. They went right into the forage bag. Just across the street, Tappenden picked a bounty of tasty little “fairy ring” mushrooms. To the uninitiated (like me), they might as well all be the “Destroying Angel,” but Tappenden knows his fungus inside out. 

We passed several non-native plants, like garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and black swallow-wort, all targeted as invasive pests by environmental groups. “But invasive plants can bring us gifts, which should be recognized as well,” said Tappenden, noting that Japanese knotweed shoots can be cooked up like asparagus in spring, and the roots harvested later for medicinal purposes. “Garlic mustard leaves are garlicky and mustardy. Black swallow wort pods are tasty and tender when they’re young. Even the inner bark of Japanese barberry [a notorious woodland invader] has antibiotic properties, and the berries have more antioxidants than goji berries.”

purslane rockland forager

Purslane, invader of Nyack lawns, is also an international delicacy. Photo: Susan Hellauer

And foraging isn’t just a summer thing. Tappenden ticked off three nutritious and versatile autumn finds: Dandelion roots make a delicious coffee or meat substitute; acorns make flour to cook with year-round; and the autumn olive tree produces masses of antioxidant berries. “Most people ignore the autumn olive,” said Tappenden, “but Kennedy Dells park [in New City] is full of them.”

The Suburban Foragers

To stay sharp, Tappenden, a septuagenarian, goes hiking for four or five days at a time with nothing but a tent and backpack, along with some oil and salt for cooking. “I try to practice as many types of survival skills as I can, and sometimes even try to do without the tent and the backpack,” he said.

Fortunately, Tappenden doesn’t keep his skills to himself. He teaches every July at the Nature Place day camp in Chestnut Ridge. “We go on overnight campouts, and I bring a mobile kitchen along, so we can cook and eat what we forage. The kids love it!”

rockland forager

Tappenden (second from right) leads a wild edibles and medicinals identification walk. Image: Suburban Foragers via Facebook

He also started an informal adult group, the Suburban Foragers, which he leads on local foraging walks and related activities. “We all share our knowledge of homesteading skills, like canning, fermenting, and even flint knapping,” said Tappenden, “as well as primary survival skills, like finding water, building a shelter, staying warm, and making our own tools.”

But the group isn’t just about survival. The Suburban Foragers create and enjoy communal meals, including a legendary Thanksgiving forage feast. “Our group has plenty of good chefs, and people from all different backgrounds. Our feasts are very international, and always very delicious.”

We parted ways, and Tappeneden was off to Clausland Mountain to bag his annual bounty of gourmet chanterelles—no charge.

Learn more:

rockland forager

Weed or dinner? Delicate lambs quarters, a nutritious cousin of spinach picked from a South Nyack front yard. Photo: Susan Hellauer

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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique, Dying to Bloom, and Strawtown Studio.

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