The Green, Magical Wild World of Alexis Nikole Nelson, Forager and TikTok Star
Name: Alexis Nikole Nelson
Location: Columbus, Ohio
How many people eat together in your home? Alexis and her partner Geoff. Plus two cats and Colonel Mustard her dog
Avoidances: Alexis is vegan but Geoff is not.
Within half an hour of meeting Alexis Nikole Nelson — forager and bonafide TikTok star — I learned a remarkable quantity of new things. I learned that mugwort is a towering weed that spreads in drifts of soft green quills, with a piney bite that rocks the socks off roasted potatoes. I learned that young elderberries can become pickled capers (don’t pop them raw!), and that mulberry leaves can be crushed into a caffeine-free dupe for matcha. But the most remarkable part is all of this was revealed within a scant hundred yards of a busy urban park in Columbus, Ohio.
I and approximately two hundred thousand others have become avid fans of Alexis’ frank and funny foraging videos on TikTok and Instagram. She says things like, “I have a metric butt ton of daylilies, so I pickle a lot of daylily butts.” She promises secrets revealed: “Did you know that there is a delicious fruit that is hiding in most neighborhoods, landscaping, and a lot of parks?” (It’s the juneberry and yes, you’ll be richer for knowing this.) Alexis’ informality and playfulness should not lead you to underestimate her, however: she is a deeply confident expert, with virtuosic authority born of years spent foraging, and an encyclopedic knowledge of plants. Like all the best teachers, she just makes learning extra fun.
“I’ve been eating things off the ground as long as I can remember!” she says in a video. Sharing her foraging on these platforms started as a hobby and a way to connect with other foragers. But then came the pandemic and a TikTok where she explained to all of us afraid to go to the grocery store, that there are “snacks” just waiting to be found in our neighborhood. “At the time I only had like a thousand followers of people who were pretty regional and also did the same thing. It’s an insular community of all of us learning from each other. And then I woke up one day and my neighborhood quarantine foraging video suddenly had 10,000 views, which for me was insane. And all of these people being like, ‘When were people going to tell me I could eat all the weeds out of the garden in front of my house?! And so I made another one, and another one…”
This is where I stop and confess I’ve always been intimidated by foraging. Foraging looks both hard and impractical: can you really learn what’s what? Can roaming the woods coexist with a life and a job? Is this a practical approach to feeding yourself, or a romantic hobby? To Alexis, the answer to all of these questions is yes. Her work is a life pleasure, one that she spends a great deal of time pursuing — but it also generates up to half of the food she eats, especially in the summertime.
I took a walk with Alexis and Rachel, our mutual friend and a photographer, to explore what snacks were hidden in an urban park near downtown Columbus. After a brief, delightful hello to her dog Colonel Mustard, we set off on our socially distanced ramble.
OK so first stop — this is mugwort? I’ve never seen it!
Mugwort kind of changes its appearance with the season. The leaves at the bottom become more pinnate, feathery. I was over here last week gathering and a very kind woman asked me if this was just giant rosemary. And I was like, honestly you can sub them out in your cooking, but it’s mugwort.
We stop at a mulberry tree. Alexis reaches up to pull down a palm-sized leaf.
Here’s a baby mulberry tree. I love making green tea and specifically matcha out of the leaves. And of course it won’t be caffeinated because they’re not tea leaves, but taste-wise — and I’m pretty picky about tea — I consider it a dupe. Sometimes I really want green tea but it’s 10 o’clock at night and I don’t want to be up for another two or three hours. So you dry them and powder them. It’s a whole process.
Alexis spies an enormous sycamore.
I might go and see if any bark is falling from it already. I might make my own liquid smoke this year; I’ve had mild success before with sycamore and hickory bark.
We cross a bridge over Alum Creek and Alexis hustles over to an absolute beast of a burdock, covered in prickly, sticky balls.
I would never go for this thing because it would take so long. I guarantee you this guy’s taproot is a solid eight feet. But for some of the smaller ones I will absolutely show up with a shovel and be like, what is the city going to do? Tell me to stop?
Ok to that point: what indeed is the legality of gathering food in public spaces?
I find that in most of the big cities in Ohio, the language is very purposefully vague. But unfortunately nebulous language is kind of dangerous. Like, New York City has very nebulous language too, and the story everyone tells is about the Central Park Forager who got arrested for gathering dandelions in Central Park. I mean, they were trying to make a point. But it’s like, please just be clear. And be clear that people are allowed to.
How do you decide what to pick and how much?
So I have the plants I gather classified in two really broad categories: Invasive/very pervasive; and then we have our natives and plants that take a little bit longer to grow and are harder to come by. So on the side of invasive and pervasive you have things like garlic mustard; I literally would never feel guilty about how much I harvest. If I had a dollar for every time a park ranger has high-fived me for collecting garlic mustard? Every plant you pull is keeping like 1700 new plants from coming up after it goes to seed [laughs].
Then you have plants that are harder to come by — milkweed, ginseng, Canadian wild ginger. I don’t want anyone to look at those plants and know that I did anything. Leave as little trace as possible. Some people advocate taking one in three but I think that’s often too much. That’s how you see ramp populations getting decimated close to the East Coast. I’m more comfortable with one in ten. Please, eat all the really bad invasives. But if you see like four milkweed plants over an extended space let colonies have the opportunity to go to seed and continue to spread runners, and come back year after year, especially since they support Monarch butterflies.
I want to ask how has foraging been like for you as a Black woman? Do you feel like there is a difference in how you experience it vs. white members of the foraging community?
I would say any time you are moving through a space that is not yours, the color of your skin can very easily come into play. Between me and some of the other big TikTok foragers, most of whom are white and male, I get way more questions about like, well, where are you gathering? Whose land are you on? Is that a park? I also get my knowledge questioned a whole lot more. I only speak to things I feel really confident about so I am always happy to have a discourse with people, if discourse is what they’re looking for.
You also have to just be very careful in public places when you’re foraging. I will go out of my way to look as soft and as harmless as humanly possible. You will catch me climbing a tree in a dress because, well, I feel people are going to be way less intimidated by this like, six-foot-fall Black person very close to them, doing an action they can’t identify, if I look very cute, very sweet.
There’s so much history laden in disenfranchising Black people, indigenous people, poor people from being able to gather food in the wild. A lot of our earliest conservation laws at the turn of the 20th century — we look at them now with all of this love and hope, saying that they started to recognize the value of these lands, when really it was a process to disenfranchise those people from being able to use those lands for food, even if the land belonged to those people to begin with. We’re seeing a lot of discussion about that now with indigenous folks about how some of these lands were taken from them, turned into national parks, and suddenly they weren’t allowed to steward them anymore.
Some of the earliest strict property laws arose immediately after the Civil War, when white landowners were like, if you’re not tending my land anymore, I don’t want you to be able to gather wild food on my property. So trespassing is going to be something worthy of a much more severe punishment now.
And while that is not top of mind every time I am shaking a pawpaw tree in the forest, I think it still plays into people’s attitudes. Both with this fear of wild food, and this fear of how healthy it is, this skepticism. I think people are like, I think what you’re doing is cool, but I hope you’re not in my backyard, regardless of whether they were using those resources or not.
We wander back to the bridge and Alexis stops us for a learning exercise with sprigs of delicate wood sorrel, which to me looks like spindly clover.
I want you guys to take a couple of the leaves, chew on them, and tell me what they taste like to you. [I chew, and an intense tanginess blooms out.] Lemon, right? I was first taught this by a camp counselor when I was six years old, and it was a favorite when I led wilderness survival classes. The kids would say, it’s like Lemonheads! A friend of mine from West Virginia grew up with her grandmother making what they called Appalachian lemonade where they would steep it in hot water and then add sugar to it. I have been doing that ever since.
So how did you get into foraging?
When I was growing up, my mom’s big hobby was gardening. It was the thing she did to de-stress. So we had a million books on plants in the house, and my mom says that by the time I was eight or nine I had read them all. I went to a Montessori school that was very environmentally oriented, so that’s when I started just like rote memorizing Latin names. I’ve just never been too far away from it. I have an entire bookshelf that’s all plant, foraging, IDing books, cookbooks, compendiums of any sort.
Have you ever eaten something dangerous by accident?
The thing to remember is that it’s rare to eat something that’s not good for you and in a great enough quantity to hurt you. I didn’t have a stomach ache from the one time I did. I put butterweed in dumplings. I thought it was yellow rocket. They flower at the same time; they grow in a similar habit. One has five petals, one has four. And I will never forget that now!
I will never put a plant that I’m not 100% sure of in front of another person. But that’s also something I’m genuinely afraid of with TikTok, having such a large following. When I was smaller and just on my Instagram it was really easy for people to send me a picture and ask me questions. My biggest fear is, in all these sweet human beings that are trying to look out for themselves, someone’s going to eat something they shouldn’t. I want to move into an entire series of lookalikes that will help people feel safer about certain things. (See Poison or Snacc? her latest video in this series!)
If half your diet is foraging, what kinds of things do you buy at the grocery?
Well, oil is super necessary and I don’t have a lot of wild sources for it although I’ve tried!
How does all of this work into what you actually eat? What are your go-to dishes?
I usually start the day with a hot meal. If I have vegan eggs I’ll throw a ton of things into a skillet with a little bit of oil. Summer squash from the garden, herbs. I’ll have a sandwich, some sourdough ramp crackers and just am munching through the day. And then for dinner, we do a lot of roasted potatoes. We’ve been making a lot of pasta. My favorite lazy pasta is just rolling them into thin sheets and making little dumplings. I’ll use whatever vinegar I have from the previous season. We’re working through some milkweed vinegar from a cordial I just kept going.
We head back, her basket draped with lacy fronds of Queen Anne’s lace and other goodies, including a homemade vegan cheese wheel she brought to show us, flavored and pressed with foraged ingredients.
What do you look forward to the most every season?
Pawpaws, 100%. They are my favorite tree; they are our state native fruit; they are like this really cool relic from times before humans existed that just didn’t get the memo about evolving for anything other than megafauna, and I love them. They look like tropical trees and they have those crazy funky maroon flowers first thing in the spring. I’m also allergic to bananas, so I can’t do things like banana bread. So all these recipes I normally can’t do, I can do — just sub in pawpaws.
Do you think the pandemic is motivating the interest too?
Absolutely. I do think with COVID there is this new vested interest in being able to take care of one’s self. I think everyone could do to just be able to recognize that handful of plants from their neighborhood. Back when it was a little scary to be going to the grocery store, we were able to stretch it with the things that we foraged and things that we preserved from last winter.
I recommend all of my followers to get a book pertinent to your area. Backyard Forager — she covers things that you will find in urban/suburban back or front yard. Just get to know the little patch of land you are existing on. There’s not a ton of biodiversity to memorize and catalog; just have three or four different plants you get to know and get to pull food from. Most of the weeds we try to eradicate are edible, oddly. You don’t have to be able to go out to the forest and point at things. Even people a hundred years ago didn’t do all that. Someone like me is going above and beyond.
So for you, let’s say we live in a dream world where America came into a perfect sense of itself. What would foraging look like?
I think in the perfect America, foraging would be a more widely taught and celebrated action. We would get to know the land we’re living on a great deal better. We would be able to use those readily available food sources to help in solving things like urban hunger and folks who are stuck living in food deserts in a lot of American cities.
I live in King Lincoln which is a pretty Black neighborhood, getting gentrified before our eyes. I just like answering kids’ questions on my block when they come and ask me what I’m doing. You have to leave our neighborhood to do any kind of food shopping. So I would love to proliferate that information so people who need it can take advantage of it.
I would like to see it be a lot easier to apply for gathering permits. And things like our national forest and our national parks — I’d like it to be legal to gather there.
I talked to Alexis again a few days later and told her that I went home from our foraging walk, a milkweed cordial from her in my bag, and as I went in the side door of my house, something green in the cracked planter on the driveway caught my eye. The planter has been sitting unattended for at least two winters, growing crazed cracks and weeds — weeds I thought were clover but now recognized, thanks to Alexis, as wood sorrel. I picked a sprig, tipped with a butter-yellow bud, and chewed it. Yes: tangy, bright, shockingly fresh. My daughter came out the door and I made her nibble a stem. “What does it taste like?” She screwed up her eyes. “Lemon!!” she shouted. It was like a door opening in the world to reveal something delicious where before I had seen just a messy pot.
When I told Alexis this she said, “Man, I’m sitting here beaming, because you just told me that I helped remove a layer of plant blindness. My favorite thing to hear is that people went out into their own space and realized something of value was in it. It does make the world around you seem richer, and I think it fills me with a feeling of gratitude for the space around me, even though it is urban, even though it is sometimes a mess. It’s amazing to go for a walk and see nature still attempting to provide for us, for any of the other critters hanging out in our neighborhoods.
It just adds a little bit of magic that I think a lot of us lose after we leave childhood, after being told time and time and time again don’t mess with any plants that you can’t immediately identify or find in the grocery store. Foraging adds just a little bit of wonder back into the world.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.
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