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Urban foraging, a pick-your-own buffet

A peach tree grows in South Philadelphia - at the back of a scrubby little parking lot, at the corner of Seventh and Catharine Streets, overhanging a whitewashed cinder-block wall.

A peach tree grows in South Philadelphia - at the back of a scrubby little parking lot, at the corner of Seventh and Catharine Streets, overhanging a whitewashed cinder-block wall.

It's a beautiful tree, almost 15 feet tall, its branches heavy with clusters of luscious-looking peaches. The sun has turned the fruit near the top a deeper shade of red. It's 10 in the morning and it's already hot, and I want one.

The tree is one of several listed on the Philadelphia Food Harvest Map, a collaborative, user-sourced Google map that allows people to add locations in the city and suburbs where edible plants are growing in public spaces.

Created in the summer of 2007 by David Siller, a farm educator for Weavers Way Farm, it now has dozens of entries, including ones with charming notes: "nice apple tree - get it before the kids do" and "feral hops on the dog park fence."

With my backpack, tree identification book, 5-foot-long picking pole, and laptop, I set out one recent morning to see what I could find.

While it may sound extreme, or at least dorky, I'm hardly the only city dweller with an interest in finding free, fresh local produce these days. What I'm doing is called urban foraging, and urbanites all over the country are getting into it.

Websites such as and facilitate the search in the same way the Philly Food Map does, but on a national scale.

Siller got the idea from a site called Green Map, which highlights natural places in cities all over the world. He doesn't check the entries on the local map, or edit them, though he has been to a lot of the sites by now.

"I just did it as a free-form thing, and hopefully people are honest," he said. "I think people understand that it's user-based, and what that means."

However, he does see the need for a more locally connected site: "The only issue with it at this point is we need to make it our own thing. It's Google, and it doesn't feel like ours. I agree that it should be user-interfaced, but if thousands of people are looking at it it should be monitored in some way."

And, indeed, the unedited format does have its shortcomings: The map said there was an apricot tree somewhere around here, but all I see are the peaches.

No matter; I stand on my toes, push the picker up into the tree, and knock one loose with its metal tongs. I feel it drop onto the cushion lining the basket. After a moment of hesitation - Should I wash it? It feels weird to eat fruit without a supermarket sticker on it - I take a bite. It's the sweetest peach I've ever tasted.

A door opens on the other side of the low wall. Shoot.

"Is this your tree?" I ask the older woman who has appeared there, standing next to her back door. She nods and I shrug sheepishly, caught with my hand in the cookie jar. "I ate some."

"I don't mind," says Kathleen Vernier, the homeowner. "A lot of people came last year and did the same thing," she says.

Originally from Upstate New York ("orchard country"), Vernier planted the tree just three years ago. She and her grandsons, Jackson Fordham, 13, and Franklin Mostoller, 12, are out here now with a stepladder, filling a bucket with peaches to make a pie. One of her two rescue dogs, a little one who looks part pit bull, is excited by all the activity - and in fact is running around with a peach in its mouth.

Vernier didn't know her tree was on the map but she says it's fine with her.

I'd like to stay and talk and try some pie, but I have other sites to check out, places that promise cherries, plums, raspberries, rose hips, and mulberries, lots of mulberries.

On the University of Pennsylvania campus, I go clambering around like a billy goat in the plantings in front of the high-rise buildings and the Kelly Writers House on Locust Walk. I'm looking for blueberries that should be somewhere around here, but if they ever were, a bird or other urban forager has gotten to them first. Sigh.

But this failed attempt has led me to a different discovery. Near 40th and Walnut Streets, just across from St. Mary's Church, are several raised garden beds where edible plants are growing: basil, dill, tall sturdy scallions, and more. It's the Penn Garden, a new project started by students and funded by a grant from the Penn Green Fund. Wonderful, but clearly not for foragers.

As I walk up the lovely blocks of 48th Street in West Philly I'm comfortable even in the July heat, thanks to the tall shade trees lining the street. Between Hazel and Cedar Streets, right where the map said it would be, I find a plum tree, but - cue sad trombone music - the tree is bare, and the sidewalk is covered in plum stains and pits. I'm about a week or two too late.

In leafy Germantown I take East Ashmead Street to where it dead-ends at SEPTA's Wister train station. Little kids are playing ball in the street and a Caribbean food truck is parked nearby, but at the end of the block is a densely overgrown plot of land where a mulberry tree is supposed to be.

I don't find that, but I do find a sour cherry tree full of fruit. I take a nibble: Yep, that's a cherry, tart and juicy. I pick a few for later. A man getting grocery bags out of his car tells me the tree bears plenty of cherries every year, but he has also seen possums and raccoons in the undergrowth he'd like to avoid.

One listing I'm excited about said "raspberries galore" on Henry Avenue, between 6000 and 6099. This stretch of road along Fairmount Park has no sidewalks, and cars are taking the turns like we're on Kelly Drive; I'm glad I got a ride for this location. We pull over and, risking life or at least limb, I throw a leg over the metal fence there and take a quick poke around. There are no raspberries in sight, but peering into the dense growth leading down the hill, I just know they're there. Next time I'll come up through the park.

The Food Map has a feature that allows users to add photographs, which helps make up for the lack of precise addresses. (After all, a tree is not a building.) Still, it can be a wild-goose chase when a user has misidentified a tree or the information has become outdated.

Phil Forsyth, the director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project, who uses the map to show the locations of its orchards, made another point.

"One thing to remember is that people who are really serious about foraging might get to the fruit first," he said. "Some of them won't put trees and bushes on a map in the first place. It depends on the person, but a lot of them don't want to lose the things they took the trouble to find."

So maybe I shouldn't give this away, but in the alley next to the Fleisher Art Memorial there's a great big fig tree growing right out of the sidewalk, creating a canopy with its broad leaves. I for one will be back there in the fall, when the fruit is fat and ripe and ready to eat.

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