Something about the mugwort plant and its shared ancestry with New York writer and recipe developer Zoe Yang always fascinated her. Having a good understanding of important Chinese herbs, mugwort was one she’d never encountered, much less expected to find in the middle of Central Park. It originally came from the Eurasian continent, where it is used culinarily and medicinally in many cultures, including in China.
After that Central Park discovery, Yang’s interest in foraging became obsessive. She eventually found herself climbing over a ragged chain-link fence to get to a patch of unsullied mugwort on Brooklyn’s East River waterfront. She spent hundreds of dollars on obscure ethnobotany books, and paid hundreds more in parking tickets in my relentless pursuit of certain plants. From the minty bitterness of mugwort to the addictive sulphuric onion fragrance of the Toona sinensis tree, all these plants from Yang’s home country seemed to tell her, “Welcome, old friend. It’s OK that we didn’t meet before, we’re both here now.” They also invited Yang to dig deeper.
Foraging, which had started out merely as a quest for new flavors, had become an entirely different sensory pursuit. Somewhere between Yang and her ancestors, teaching children to identify plants by name, what it smells like and which parts of it are medicine, poison or food was lost. Yang wondered, could she ever regain all the knowledge that was once common sense to my ancestors, and whether it’s been irretrievably lost — an internal almanac unwritten.