The word “sorrel” meant nothing to Paul Garding, so he used touch, smell and taste to decipher its meaning.
Rubbing a small green leaf between his fingers, he sniffed the plant and took some timid first bites. Then, a smile of recognition.
“Tastes like lemon,” he concluded, stepping away from a large planter labeled “Northern European.”
On a recent evening, Garding perused the 10 garden containers that have cropped up this summer along E. 7th Street in St. Paul — an Edible Streetscape.
Organized by several community groups, the project provides pedestrians with the chance to sample unfamiliar flowers, herbs and vegetables from various food traditions on the city’s diverse East Side. The planters are positioned from Margaret Street to Maria Avenue and show off edible plants commonly used in a variety of cultures, including Native American, West African, Hmong and Salvadoran.
“We want to honor and share these traditions, while helping to make that corridor beautiful and pedestrian-friendly,” said Tracy Sides, executive director of Urban Oasis, a sustainable food nonprofit that is leading the project.
Signs in each planter describe the plants and the ways they’re used in different cultures. Passersby are welcome to touch and sample — in moderation.
So far, vandalism has been minimal, and no one has been over-foraging, Sides said.
Funding for the Edible Streetscape came mostly from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, with $20,000 provided to the pilot project through the company’s Center for Prevention.
It’s been a collaborative effort, Sides said, with Urban Oasis partnering with Urban Roots, a youth employment program, as well as Dayton’s Bluff Community Council to host events throughout the summer. Residents can register for a free community meal featuring dishes made from the project’s harvest that will be held the evening of Aug. 6 at the East Side Enterprise Center.
A community planting day in late May kicked off the growing season.
Teenagers like Imogene Silver from Urban Roots pitched in during planting. The 17-year-old helped mainly with the East African garden container and has been monitoring its progress.
“You can see the sweet potato vines sneaking out of the planter,” Silver said. “And there’s all these bright pops of color in a space that would otherwise be unoccupied by anything green.”
A taste of community
The plants along the Edible Streetscape are now in full bloom, with small berries and peppers almost ripe for picking.
“We want people to be open to using new fresh foods in simple ways,” said Summer Badawi, market garden program manager at Urban Roots. She added that they hope to continue the project next summer.
On a guided walking tour this week, curious residents like Garding braved steamy temperatures to sample the plants.
Garding took tiny tastes of his fair share of unfamiliar foods, but one plant at the West African garden left him mystified. He held a slim, burgundy-colored pod in his palms, examining it as if it were a museum artifact.
“How do you use it?” he asked.
Tour guide Kim Werst, the education coordinator at Urban Oasis, had an answer.
“It’s red okra,” she said, adding that the pod should be dry before it’s prepped for cooking.
Garding carried it around for the rest of the tour and then took the pod home with him.
“It’s amazing I didn’t know what okra looked like,” Garding said. “I’m going to slice it up and put it in some eggs.”