By Hailey Gay
In a time of big box stores and pesticides in our food, it’s hard to live more off-the-grid with the lack of knowledge many have about edible plants and herbs.
But local St. Augustine resident Ryan Robinson grows his own food, and for what he cannot grow, he finds, foraging around the town for edible herbs and plants to live a comfortable life.
“I feel like my life has blossomed since I moved here, there are a lot of great people here, a lot of motivation for creativity and local produce,” he said.
Growing up poor gives a different perspective than a middle class childhood, causing the family to get creative to survive. Robinson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but grew up in Dallas, Texas. Growing up his family would grow and find their own food when they could to save money. Robinson continues to do this in his adult life, currently living in St. Augustine and teaching the locals about their flora and fauna.
“With my mom growing up on a farm, we were always geared towards eating healthy, fresh food if we could. We grew up kind of poor, so we didn’t always have access to that, but we garden whenever we could, and we collected seeds. We would go around identifying plants, that was something my dad was into,” Robinson said.
Shortly after high school Robinson traveled to China for a year to teach English at a school in Huang Liu. While there he contracted Malaria leaving him bedridden for weeks and the doctors did not know what to do; when an old lady who lived next door to him came to check on him. She left him and came back bearing a strange mixture of plants and herbs from the street, which cured his ailment and sparking his curiosity for the world around him.
“That time in my life was another experience that pushed me toward foraging because I did have an experience there where I had Malaria and it was really bad, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. I definitely thought I was going to die, when someone grabbed like their great grandma or just some really old lady from the village. She came in and looked at me, she kind of touched me on my head then she left and came back after 20 minutes with this black sludge that she had boiled down from a bunch of weeds that she pulled. She had me drink it, it was the most bitter awful thing that I have ever tasted, but it healed me,” Robinson said.
Arriving back to the United States, he found himself in a home away from home, St. Augustine. Due to his experience in China, he began foraging and dumpster diving for his food when he came across the Brownes savory. This plant particularly sparking his interest in the plants and teaching others about them.
“It’s nicknamed ‘Florida Mint’ because it doesn’t have a broad distribution. It is native and it is in the mint family. It tastes to me like if spearmint had a baby with globe basil, it’s got a very interestingly licorice aftertaste to it but it’s a mint … It actually dispels a lot of the bugs, so I don’t get rid of it, I let it grow all of my yard,” Robinson said.
Robinson practices what’s known as ethical foraging, meaning he only takes what he needs and leaves the rest for the animals that might need it too. However, the exception for the minimal picking of plants and herbs are when it is not native to the area, he believes that one must pick all of the plant to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
“I don’t really like the term invasive plants. I appreciate the term and its definition, but I don’t appreciate the way that it’s used a lot of times. A lot of times people will identify a plant as invasive and then that’s how that plant is from now on, nobody wants to learn anything else about it or its value or usage is,” Robinson said.
Greeting everyone with a bright smile, you can tell he knows and is excited to teach the people around him about their environment. Understanding the hesitancy to grow and forage for your own food, Robinson provides extensive knowledge to relieve anxiety on the matter. Hosting group forages, which he posts about on his social media, to inform and inspire whoever attends the event.
“I’m not largely into the idea of maximizing profit from what I am doing, I want to get a lot of the education material into the hands of people who are interested,” Robinson said.
Robinson and his brother, who also practices ethical foraging in Jacksonville, are currently working on a website that will act as an encyclopedia for the ‘weeds’ around the world. The encyclopedia will contain information on plants, herbs and how to properly forage without harming yourself or the environment.
“We’re making QR codes instead of making little plant labels, we’ll still make the plant labels with the name and everything, but we’ll the make QR codes for the people who are privy to new school technology. They can just scan the QR code, and it will take you to the page that gives them information about the plant, photos, identification, when to harvest and hazards,” Robinson said.
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