by Brendan Gallagher
When Diego Bonetto was five years old, his mother would send him out into their dairy property in northern Italy with a plastic bag and a butter-knife to collect dandelions. The activity served a double purpose – Diego enjoyed the solitude and the spring dandelions were used to clean the digestive system of the heavy and starchy foods of winter.
Thirty years later and thousands of miles away, Diego is passing on a lifetime of foraged knowledge about the uses of what he refers to as ‘our botanical brothers and sisters’ but what he admits ‘most people would call weeds’, by giving foraging tours around Sydney’s inner suburbs.
Slender with an elfin face and wispy moustache, Diego might seem a strange sight cutting out clumps of flat weed or sheep sorrel, ubiquitous weeds around the gardens and parks of Sydney, and adding them to his wicker basket but until comparatively recently such foraging was commonplace.
“Two generations ago, what I’m teaching today was common knowledge,” he says. “In the 19th century, they used to pull out grass from the gardens to let the dandelions come in. Nowadays, we do the opposite. In the fifties, in the UK, they used to print out pamphlets to let people know the edible weeds. And it was common practice for the young people to go out and collect food daily for the family.”
And the practice lives on in sections of the community.
“Foraging is not something done exclusively by Indigenous people whenever there are some tourists who want to be shown around,” he says. “Foraging is something done daily by various cultures from around the world, in this country.”
Diego says various ethnic groups have imported their foraging knowledge from around the world.
“Perfect example, you go in a State Forest at Easter time, the forest speaks Polish because all of these Polish people go there and collect mushrooms. It’s amazing; the forest speaks many different languages.”
When Diego is not grazing the grasslands of Sydney and beyond, he is an artist. Not surprisingly, much of his work focuses on how different immigrant cultures bring traditional activities with them and, by applying them in their new home, use them as a gateway between their old and new cultures. Foraging is chief among them.
But Diego is also interested in imparting this knowledge to those he sees as having been disinherited of it.
“What I’m doing here is not presenting anything new,” he says. “What I’m doing here is giving back what you own already.”
And is in such spirit that he leads today’s tour of city-dwellers along a bike track skirting the remediated marsh flats of the Cooks River.
The first stop sets up the theme for the tour. Squatting down, with a practised flick of his Opinel knife, Diego collects two samples to illustrate the subtle differences between dandelions and flat weed. His trained eye didn’t need to wander far; the ground around is strewn with both. Alike in both appearance and abundance, they are the ubiquitous yellow flowers that Sydneysiders see growing resolutely in parks, unattended flower pots, even in the cracks between pavers.
Diego points out the tell-tale difference between the two – dandelions have only one flower on a single stalk, flat weed has multiple stalks and flowers. Dandelion also has a thicker, and hollow, stalk and its tips of its jagged leaves curl back sharply (‘like lion’s teeth’).
What is fascinating, though, is the abundant uses these have.
“The flat-weed is far too bitter to have in summer,” he says. “But in winter, it’s much sweeter, much less bitter. While in winter, dandelion is not very available, I use this as my winter green. I cook it because it’s furry; I use it in stir-fries, pasta, risotto, and it’s fantastic, a great winter green.”
But it’s the dandelion that steals the show. The flower can be used for honey, steeped in alcohol and used as a hand-cream, or made into dandelion tea. The leaves are a potent digestive green used in salads to clean out the system of fatty and starchy foods. And its medicinal properties are many.
“Dandelion medicinally is amazing. It’s good for the hands; it’s good for the liver. It is one of the hundred most used species in Chinese medicine. I mean Chinese medicine use thousands of plants. To make it into the top hundred, you really need to be good.”
Diego points out a number of more common weeds and rattles of a list of their uses, attributes, characteristics, tastes, smells. The group has only moved 100 metres from the starting point of the tour and the information already feels overwhelming.
The track the tour follows takes about 15 minutes to walk. The tour itself is scheduled for two hours, though Diego says it usually takes about three.
“In the whole day, if I’m lucky, probably I’ll introduce you to 10 to 15 species. That’s too many. For people who don’t recognise species in the wild, to remember that many, that’s too much. So we’re just trying to keep it short and empower ourselves with something.”
But the tours aren’t about memorising plants or properties, Diego points out. He is interested in breaking down concepts that have become entrenched, concepts such as native and foreign, crop and weed and, in doing so, creating a new botanical reality. After all, weeds are, by their very designation, the plants that are most adapted to human environments. It makes sense to make use of these persistent companions.
The plants he points out are unrecognisable not because they are rare, but because they are so common. They merge together to form the green background. Diego distinguishes them by ascribing them uses.
The wood of the Camphor laurel used to make glory boxes to keep clothes safe from moths. A handful of camphor leaves in the cupboard will still do the trick. The African olive tree produces small delicious fruit which can be eaten straight off the trees; rambling dog weed has a lemony zing that could hold its own in any Thai wok. All these plants are prolific throughout the city.
However, Diego cautions against collecting in the open parks of the city, as one doesn’t know whether the weeds have been sprayed or if the land is polluted or soiled by dogs.
But, in fact, you needn’t even go as far as the park.
“The best place to forage is your own backyard,” Diego says.
O thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee…
Othello, Act IV Scene II