Sweet snacks are growing along the TART Trail near Traverse City.
Walkers and bikers can now reach down and grab a blueberry, an edible mushroom, and many types of fruits and berries that they may have never before seen. As long as they’re in season, that is.
“It’s food that you can just pop in your mouth when you’re riding your bike,” says Jonathan Aylward, who spearheaded the effort as an Americorps VISTA project. “Maybe grab something when you’re on your way to work down the trail, or harvest a few berries for a snack during the day.”
So far, they’ve concentrated the plantings along a section of the trail north of East Cherry Bend Road, in southern Leelanau County, just northwest of Traverse City.
They’re also starting with mostly native Michigan species.
“Two native plants we’re really excited about are the American persimmon and the Paw Paw,” Aylward says.
The American persimmon is said to be juicy and delicious when ripe, but bitter and unpleasant if picked too early. The Paw Paw shares its name with a southwestern Michigan city and grows naturally all the way from Michigan to Florida. It never really caught on because it rots quickly after it ripens, so it would be difficult to ship it to supermarkets.
“It’s better out of hand along the trail as a snack,” he says, comparing its flavor to the mango and other tropical fruits.
There’s the potato-like sunchoke along the trail. It’s said to be better when cooked, but has grown naturally along the trail and is marked more for educational purposes than for fast food on the trail.
Not everything the group introduced was planted in the ground. Volunteers also planted one type of edible fungus in a tree trunk. They drilled holes in the trunk and pushed in wax plugs with spores in them in hopes that delicious mushrooms will sprout this year.
Of course, the group put up signs to help most of us sort out what we can and can’t eat. There are a lot of pleasant things that can grow in a Michigan forest, but there are also a lot of things that are harmful if swallowed.
Aylward notes the fruit plants are low now since they’re only a couple years old. They should bush out year-by-year and yield more and more munchies all the time.
With the help of the $10,000 the group has raised and a donation of some land near the trail, they’ve also started a nursery to start the plants and then transplant them in several locations along the popular 60-plus-mile trail system and other public places.
Aylward started the project after learning about Beacon Food Forest in Seattle and some urban farming sites in Detroit that have planted a supply of fresh fruits for the public to pick and enjoy. The project has included workers to help create gardens, fundraisers like a walking concert by Seth Bernard along the trail, and signs and pamphlets to raise visitors’ edible plant IQ.
Altogether, 20 local civic and environmental groups and dozens of volunteers lent their hands to the edible trails project.
Samantha Graves, a permaculture farmer who helped with plantings, compared the project to public art. “It can really get people talking,” she said.
There’s also a pollinator garden incorporated near fruit plants with flora and fauna designed to attract bees and butterflies to pollinate the fruit blossoms.
Enjoy the trail while exercising and snacking.