Wake Up Call

Falling Fruit: Online Datatbase Maps Every Edible Urban Plant

Though we may live in a concrete desert, there are plenty -- to be more specific, tens of thousands -- of edible plants growing in the Valley. And we're not just talking about in Wickenburg or down near South Mountain. There are edible plants growing in nearly every neighborhood, from Central Phoenix to Glendale, Scottsdale and Tempe.

Don't believe it? Just check out this map, complied by Ethan Welty and Caleb Philips, a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, to show just how much is growing in urban orchards around the country.

The idea for the map came to Welty last summer when he realized he no longer needed to buy fruit; he could pick everything he needed right off the plants growing on the streets of Boulder, Colorado. Welty, a Ph.D. student researching glacier movement, eventually teamed up with Philips to expand the database into Falling Fruit, a website that now catalogs more than a half-million urban trees with edible products.

"We wanted to do it at a scale that will make for a story that other people will be exposed to," Welty told the Atlantic. "To have 600,000 locations is a way to amaze people by the sheer magnitude of what already exists, which is one way to think about how we could do it better."

And as straightforward as that idea may sound, there's a lot of gray area when it comes to determining what should be counted as an "edible plant."

For example, the two most common trees are the honey locust and the small-leaved linden. While neither bears fruits you'd be able to find at a supermarket, linden flowers can be used to make a tea popular with herbalists, and honey locust seed pods produce edible seeds and pulp. In Phoenix, you'll notice a number of Mexican flat palms on the map, which (aside from offering a nice touch of tropical feel to landscaping) bear spherical, blue-black drupes -- edible, though thin-fleshed.

The map represents part of a larger movement to support increasingly edible cities. There are other groups using grafting to make bare trees into fruit trees and planting vegetables on city sidewalks. On the other side of the coin, biologists worry that all the additional edible plants could disrupt the current ecosystems. With too many fruit trees around, cities could endanger already vanishing phenomenon such as impressive monarch butterfly migrations, swarms of ecologically important honeybees and the songbirds that feed on them.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria