Seattle native Jacobson was known as ‘Mr. Tree.’ Now his curiosity is directed toward researching houseplants you can eat.
ARTHUR LEE JACOBSON, 56, has lived in the Montlake neighborhood of Seattle his entire life. He did yardwork to pay his way through the University of Washington, graduating with a degree in history. While most of us know Jacobson for his “Trees of Seattle” book, that’s a reductionist view of this omnivore of a plant professional.
“I love wild plants, natives, edible plants, shrubs, as well as trees,” explains Jacobson. “It was The Weekly that gave me the nickname ‘Mr. Tree’ in 1996, when I wrote ‘The Living City’ column for them.”
Even while he consulted on trees and led tree tours of city parks, Jacobson was gathering information on plants that grow through cracks in the sidewalk and in the neglected margins of the city. He published “Wild Plants of Greater Seattle: A Field Guide to Native and Naturalized Plants of the Seattle Area” in 2008. Jacobson-style, he included information on which wild plants are good to eat. “I forage because one of my passions is good food,” says Jacobson. “When you take a walk, you can meet your neighbors and find fresh food.”
More information about Arthur Lee Jacobson’s publications and tours
Over the years, Jacobson has been a dedicated volunteer for gardening causes. He’s served on many boards, including Seattle Tilth, where he not only was president, but also maintained a weed garden to help people identify the interlopers in their gardens.
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What are his favorite weeds for snacking? “I like plants that are delicious and nutritious, like purslane,” he says. “And the mustards, because they’re spicy, and nettles because they’re so wholesome. Plain weeds like dandelion and chickweed aren’t so interesting.”
And where to find Seattle’s most unusual and venerable trees? Jacobson recommends the Ballard Locks for the most concentrated diversity. Leschi Park, Lake View and Calvary cemeteries offer a look at immensely old trees. You can find the largest native trees at Schmitz, Seward and Denny parks.
Jacobson loves research, traveling to California to study at the Berkeley and Davis university libraries and the Huntington Garden. He also spends many hours at the Miller Horticultural Library at the University of Washington, which is where I first met him nearly 30 years ago.
Now Jacobson’s considerable curiosity and laserlike research skills are directed toward … edible houseplants. Although he used to scorn houseplants, he realized that for many people without gardens, their only experience of growing plants is indoors. By 2009, Jacobson was well under way on a new project: He’s compiled 1,156 genera of edible houseplants, and he’s not done. “Up to 76.5 percent of all houseplants are edible, but that doesn’t mean they’re good to eat,” he says.
Jacobson’s house has gone green; his office alone, with humidity high enough to mimic the tropics, is home to 50 kinds of houseplants. He’s found some are tasty, especially young and tender ficus leaves. Cooked lightly, they taste of figs without the sweetness. He also likes the huge leaves of the highly productive plant commonly called the lettuce tree, cultivar Pisonia grandis ‘Alba’. But beware of the more common variegated form, P. umbellifera ‘Variegata’. Its leaves are said to be a purgative, although Jacobson ate four recently to test them as part of his ongoing investigations. So far, no ill effects.
And when can we expect to have Jacobson’s edible-houseplant book in hand?
“I’m still in the stage of assembling the voluminous data,” says Jacobson. “I might publish a scholarly work, and a more general book, and a cookbook … any given day I could stop researching and start writing.”