Crime fighters try a new way to uproot thugs and punks — weed out the flower pickers

Retiree plucks dandelions for meals — instead, preserve cop serves him a $75 ticket

With so much crime in the Chicago area, from murderous gangbangers to those thug mobs and everything in between, it's nice to know that law enforcement finally cracked down on Public Enemy No. 1:

He's John Taris, 75, retired tailor and notorious dandelion picker.

Now this alleged criminal is facing a $75 fine for the terrible crime of picking a weed that most Chicagoans hate.

A few weeks ago he was hunted down by a Cook County Forest Preserve cop and caught red-handed in possession of dandelion greens. For an old man barely making it on Social Security, finding $75 to pay the ticket will be tough.

"They make me a criminal for picking dandelions in Chicago," Taris told me the other day. "And all I wanted was something to eat.

"Oh, my wife, she's so upset. She couldn't eat, she couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. It's very upsetting to be called a criminal. And $75?"

Taris and his wife, Joanna, don't have very much. He says he worked as a tailor for years on North Michigan Avenue, and now he and his wife receive about $1,500 a month in Social Security.

After the bills are paid, there isn't much left over. There wasn't much in the refrigerator, either, when Joanna asked him about lunch.

"My wife says, 'What to eat? We have nothing to eat.'" he recalled.

But Taris knew where he could find some healthy and delicious food: at the LaBagh Woods near Foster and Cicero on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

"I say, 'Don't worry. I'll go to the park.' We had an egg, some hot dogs. I tell her, 'Make that and I'll go and pick some horta.'"

Horta.

They're so tasty.

Horta is what Greeks call dandelion greens. You can find them at gourmet food stores and top-end produce markets. Fancy chefs have recently discovered them, but most Mediterranean people eat them, even if they call the weed by another name.

Horta are delicious and nutritious, and they don't cost anything when you pick your own.

Wash thoroughly, boil until tender, then drizzle with lemon, olive oil, salt and perhaps a pinch of pepper. I grew up eating them, and drinking the lemony broth full of vitamins. We eat them at home to this day, and I always order a plate each time I visit a Greek restaurant.

The Greek and Italian horta pickers aren't alone. Asians forage for wild onions as well as greens. Poles and other Eastern Europeans search for wild mushrooms.

Drive by any forest preserve, or most any empty roadside, and you're apt to see people, particularly women, pulling dandelions and stuffing them into their plastic supermarket bags.

"I'm in the park, I see the Chinese people taking the onions. The Polonezi (Poles) for the mushrooms. The Italian people, the Arab people, Greeks, all of us," Taris said.

"I used to see another police, Mr. Wilson. He would say, 'John, how are you doing?' I say, 'Dandelions,' Mr. Wilson. I'm hungry, Mr. Wilson.' This is what we do."

My brother's mother-in-law, Martha, isn't poor — another of her daughters is a partner in one of the top law firms in the nation. But Martha and her girlfriends are crazy for dandelion greens.

If she's in a car and spies a patch of horta, or wild grape leaves, or wild chard, she demands that you stop so she can pick some. They smile and laugh as they pick.

It is this natural act by which immigrants are transported, out of the factories and the gray city of two-flats and back to the fields and mountain meadows of their childhood.

If only Taris were a young hipster, joined by other hipsters, the politicians would be ecstatic that people would actually visit the forest preserves to do something other than dump a dead body or get high. They'd market the foraging as a green movement.

But the horta pickers aren't hip. They're not fancy chefs. They're working people, immigrants, peasants. And now they're criminals.

Karen Vaughan, spokeswoman for the Cook County Forest Preserve District, said foraging is prohibited.

"It's unsustainable, especially when done for commercial purposes," she said. "Quite simply, we could see some of these plants disappear over time. It can also have negative impacts on the natural plant and animal communities we're trying to preserve for the public.

"In terms of dandelions specifically, although they are nonnative and considered weeds, our preserves also contain several native species that resemble dandelions to some extent, including a plant called 'false dandelion.' Most people don't distinguish between different species."

But a few oldsters picking a bag or two of dandelions is no commercial enterprise. And I don't give two fiddler's figs for the "false dandelion."

People actually using the forest preserves outweigh eco-warrior concern for fake dandelions and real ones.

You'd think the district's yearly budget of almost $200 million would be better spent on catching the body dumpers and the weirdos rather than harassing a few old people holding fast to lost ways.

But when Mr. Taris visited the area of the LaBagh Woods he calls "the jungle," he ran into a Cook County Forest Preserve cop who wasn't as understanding as Mr. Wilson.

"I'm going round behind the trees, near a fence," Taris recalled. "They can't cut the grass there. Just weeds. Just horta. And the police says, 'Hey, you. What are you doing here?'"

"I say, 'I'm doing nothing. Just collecting the dandelions.' And he says, 'Go to your car.' And then he give me the ticket.

"Seventy-five dollars for 3 pounds of dandelions? I can't imagine this is happening."

It's happening, Mr. Taris. But I expect you'll fight this in court when it comes up July 9.

If only Taris had clout, he wouldn't have to worry. But he's poor, and he's old, and he's dared to pick dandelion weeds in Chicago.

What a criminal.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

CHICAGO

More