In the San Francisco Bay Area, Berkeley Open Source Food, a project funded in part by the Berkeley Food Institute, is working to increase the supply of fresh, affordable, nutritious, drought-resistant, low-carbon-impact greens—especially in urban food deserts. One of the ways they hope to do this is through education: opening our eyes to the feral and abundant edible plants all around us. Philip Stark tells us about the project’s origin, and about a few edible greens you might find in your own backyard.
I came to foraging through long-distance trail running—noticing how the vegetation on my trail changed seasonally, and looking forward to the succession of wildflowers. I became interested in what all that green stuff I ran through might be good for. Food was an obvious answer, especially because I love to cook. Once I started paying attention to wild foods in “natural” ecosystems, I started to notice the exact same plants in urban ecosystems.
So when the Berkeley Food Institute put out a call for proposals in 2013, it seemed like a chance to combine ecology, gastronomy, and social justice in a way that could expand the food system and our diets and improve public health. I wanted to find out just how much wild food there is in urban ecosystems; to determine whether it’s safe to eat, despite environmental factors such as heavy metals in soils; to increase the food supply, especially in urban food deserts, through education about wild foods; and to share the enormous variety of flavors and nutrient-dense foods with others. Part of this means teaching people about the stuff that grows all around them—how to identify it, and how to use it. Here’s a quick guide to the “weeds” that are probably growing right in your neighborhood.
Chickweed, originally from the Eurasian continent, is found in most of the U.S. It’s abundant in the spring after it rains when the sun returns and greens start poking up, and can cover large areas when conditions are right (like an entire planter, or an entire yard). It requires a fair amount of moisture. Early in the season, it does well in direct sun, but later in the season, look for it in shady areas (the fully exposed plants can get dry and straw-like). It’s best before it flowers. We love how soft and delicate the stems and leaves are, both in flavor and texture, while still having a slight crunch (like alfalfa sprouts). It tastes like spring.
When identifying chickweed, look for a sprawling, low plant with small oval pointed leaves and possibly tiny white star-shaped flowers. The most obvious identifying characteristics:
- It has a single row of hairs that runs the length the stem
- It has opposite leaves
- If you pull gently on the outer part of the stem, it will separate, leaving a thin inner section (try a few times, it might take a bit to get the hang of it)
- In bloom, it has small, white, star-shaped flowers with five deeply cleft petals, from which it gets its Latin name (Stellaria).
- It does not leak a milky sap when you break the stems
Don’t confuse it with: Scarlet pimpernel, which is not edible. Scarlet pimpernel has coral or scarlet flowers and lacks the single row of hairs. And it tastes bad.
How to cook with it: Some recipes call for cooking chickweed, but we prefer it raw, or at most slightly wilted over a soup or by the hot chickpeas in this salad recipe.
RECIPE: Moroccan Chick-Chick Salad
Sweet fennel is another Eurasian import, native to the Mediterranean. Once you start to notice it, you will see it everywhere; on a recent mapping day in West Oakland, we were amazed to see it thriving in asphalt, cement, roadsides, and parking lots. You’ll find forests of eight-foot tall sweet fennel along highways in the Bay Area.
Sweet fennel is in the same family as carrot, parsley, and dill (Apiacea). It has thin, feathery leaves, and may have delicate yellow flowers. When we lead foraging walks, someone always asks how to harvest the bulb—but wild fennel is mostly about the greens, which are far sweeter than those of commercial fennel and are delicious in a salad. In the summer, the flowers, pollen, and seeds are wonderful spices and garnishes.
Don’t confuse it with: Poison hemlock, which is in the same family, but has leaves more like carrot tops and purple splotches on the stems. If you are unsure if what you have is fennel, crush it and give it a sniff—the anise fragrance is extremely strong.
How to cook with it: Although you probably wouldn’t want to make an entire salad of fennel, the sweet anise and licorice flavor works great as a garnish. Try it in sauces, on fish or chicken, in omelets, in desserts, and as a salad component. A chifonnade of sweet fennel in olive oil makes a great sauce for fish, and a compote of sweet fennel and wild plums is a great accompaniment for game, and couldn’t be simpler: use 3 parts plum to 1 part wild fennel. Pit the plums, chop the fennel, and reduce them together over low heat until the plums fall apart and the volume decreases by about a fourth The pollen is a colorful and tasty condiment, and the seeds are a flavorful digestive aid.
RECIPE: Cherry and Wild Fennel Clafoutis
Miner’s lettuce is the only Californian native plant on this list. It saved many 1849er miners from scurvy—it’s rich in vitamin C. It sprouts fairly early in the spring, when the rains start—and like chickweed, it does well in sun early in the season and then moves to the shade in the summer. When it’s mature, the leaves sit on top of the stems like an umbrella (this is where it gets its name: perfoliate leaves surround stems), and look like lily pads, with small white flowers protruding from the center.
How to cook with it: As long as it’s green, even after it flowers, it is palatable: very mild and silky, and great as a salad. Miner’s lettuce bruises easily; it’s best eaten shortly after picking, with a minimum of handling and transportation. The leaves and stems make a great salad.
OXALIS (AKA SOURGRASS, WOOD SORREL)
Oxalis spp., O. pes-caprae
Oxalis is native to Africa but has conquered the world. It looks like clover, but its three leaves are heart-shaped, like a classic shamrock. The flowers have five petals. The leaves, stems, and flowers are all tasty. The most common variety in the Bay Area is Oxalis pes-caprae, aka Bermuda Buttercup, which has yellow flowers. Wood sorrel with light purple flowers is common, too.
Don’t confuse it with: Oxalis has no dangerous look-alikes, so it’s a great foraged food for newbies! (Clover is the plant you are most likely to confuse it with. Clover leaves are edible but not particularly tasty.)
How to cook with it: The taste of oxalis is approachable and bright, and the stems have a lovely crunch. It works well as a salad with just olive oil: you don’t need to add any acid. The juice and leaves provide a bright acidic kick to sauces or as garnish—a little goes a long way. Wood sorrel is high in Vitamin C, and some recommend the plant for liver and digestive issues.
Stark and his fellow investigators—Tom Carlson, Eric L. Berlow, and Kristen K. Rasmussen—have published a printed guide to finding and eating the Bay Area Baker’s Dozen Wild Edibles that features the plants discussed here and more. A tax-deductible donation of $15 or more to BOSF will score you a copy.