Thursday, March 6, 2008

food for free.

Edible plants can be found growing in any environment, even in the city. Learning to identify and eat the wild edibles that grow in San Francisco has changed my relationship to the landscape. I walk to work scanning the cracks in the pavement to see if I can name the weeds there. Eating miner’s lettuce in the park, or bringing home wild radish flowers, I feel a specific connection to place. These are not plants that have been carefully cultivated and managed. These are plants that are often found at disturbed sites, in abandoned lots and highway medians, the life at the edge of cities. To discover food that is free has also allowed me to experience eating without consumerism and to imagine food outside of capitalism. The following edible plant profiles are from a zine that Source, a Bay Area collective that I am a part of, will soon be publishing. We’ve only been researching wild edibles that grow locally, but many of these can be found nationally. If you’d like a copy of Edible City, please feel free to email bayareasource at gmail with your name and address.

Plants found in parks and parking lots:

California Bay
California Bay leaves that are picked can be left to dry for a few days and later used whole to flavor soups and other recipes that call for traditional Bay Leaves. (But be sure to remove the leaves before eating,) The nuts can be a bit bitter, but they are often eaten roasted. To roast the nuts, remove the outer shells to bake at 350 degrees for a half hour. California Bay leaves can also act as a natural insect repellent. Place whole leaves in cupboards or around picnic tables to deter insects.

Chicory is identifiable for its bright blue flowers, but it is most edible before flowering occurs. The leaves, when young, can be added to salads or sautéed as greens. The roots of chicory are also commonly used as a caffeine free coffee substitute. To make this chicory drink scrub the roots of the plant clean, then thinly slice them before leaving in the sun to dry. Once the slices are dry, roast the roots in the oven until they turn a light brown. The chicory is now ready to grind and brew.

Yellow or Curly Dock

Dock is commonly found growing in disturbed sites and in areas that receive a lot of water. Dock leaves are best picked young before the floral stalk forms and they can be used as a spinach substitute. The flavor is a bit similar to rhubarb.

Dock Soup

3 medium potatoes, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tbsp butter or oil
3 cups vegetable broth

Sauté onions, garlic and potatoes in butter over medium heat. When soft, add broth and dock leaves. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce to a simmer for 20-30 minutes. Cool the soup and puree. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Recipe from Plantworks by Karen Shanberg and Stan Tekiela)

Fennel is found in many vacant lots in the Bay Area and has the slight scent and taste of licorice. When the stems are 1/2 an inch or less in width, they can be eaten raw or substituted for celery in recipes. The seeds that appear in late summer and fall can also be eaten raw or dried for later use. Do not confuse the feathery leaves of fennel plants with poison hemlock. Remember to confirm the characteristic licorice smell of fennel.

Fennel in wine and honey
4 fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable broth
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup white wine
1 teaspoon mustard seed

Place the fennel quarters in a large deep skillet with the centers facing up. Drizzle with olive oil then pour in the broth and honey. Season with mustard seed, salt and pepper. Cover over low heat for 45 minutes, turning occasionally.

Miner’s lettuce
Miners Lettuce prefers moist and shaded spots and is distinct for its wide round leaves. Miners Lettuce is a plentiful native species but to practice responsible foraging, leave the flowering leaves in favor of those without obvious white flowers. The mild leaves and stems can be eaten in a salad mix, sautéed or steamed.

The fresh leaves and stem tips of this sprawling plant can be found in open fields or gardens and eaten raw, pickled, or cooked. Purslane contains more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant, and is also abundant in calcium, potassium and iron. Do not pick the whole plant, simply pinch off the stems you wish to use.

Purslane Rice

1 bunch of purslane, washed and chopped
1 onion, peeled, halved and then sliced
2 medium size tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup of rice, washed
3 tbs of olive oil
salt and grounded black pepper, to taste

Place all the ingredients in one pot, cover it and cook on slow heat until rice is tender enough (about 30 minutes.) Serves 2-3. (Recipe from

Stinging nettle
Stinging nettles are often found in the same habitat as dock and should always be picked with gloves because of the painful rash they can cause. However, this vitamin rich green is edible when steamed or boiled and is known to have medicinal properties. The water left from cooking stinging nettles can be used as a tonic or the leaves can be dried and used as a tea. Nettle is known to help anemia, arthritis, hay fever and other ailments.

Nettle Soup
3/4 lb. Nettle leaves
7 cups water
3/4 cup cashews, preferably soaked in water overnight
1 tsp. butter (or oil)
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 tbls. dry beer
Squirt of lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
One medium onion

Chop the onion and sauté in butter until it's translucent and golden brown. Puree nettle leaves in six cups of water and add to pot. Puree cashews with a cup of water and add to pot along with beer, nutmeg, lemon juice, and salt & pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes, adjust seasoning, and serve Nettle Soup hot. (recipe from the website of the Pacific School of Herbal Medicine,

Wild Radish
Wild radish is found in fields and vacant lots and can be identified by its purple four leafed flowers. Both the blossoms and its fresh young leaves taste strongly like radish and can be used raw in salads.

Yarrow is a common medicinal plant that can be found in a variety of habitats. The foliage, once dried, can be used in tea to relieve cold symptoms and a piece of the plant held against a wound will staunch bleeding

Coastal plants:

Rockweed is one of the most common seaweeds of the coast, with the highest Vitamin A content found in summer and the highest Vitamin C content in fall. Rockweed can be added to soups for flavoring or baked as a vitamin rich treat similar to potato chips. To make rockweed crisps, place 3 cups of dried rockweed in a large baking dish with 1/2 tbs olive oil. Bake at 275 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid burning. The rockweed is done when brittle, crisp and fragrant. (Recipe from Eating and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants by Steve Brill)

Ice plant
Iceplant is plentiful along Bay Area shores and both the leaves and fruit can be eaten. In early fall the red fruits are ripe and slightly sweet. The leaves can be eaten raw but most people recommend pickling.

New Zealand spinach
New Zealand Spinach is one of the few greens that is available all year long. It usually grows within sight of saltwater in large clumps several feet across. Pluck off the top 3 inches of tender green stems and leaves. Raw leaves are mild, slightly salty, succulent, and fleshy. Cooked, they taste like garden grown spinach.

-Edible and Poisonous Plants of Northern California by James Wiltens
-The Flavors of Home: a guide to wild edible plants of the SF Bay Area, Margit Roos Collins
-Comprehensive wild foraging database
-Great recipes for wild edibles

1 comment:

wimwright said...

Thanks for a great post. I've often prided myself on my foraging skills, although many of these were new to me.

I especially appreciated you're encouraging responsible foraging, to ensure that we aren't decimating native populations.

However, Ice Plant, Curly Dock, and Fennel are all invasive to California, so you can feel free to chow down on them. Just be careful so you don't spread them around even more.