The idea for taking it upon myself to forage for my own foliage in an urban setting was introduced to me by one Joe Medeiros, biology and ecology professor at Sierra College in Rocklin, CA. A scruffy and adventurous man, he would often entertain his classes with tales of surviving bear encounters in isolated wilderness and complaining intelligently about the earth’s rapid over-populating of humans, all with wry wit and heartfelt sincerity. We all trusted him immediately. Thus, it was not so surprising that, on frequent field trips around campus and in the nearby Northern Californian foothills, I thought it ingeniously resourceful and just plain rad that he would stop, bend down and pick some random green-leafed herb on the side of a sidewalk or trail and cram it into his mouth. We watched and were amazed, realizing that, contrary to a vague assumption we all seemed to have, every little green thing growing in your backyard isn’t horrifyingly poisonous.
Over the years, the impulse he instilled in me to be curious about the plants that surround us on a daily basis never died. The more obvious edibles, such as oranges in the historic trees growing on the landscaped sidewalk plot in front of my apartment in downtown Sacramento or the plethora of Himalayan blackberries encroaching on my aunt’s backyard in Berkeley were easily taken advantage of, for urban foraging may encompass all available resources. Questions of the right people have to eat from plants growing on public and easily-accessible private land have been raised, but I must confess that no fence nor fear would stop me from stuffing a few ripe peaches, fallen on my then-neighbor’s lawn in Oakland, into my pockets. In fact, once caught doing so, she encouraged me to continue to help myself. This tendency to consume what others might neglect has resulted in a number of organizations designed to connect people in communities with plant locations and people willingly providing fruit surplus, such as Urban Edibles in Portland and Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles. The wonderful, humanistic benefit of such organizations, in the spirit of social charity, is that individuals in local settings become better-acquainted through the very old and even sacred act of food gathering, using what the Earth is already providing to share and sustain themselves.
But the idea of urban foraging doesn’t need to be limited to easily identified fruits you’ll also see at the market. So many plants that you might pass on the way to a corner store are very-likely palatable and nutritious. This ventures into what is now commonly called Wild Food, plants that sprout up naturally, where they please, entirely uncultivated by people, be they native species having existed in an area for eons or invasives accidentally introduced by people in the last century or less. Recall my former professor, Joe; he had an expertise at identifying and discriminating seemingly obscure edible plants from inedible or occasionally poisonous ones. Such an in depth knowledge requires much practice and perhaps a guide for the new forager; a notable one would be the famous “Wildman” Steve Brill of New York City who leads many of the curious on tours through the city, helping them sort through available resources (his website also offers an extensive identification guide with color pictures).
Years after learning from Joe I found an incredibly useful book: Wild Edible Plants of Western North America, written by Donald Kirk and expertly illustrated by Janice Kirk. Living in Sacramento at one point, equiped with this guide as well as a friend conveniently enrolled in a plant taxonomy course, I decided to stroll a few blocks to the American River parkway to try to come home with something to cook. Hardly ten minutes into our search, my friend identified mustard plants with broad, dark leaves and little hairs on the underside. Certainly not something you would immediately think to be edible, let alone tasty in a salad or stir-fried in a wok. Shrugging, I cross-referenced them with the illustrations and descriptions, picked some, brought them home, and did just that: put them in a salad and stir-fried them in a wok. They were great.
And this easy find is minor compared with the variety and availability of wild and once-cultivated plants permeating our urban environment. For example, not long after at a local farmer’s market, I found a vendor selling twist-tied bundles of dried oat straw, yellow and hay-looking, intended to be boiled as a tea, with a pantheon of reported health benefits ranging from B-complex vitamins to assuaging depression to helping cure forms of cancer. Looking it over, I realized that this stuff grows frickin’ everywhere, in open lots and unkempt front yards all over any city I’ve lived in California. The farmers themselves just harvested the bundles in their backyard before market. I thought of Joe back at Sierra College and his mouth full of what I later learned to be tangy, vitamin C-fortified Miner’s Lettuce he found next to the science building, and couldn’t help but smile.
Do you need to be crazy to start eating the stuff that grows in the cracks in your driveway, or crazy not to?