Find Local Wild Plants to Put on Your Plate
By Eva Barrows | Photos by Philip Kent
It might be hanging on an ornamental landscaping tree, escaped from a garden, or wearing the guise of a roadside weed: Take a closer look and you may learn that good wild food is all around us, often hiding in plain sight.
At Ardenwood Historic Farm, an East Bay Regional Park District property in Fremont, I found myself standing in a veritable salad bowl of wild edible plants. As I visited with two park naturalists at this working Victorian-era farm park with its manicured lawns, kitchen garden, and cultivated crops, I found that the park naturalists love to talk about everything that grows here any time visitors show an interest and ask. They also hold occasional organized wild food walks like the one coming up March 6, 2022.
As Ardenwood gardener Heidi Haydee Hegwer toured me around a sodded area by the greenhouse, she identified many of the edible plants in view by both their common and scientific names while listing culinary and medicinal uses.
We found chamomile (Matricaria recutita), a garden escapee with sweet-smelling flowers that can be dried to use for tea infusions.
Nearby was some cheeseweed (Malva parviflora), a garden invader with a seed head that looks like a cheese wheel. The cheeseweed leaves are good raw in salads when young or steamed if older.
Bees were feasting on the purple flowers of some Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), an herb with bitter-tasting thick felted leaves used in tea infusions and also delicious sautéed in butter.
We also found borage (Borago officinalis), a naturalized annual herb, known for offering anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. For a bit of elegance in iced drinks, you can freeze this plant’s edible purple flowers inside ice cubes.
Ornamental trees planted to provide color and shade surround the Patterson House—an architecturally striking all-white farmhouse built in 1857. In January, a Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle) had immature green peppercorns dangling in bunches from its leafy branches as well as some mature pink peppercorns, hardened and ready for grinding and sprinkling over pasta.
A nearby strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo aka Pacific madrone) had dropped many of its bite-sized fluffy red fruit all over the ground, but a fruit plucked from a branch offered a sweet crunch on biting into its white seeded flesh.
Mud-covered pigs were rooting in their pen and a litter of baby goats snuggled together as we approached the hay barn to visit a gigantic bay tree (Umbellularia californica), which drops its edible nuts from its huge canopy in the fall. A great provider to the Ohlone people, the bay offers leaves to use as a food seasoning and for steam treatments to clear the sinuses. The property is also home to many native oak trees, including live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and valley oak (Quercus lobata), which litter the ground each fall with their acorns. Another Ohlone food staple, acorns require much leaching to remove their bitter tannins before the meat is edible.
On another occasion, I spoke with Ardenwood naturalist Christina Garcia, who has led wild food walks at the farm for several years. “There are all kinds of edible weeds growing in the fields that we hoe out and throw away, but in other cultures all over the world, a lot of people eat those,” she said.
Garcia first became fascinated with wild edibles as she learned about native plant uses for food, shelter, and cordage while working at nearby Coyote Hills Regional Park, a former Ohlone village site.
“I really started thinking about everything we could get or make ourselves,” she said. “Everything comes from the wild or a farm. It has to be processed, and then we buy it somewhere. Little kids, especially, feel really powerful when they can walk around and eat something out of the wild. They have this fantasy about being able to live on their own and take care of themselves. That’s what native food is all about; not having to grow it yourself.”
Garcia appreciates the spontaneity of romping along the farm property’s dirt trails and traipsing over fields in search of what’s sprouting, but she warns that not all plants should be tasted. Hemlock (Conium maculatum), the very same poisonous plant that killed Socrates, grows prolifically in the East Bay. It bears resemblances to parsley, chervil, angelica, fennel, and Queen Anne's lace, but each of these plants are distinct in ways that can be learned. Garcia emphasizes how important it is to understand these differences and learn other ways to spot plants that could be hazardous to eat.
Other guidelines she offers foragers include making sure you have permission from the property owner if you want to gather on private land, and avoiding pollution from cars, dogs, and people by choosing plants growing at a distance from trafficked areas. She adds that plants growing in soil compacted by shoes and tires tend to be smaller than those thriving in healthy soil.
A springtime walk offers a chance to pluck greens when they are young and tasty. Garcia says she likes to teach people when each plant or each part of each plant is seasonally at its best. For instance, as a plant puts its energy into its flower, the leaves become bitter. I can appreciate this on my January walk with Hegwer as she leads me down a gravel road between the farm’s central field and cow pasture, stopping when she spots an outcropping of weeds. We find pink-purple flowered wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) intertwined with yellow-flowered mustard (Sinapis arvensis), and I pick a young, clean mustard leaf to taste. I bite into it and soon feel the mustard warming my chest. It’s my first time out foraging, and I truly enjoy trying the “weeds.” It’s opened my eyes, and now I’m seeing radish and mustard growing wherever I go. ♦
Ardenwood Historic Farm’s spring 2022 Wild Food tour takes place on March 6, 1–2:30pm. If you missed it, ask a naturalist at one of the farm’s visitor centers if they can help guide you on your edible wild plant search. More info: 510.544.2797
San Francisco Peninsula–based freelance writer Eva Barrows covers food, travel, and lifestyle for regional magazines and helps independent authors feel confident in their writing by offering developmental and copy editing services.
Photographer Philip Kent says, “Driving and cycling have taken me to many enchanted places in California, and nature has always been a source of inspiration both in poetry and photography.” A retired truck driver, Kent majored in art and is an avid cyclist.