Taking a page from Matt Crook’s plans identifications in his blog, I thought I’d start sharing the notes and photos from my plant walks on my blog.
Northern California Wild Edible Plant Foraging Society
For a couple of years now, I’ve participated in the Northern California Wild Edible Plant Foraging Society, which consists in going out as a group and identifying both edible and dangerous (and sometimes both) plants in the area.
The group is led by Heather Pier, an affable and inspiring naturalist rarely short of a story. Heather’s blog offers a wealth of recipes and instructions: wildness.me. She offers several classes each year. I have attended one on acorns and one on elder flowers. Her “sacred smoke” class is coming up soon.
Click the images to enlarge. It may be that I have misidentified specimens or erred in spellings. Corrections are welcome.
Mustard. Member of the brachia (as is broccoli). This is a crucifer, characterized by four petals and six stamens to the flower. All crucifers are edible. Observe the small, mustard-colored flowers. Yes, this is the plant whose seeds give us the condiment commonly known as mustard. Yes, it is this plant whose seed Jesus encourages us to have faith equal to. No, it’s doesn’t grow into a great tree in which birds can roost. (At this point, one supposes that Jesus meant even if your faith begins as small as a grain of mustard seed, you can develop it until it grows into a tree so large that birds would roost in it. Clearly, a strict interpretation of the mustard seed analogy is not well-placed, since the Mustardseed is far from being the smallest of seeds.) Wild grape. Makes a great jelly (Heather says). Wild grape is not uncommon in the area. I know of one on my street (in addition to several tame grapes in neighbours’ yards.) The one pictured here was growing in and around a great elder bush.
Elder. You can see that this one grows quite tall, surpassing twice the height of any person in our group. Most of these berries, it appears, are not ripe yet. Black, blue, and red varieties of elder exist. All parts are poisonous except for the berries and flowers. When harvesting the berries, collect them into a bag and freeze them right away. Once frozen, strike the bag against a hard surface, and the berries shall immediately come free of the stems for easy gathering. For red elderberries, remove the seeds before consuming; cooking alone won’t do the trick. Native Americans used the wood for flutes, clackers, and arrows. Chicory. Observe the beautiful purple flower. Dry the roots and grind, then combine with dandelion to make bitter coffee.
Heather is wont to point out that our diets include little of bitter. Bitter foods promote bile production, thus contributing to digestion.
Datura. We were told that you can crush the leaf to get a strong peanut butter smell, but we were unable to produce the smell in the sample that we found. Don’t smoke it. Heather reports that those who smoke it never get over the effects, end up in lunatic asylums (asyla?). Heather soaks her feet in it after a hike to ease pain.
Native blackberry. This is the first time I can recall seeing the native variety of blackberry in the area! Blackberry is quite common where I live, but when I have identified it in the surrounding towns, it has always been the invasive and very prolific Himalayan blackberry. The two varieties are said to differ only in leaf count: the native variety has three leaves, and the Himalayan five.
Lactuca. This is a bitter, edible green with a dandelion-like flower. Good in salad. Gives off milky sap.
Universal Edibility Test
Milky sap in plants is used by some as an indication that it is unsafe. In particular, it is used by the Universal Edibility Test, promoted by the U.S. military.
Heather comes from a military family and reports that she has been involved in some training of troops and has cultivated hey dislike for the Universal Edibility Test. It results in many false positives and many false negatives, some of which may not kill you in the next few days but will kill you several years in future. The Universal Edibility Test advocates testing an unknown plant by rubbing it on a patch of sensitive skin, waiting eight hours, nibbling a bit and spitting it out, waiting eight hours, eating just a little bit, waiting eight hours, etc. you can probably see a couple of flaws with the test.
What stands out to me is that most forage provides nutrition but little or no energy. It would be most remarkable to be able to subsist on forage alone without the cooperation of the village. So even if one man is to use the you eaten the two identify an abundance of edible plants, he hasn’t insured the food supply in the event of a long sojourn; therefore, I think he should have used his increments of eight hours to travel to the friendly side of the enemy line. Willow. One can find willow on every river.
Everyone is familiar with the aspirin-like properties of willow. Boil some water, then steep the willow overnight, and you have an aspirin substitute to drink. It does not contain aspirin itself but rather the components of aspirin, which your body can combine and use. Willow water provides vitamin B12.
White willow is best, but any willow will do. To reliably distinguish between types of willow, use a key and identify them in wintertime.
Wild radish. Raphinus genus. The juvenile pods are edible and do in fact have a lovely radish-like flavour. The pods can be pickled but will smell awful. (I say this from personal experience.) Flowers are yellow, pink, or white.
Wild oats. Most of the year, most of Sacramento is brown. So to the wild oats, as seen in the photo. Earlier in the season, they are green and have a drop of milky sap in the top.
We had two herbalists on our walk this morning. One of them had this to say about wild oat: “It brings moisture back to dry areas, ladies. It will make you a better lover.” Soak the milky oat tops (when green), infuse, then drink. It relaxes. Add shave grass to oat infusion for calcium supplement.
Black locust. Entirely poisonous except for flowers. Flowers make lovely pancake. See Heather’s blog for recipe (wildness.me).
Milk thistle. Liver regenerator. Modern liver prescription is synthetic form of chemical from mil thistle. Chew a lot before swallowing in order to get benefit. The one you can see here is severely dry.
Every thistle is edible. I’ve had a few, and some are easier to eat than others. Heather peels the stalks to eat them and cuts spines from the leaves to eat them. I have actually using a number if this’ll leaves with the spines still on, and it is manageable, but the variety of thistle makes a difference. (I wouldn’t eat star thistle.)
Hoarhound. For hard candy in old days. Good for coughs and soothing throat.
Fennel. From these wild plants, you won’t get a bold like you would from the grocery store, but you should get the same, pleasant licorice taste. (You can eat the lacy leaves and the stalks.) observed the tiny yellow buds in the photo. These will flower later. (They might have floured already, I suppose, but for the drought. Some of the fennel we observed grew 6 feet tall. Be careful when foraging for this plant because it’s flowers and stalks greatly resemble hemlock.
Hemlock. The poisonous plant reputed to have carried out Socrates’ death sentence. Several plants in the area resemble hemlock, and it text very little to kill a person, so caution must be exercised when foraging.
Having read Plato’s account of Socrates’ death, I assert that the accepted story is not wholly true: either Socrates was killed by something else, or he did not suffer the peaceful, dignified death which Plato recounts. Hemlock results, rather, in a painful, convulsive death.
I’m afraid that the photo is quite poor and these samples are quite desiccated in consequence of the sun and drought, but you may descry a nearly identical stalk and flower with fennel. To contrast this plant with fennel, have a look at the leaves: fennel has lacy leaves, whereas Hemlock has more substantial but very dissected leaves.
I often see hemlock growing among two of my favorites, easy foraging plants: chickweed and miner’s lettuce. Typically, I find it close to the ground, but the samples in the photo are six feet tall.
Queen Anne’s lace. (no photo) Wild carrot. An edible plant which resembles hemlock. Heather reports that it was used by Native Americans for birth control but that studies have found it short of effective.
Dock. Rumex crispus. You probably envision the broad, green leaves characteristic of this plant, and although we see such samples during the wet season, the ones we saw were all rather burned up by this time, but it seems that the seeds could still be harvested for cooking. Heather recommends grinding the seeds and adding them to flower. A chemical in the root helps the body hold onto iron.