You probably get your greens at the grocery store, or occasionally at the farmer’s market for local and seasonal produce. But would you go green hunting on the streets around town?
“It can’t get any more local than picking what’s growing on your front step,” said Philip Stark, a UC Berkeley statistics professor who’s on a mission to introduce people to wild edible weeds flourishing in areas under-served by grocery stores. “By eating this way, you end up eating incredibly seasonally — and locally.”
People have been foraging since long before this country was founded, said Hank Shaw, a forager and chef based in Sacramento and author of the book “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.”
“But it has been growing in the last 10 years because people are starting to mistrust the industrial food system,” Shaw said. “They’re starting to take more control over what they feed their family.”
Stark’s Berkeley Open Source Food project maps East Bay streets where food grows in abundance — and tests the greens’ nutritional value and whether they might be toxic. So far,
the team has tested six species of wild edibles — chickweed, dandelions, dock, mallow, nasturtium and oxalis — in selected areas of Richmond, Berkeley and West Oakland. Stark’s team found that the plants were nontoxic and that none of them were contaminated by pollutants or had detectable levels of pesticides.
“The plants were safe to eat if you washed the dirt off,” Stark said.
One of the surprising findings of the project was that farms, community gardens and home gardens grow a lot more food than we realize — and that there are a lot of delicious edible plants that sprout between rows and at the margins of farms.
“Sometimes we see dandelions and purslane on our farm and typically we weed them,” said Sam Thorp, owner of the Spade and Plow farm in San Martin. “But seasonally in fall and spring, we do grow and sell dandelion greens.”
In general, Stark said, it’s easier to find edible weeds growing in places where people put fewer chemicals on their lawns, spend less time manicuring things, and are less invested in a monoculture lawn that “looks like Versailles”.
Most people have mixed opinions when it comes to eating these plants, the study found.
“It varies enormously culturally and socio-economically,” Stark said. “There are communities in which foraging is a common activity — people from Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Mediterranean have foraging as a practice.”
But there are many folks who find the idea uncomfortable — either for fear of eating something toxic, or for picking a plant where a dog had lifted its leg.
“If I knew what I was picking, I would absolutely forage,” said Patricia Simms, a Sunnyvale resident who works in downtown San Jose. “But half the time I don’t.”
To get around that, Stark and his colleagues often organize walks around the East Bay, teaching people how to recognize edible plants, and to normalize the idea of picking leaves and flowers off the ground and eating them.
It’s easy to get started, Stark said, because almost everybody knows at least one edible plant.
“Pretty much every kid in the U.S. has eaten sourgrass at some point,” he said. “So you have the seeds to a green list. All you have to do is learn to recognize one more every time.”
Edible weeds like miner’s lettuce, chickweed, nettles, nasturtium, dandelion, chicory, lambsquarters and sweet fennel are widely known and used in restaurants that serve local foods with a variety of buzzwords like organic, locally sourced, hand-picked and seasonal.
“It’s important that people know what’s out there you can eat,” said John Farais, a native foods chef based in San Rafael, who cooks with plants that most people never imagine as food: amaranth greens, nettles, nasturtiums, dandelions, oak acorns, prickly pear cactus, madrone flowers — and even Douglas fir tips.
“Everyone is into local foods right now,” said Farais, who has been spreading the word about local edible plants for the past 15 years. “For me, local is what’s been growing right here for hundreds of thousands of years.”
Stark, who stopped buying commercial greens four or five years ago, has introduced chefs to some of the lesser known weeds like plantago, sow thistle, cat’s ear, cow parsnip, vetch, wild radish, wild mustards, sheep sorrel, bay nuts, yarrow, wild lettuces and mugwort.
But despite the demand for feral foods, most chefs find it difficult to use foraged weeds because they’re limited in quantity.
“It’s hard to source special things like that for larger busier restaurants. It’s much easier for smaller places to do that,” said Charlie Ayers, chef and owner of Calafia Cafe in Palo Alto.
And some chefs like Shaw are wary of commercializing wild weeds.
“If I’m picking for myself, I’m careful never to pick more than 10 percent of what’s growing,” he said. “But wild foods are growing so trendy that there are very serious issues of overexploitation with certain species.”
Even so, most experts agree that foraging is a good thing when done with care — by identifying correctly, picking sustainably and keeping property rights in mind.
“I think people should take advantage of food that’s available in their environment,” Shaw said.
Resources for Bay Area Foraging
“The Bay Area Forager,” by Kevin Feinstein and Mia Andler
“Bay Area Baker’s Dozen Wild Edibles,” by the Berkeley Open Source Food Project
Falling Fruit — a map of urban fruit harvests http://fallingfruit.org/
iNaturalist — a crowd-sourced app to help distinguish edible weeds from toxic ones