Food Agriculture & Nutrition Network of Solano County
By: Kristina Todini, Fork in the Road
As food prices continue to rise, many Americans are turning to community or urban gardens to supplement food costs. Backyard chicken and bee keeping are becoming more popular, and planting tomatoes or basil on a balcony can provide harvests for years to come. However, the chances of a small family surviving off a garden plot is slim and shopping for local, seasonal, and organic food can take a toll on the pocket book. But what if the answer to food insecurity and rising food prices was growing next to your own backyard garden?
Once part of our ancestor’s daily lives, foraging for plants has become a long forgotten way of life and was replaced with our current dependency on stores and markets. Collecting wild weeds, berries, and nuts was a complement to traditional agriculture, and provided naturally local and seasonal fare in a time when the majority of one’s day was spent on the preparation of food. The invention of food systems and a large-scale agricultural industry has freed up the time we spend on food gathering, but has also caused us to lose of knowledge of wild edible plants.
That is all changing with new movements toward wild food foraging. Across the country, and even the world, people are literally and figuratively returning to their roots. From wild blackberries in Berkeley to fields of dandelion greens in Napa Valley, Californians are looking beyond traditional fare to rummage for ruffage. While amateur pickers are safe plucking wild fruits from low hanging backyard fruit trees, newbies should scrounge with caution. Here are the 5 safest wild foods to forage, according to experts:
Stumbling upon a wild berry patch is like finding oil for foragers. Berries are juicy, flavorful, and packed with vitamin C, and can easily be frozen or made into jam for long time storage. The best time of year to forage for berries is mid-late summer, when they are bursting with sweet flavors. Try looking for berries in sunny areas around the perimeter of fields, lakes, or roads. Try this wild berry picking guide by the USDA.
Yes, those pesky things we usually want out of our gardens can actually be nutritious! Some more traditional plants we think of as healthy greens, such as arugula, were once weeds that have been cultivated into the healthy vegetables we know and love today. Some of the most popular and abundant weeds to forage are dandelions, clovers, and amaranth. Most weeds are bitter in taste, so boiling and seasoning are a must!
Nuts are great sources of protein and healthy fats, and can be very expensive in stores. While California is known for it’s nut industry, there are plenty of places to find wild nuts across the state. Wild walnut and pine trees can be found growing in many forests, and a bevy of acorns can usually be found under any oak tree. While finding wild nuts can be a treat, be sparing with what you take. Many local birds and animals depend on nuts as a main source of sustenance.
Taking a walk through most California neighborhoods will result in passing backyard citrus trees, however fig and small apple trees also grow wild in the state. An average lemon or orange tree can produce up to 100 fruit each harvest, which could provide a small bounty throughout the warm California year, and wild kumquats are known to grow throughout the state. Keep your eyes peeled for local, low hanging fruit in your area. And to keep your fruit bearing neighbors happy, always ask before picking their harvest!
With over 800 miles of coastline, California is a prime spot to scrounge for seaweed. The edible marine plants can be found on most rocky shores during low tide, and can be collected by cutting off leaves and leaving stems. It’s best to consult an expert for preparation and cooking methods, and while edible seaweed grows generously, it’s best to only take what’s needed so as not to disrupt natural ecosystems.
While food foraging is a great way for an urban foodie to expand their palate, there are some foraging ethics to remember when picking. First, always consult an expert before eating something unknown found in the wild. Many of our traditionally farmed plants have lost their natural toxic defenses over time and their wild cousins (like mushrooms and some weeds) may cause gastric distress, or worse. And second, know the laws on food foraging in your area and don’t be greedy. Some wild fields and forests are protected for a reason and overpicking can disturb natural ecosystems. Finally, be open to trying new, and often unheard of, foods. Be conscientious and open, and the earth will provide you with what you need!
Andrews, Avital. (2014) The 5 best foods to forage. The Sierra Club. Retrieved from http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2014-6-november-december/enjoy/5-best-foods-forage#1
Kramer, Jane. (2011). The food at our feet. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/11/21/the-food-at-our-feet
The University of California – Berkeley. (2016) Berkeley Open Source Food. Retrieved from forage.berkeley.edu
United States Department of Agriculture. Berry Picking. Retrieved from http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5318876.pdf