Finders KeepersThe morning sun peeks through gray clouds. The ground is muddy from several days of rain. Various greens poke their tender leaves through the wet earth of Tilden Park, a 740-acre oasis in the Berkeley hills, just east of San Francisco. I've been coming to this park for more than 15 years. I've watched my boys—four-year-old twins—take some of their first steps here, toddling off to see snowy egrets and blue herons diving for fish on Jewel Lake.
On a recent walk, one of my boys squatted down, transfixed by a plant with a long, reedy stem topped by a bright yellow flower. "What's this, Mama?" he asked. "A sour flower," I told him, the common name for oxalis, a plant that grows rampant all over the United States. "You can eat it," I added. He picked one for himself and one for his brother, and they both chomped down on the stems. Their lips puckered–very sour indeed. Utterly delighted, they asked me what else they could try. That, it turned out, was a very good question, and one for which I didn't have a ready answer.
I knew that many of the foods I buy from my local health food store—berries, dandelions and other wild greens, edible flowers, and even pine nuts—grow locally. I just wasn't sure where they grow or how to identify them. So the next time I returned to Tilden, I brought along a guide.
The Earth Provides
Joshua Muscat is an herbalist who uses wild medicinal herbs to create teas, oils, salves, and tinctures, which he uses to treat clients in his practice at the San Francisco Botanical Medicine Clinic. On this spring day, he hops out of his pickup truck, and we walk no farther than 10 feet before he points out two plants growing nearby: miner's lettuce and chickweed. I stoop down to pick them and notice how beautiful they are. Miner's lettuce has circular bright green leaves, and chickweed has tiny oval leaves clasping a thin stem. The ground is wet, and the plants yield easily. "Taste them," Muscat suggests.
Just before putting the greens in my mouth, I stop. What if they're poisonous?
I'm surprised by this reaction, especially since I'm with an experienced guide. But such fears are common, and they run deep. In our supermarket culture, we've come to trust only food that is wrapped in plastic or sold to us by a store or farmer's market. Noticing my hesitation, Muscat tells me to relax and assures me that foraging can be safe, fun, and even spiritual. I pop the chickweed in my mouth, and its greenness infuses my palate with a sweet sprightliness. But there's more. It also offers a kind of promise: Nature, it seems to say, is all around us and will provide us with what we need. Just open your eyes and start looking around.
I'm game. So after the last bite of chickweed, we move on. In the course of our hour-long walk, I see an enormous variety of foods and medicinal herbs: nettles, blackberry vines, plantains, mallows, geraniums, wild radishes, California bay, yellow dock, black sage, and many more. These are things I regularly buy, to cook with or use in teas. Why, I wonder, looking around at the remarkable variety of plant foods all around me, didn't I realize before that they grow wild here, to be had for free? Why did foraging become a lost art and acquire a distasteful reputation?