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Finders Keepers

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The 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?

“Until World War II, people, particularly in rural areas, ate weeds regularly,” says Peter Gail, Ph.D., author of The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine (Goosefoot Acres, 1995). “Dandelions, lambs-quarters—all sorts of wild plants were part of their diets. The bias against wild edibles came only after World War II, in part because of pesticide company advertising. The pesticide industry got consumers to value uniform green lawns, and the way to get that green lawn was by killing weeds.”

Killing weeds, Gail believes, is nothing short of a tragedy, for dandelions are among the most healthful plants on earth. Euell Gibbons, in his seminal work Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which was first published in 1962, refers to them by their classic label, Taraxacum officinale, which roughly translates to “the official remedy for disorders.” Gibbons writes, “How the mighty have fallen! This herbal hero, one of the most healthful and genuinely useful plants in the materia medica of the past, is now a despised lawn weed.”

It was Gibbons’s book that first began to revive interest in foraging among Americans. It became the counterculture’s back-to-the-land bible of the ’60s and went on to become a best-seller.

“Before the publication of Gibbons’s book, you couldn’t forage and be respectable,” says Robert K. Henderson, author
of The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet (Chelsea Green, 2000). “People who foraged were perceived as illiterate, and foraging was regarded as déclassé.”

Urban Eden

Surprisingly, the best foraging is done in more densely populated areas. “Urban and suburban foraging yield an incredible variety of edible plants,” Henderson says, “from wild plants that have succeeded and survived to landscape and ornamental plants that have been added.”

The best way to start, Gail says, is to go with an experienced forager who can show you not only which plants are edible but which parts are edible, and which times of the year are best for harvesting those parts. I found Muscat at my local farmer’s market, where he was selling herbal tinctures and sharing information about local medicinal herbs. Another way to find an experienced forager is to inquire at nature centers in parks, botany departments of colleges, garden centers, or the cooperative extension service of your state’s agricultural college. (These colleges have offices in every county in each state.)

“Start with just one plant,” Gail recommends, “an easily recognizable one, like dandelion, purslane, violets, or lambs-quarters. Don’t look for dozens of plants—just look for one or two species. Once you’ve mastered identifying it, it’s yours forever.”

Other rules apply: Use several respected guidebooks to double- and triple-check the identity of the food you’re about to eat. And unless you’re with an experienced mushroom forager or mycologist, avoid all mushrooms. It’s easy to make a mistake, and with mushrooms, a mistake can be deadly.

Do not forage for any foods near heavily traveled roads, since they are likely to contain a high level of toxins from exhaust and may have been sprayed with pesticides. One way to tell if a plant has been sprayed is simply to see if it looks healthy; if it doesn’t—if the leaves are shriveled or brown—then it might have been sprayed. If you are foraging in an urban area, rinse your edibles in a vegetable wash before you eat them.

There is also this bit of foraging etiquette, which mirrors the yogic principle of aparigraha (greedlessness): Take only what you need and what the plant can sustain. “It’s a good rule of thumb for foraging and a good rule for life,” Henderson says. “Learn about the plant’s life cycle so you know how much harvesting it can take. Chicory, for example, is a perennial, so you should take only a quarter of the plants in a given patch so it can come back the next year. And never forage for ginseng or wild garlic. They don’t reproduce readily and are almost extinct.”

Found Wisdom

If food is so readily available in stores, why work to find it outside? Wild edibles are some of the most nutritious foods on the planet, Gail says. Rose hips, for example, are the world’s best source of vitamin C. Violet flowers and violet leaves come in a close second, with 17 times as much vitamin C as oranges. And when you buy produce in a store, Gail adds, you can bet it’s spent a week or two out of the ground and in transit. “By the time it gets there,” he says, “that produce has lost up to 75 percent of its original nutritional value.”

But there’s more to it than that. As Gibbons so eloquently wrote, “We live in a vastly complex society which has been able to provide us with a multitude of material things, and this is good, but people are beginning to suspect that we have paid a high spiritual price for our plenty….Don’t we sometimes feel that we are living a secondhand sort of existence, and that we are in danger of losing all contact with the origins of life and the nature which nourishes it?”

When you look for food in nature, you see where it grows, how it grows, and what it grows near. I will never see Tilden Park the way I did before I went foraging. I’ve learned that this place that holds many of my happiest memories can feed me in more than one way.

“Foraging connects you with all of creation,” Gail says. “When you eat wild foods, you begin to realize what the source of all life and energy is, where it comes from, and how it works. You become more deeply connected to it, because you understand it. You have confidence that these plants will sustain you, which can give you a tremendous sense of steadiness and peace. People I teach say, ‘I can’t believe it—I’ve been walking over dinner all my life.'”

When my foraging walk at Tilden comes to an end, I thank Muscat for a truly eye-opening day. My pockets are filled with chickweed and miner’s lettuce, which I’ll prepare for tonight’s dinner. I head home, already tasting them, fresh and sweet.

Safe Scrounging

Want to try foraging? Follow these safety tips from Robert K. Henderson, author of The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet.

Don’t eat any plant until you’ve positively identi½ed it by its botanical name. Common names change from place to place, and the confusion can be lethal.

Know which parts of edible plants are edible, and under what conditions. If you don’t know for sure, don’t eat any part of the plant at all.

Avoid plants growing on roadsides and in other high-traffic areas. They may be contaminated from automotive exhaust, motor oil, or other chemicals.

Spit the pits. Most fruit pits enclose a poisonous seed, so it’s best to spit them out. Teach children to do so as well.

Remember: Any plant is poisonous to people who are allergic to it. That means, for example, if you’re allergic to stone-bearing domestic fruits, you should consider chokecherries off-limits.

Observe the first-try protocol. When you have positively identified a new plant and its edible parts, take just a little taste and wait to see how you react before you dive in. Also, know that some plants that are perfectly fine in reasonable amounts can cause problems in people who gorge on them.

Eat wild foods only when they’re in season. Know which time of year a plant is edible and eat it only then.

Follow the rules. It is illegal to pick plants in some state and national parks.

Dayna Macy is Yoga Journal’s communications director.