I’ve been on foraging walks before, where naturalists taught me the medicinal and nutritional properties of wild greenery. But walking through Lower Arroyo Park in Pasadena, California, with Bat Vardeh as my guide feels different. We crouch down and peer at tiny plants that are usually crushed by our feet, marveling at their regenerative and medicinal powers. I’ll never look at this park—which I thought was just a dry, dusty bowl—the same way again.
I’m on a plant walk, a tour in which a guide leads you through a designated area to learn about flora, including their biology, history, and edible and medicinal uses. During this outing, I’m learning the biology of the plants that populate this environment, as well as some aspects of each one’s cultural significance. Many plant walks also honor Native Americans and Indigenous people by describing cultural and historical uses of the plants and urging those on the tour to leave sacred plants for Indigenous use.
I met Vardeh, a 25-year-old Angeleno with an ardent love for greenery, through the 1,300-member group she founded, called Foraging and Mushroom Hunting Women of SoCal. In her group, women connect to take plant walks, forage together, and trade tips. Vardeh’s level of knowledge about plants, which she gained through self-taught research and foraging on her own, seems nearly encyclopedic. Today, Vardeh’s brown braid trails over a shirt advertising a book called Seed Propagation of Native California Plants, by Dara E. Emery. She sports a wide-brimmed canvas hat and long pants, and has a small pouch slung over her shoulder. In this way, he’s an unusual sight in a park packed with scantily clad runners, their sweat glistening on their skin. We hurry past them to the next botanic object of fascination.
A study in regeneration
Taking a pair of clippers out, Vardeh nimbly snips a long, pointy leaf of a yucca plant, explaining that all parts of the yucca are edible. Twisted back and forth, the leaf emits a green juice that Vardeh rubs in her hands until it’s sudsy. It’s her favorite way to wash her hands after foraging. “This is the end of the yucca’s life cycle and it only flowers once, but when it dies, it’ll shoot two or three new yucca plants from the dead bottom,” she tells us. The flowering stage is the only time Vardeh will pick a leaf. It’s a story of regeneration that I’ll hear many times on our walk.
Vardeh compares plants’ resilience to that of humans—especially over the trying past two years. “When the seasons change, you’ll see that some plants that are bright green die, then the next season they come back and are green again,” Vardeh says. “You realize, ‘Hey, I am also nature—it’s OK for me to do the same.’ Plants are a reminder that everything needs to grow and change and develop, even us.”
Finding peace in the greenery
Vardeh seems genuinely happy as she guides me through several of the 70 acres of Lower Arroyo Park. She eagerly rushes toward a familiar barberry bush. As an Assyrian, Vardeh grew up knowing red barberries as zereshk, the primary flavoring ingredient in zereshk polow, a rice dish. With her love for the fruit, she took the propagation and survival of this wild Nevin’s barberry variety to heart. “This is a plant that’s delicious, but should not be picked because it’s rare and endangered,” Vardeh says.
As we walk, she points out plentiful edibles, such as the little green leafy stalk called lamb’s quarters, which you can sauté like spinach, and its ripening, whitening seeds, which you can cook like quinoa. We observe various kinds of edible yellow mustard plants, as well as California’s native coffeeberry, the Frangula californica, which she says is helpful for relieving constipation. We also come upon a powerful psychedelic plant called the datura, which smells like peanut butter and, Vardeh explains, is used in sacred native spiritual rituals.
We also find many medicinals, such as the small, green, cup-like horehound, which I learn was traditionally used to make a sore-throat lozenge. We see stinging nettle, which Vardeh says she makes into tea to tamp down her allergies (she picks the leaves only when wearing gloves, then steeps them in hot water).Some plants shouldn’t be harvested, as they are scarce, but others are abundant, such as little currants. We search for ripe currants together and find a few to taste on our way out of the park. Plucking something raw from nature and eating it feels unfamiliar to me, and the taste is shockingly tart and pungent at this moment in its life cycle.
I realize that while the comfort foods I eat every day, whether veggie burgers or home fries, are tailored to make me feel soothed, their tastes are bland in comparison with these wild edibles. These awaken my senses of smell, taste, and touch, reminding me of how wild, vivid, and fresh the plants around me are—and of how unaware I have been to their presence before. I am humbled and amazed by these tiny berries, and vow to learn more about them, and to come back to pick some for personal experimentation.
This plant walk has made me crouch down and look at the smallest things. I’ve never noticed most of these herbs and flowers before—even as a journalist, a professional noticer of things, and a mother who wants to make sure her toddler doesn’t poison himself by plucking random berries. I’ve been too busy with the stresses and worries of life to notice these tiny green wonders, to feel connected to these cycles of nature and life. At the end of our walk, I’m feeling refreshed, more aware, happier, and more focused. It was the best two hours I’d had all week.
To find a plant walk near you, visit or contact a nearby nature preserve, city parks department, regional Audubon Center, local herbalist’s shop, foraging Facebook group, or culinary school. Or simply follow @women-forage-socal.
From Spring 2022