Explore the delicious Bay Area!
Reading The Bay Area Forager is like taking a wild foods walk with foraging experts Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein: it gives practical advice for gathering edible wild plants in the Bay Area in a voice that is friendly and suffused with rich personal knowledge. The authors provide thorough descriptions of where to find each of the region’s most readily available plants, and they give clear instructions for harvesting them responsibly. Large, detailed photographs help readers to identify plants easily. Also included are mouth-watering recipes such as cattail crêpes, Otto Luyken cherry Laurel, fiddlehead fusilli, and rosehip soup. Ideal for any experience level, The Bay Area Forager invites readers to deepen their relationship with their environment.
Reprinted with permission from The Bay Area Forager: Your Guide to Edible Wild Plants of the San Francisco Bay Area by Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein, copyright © 2014, Heyday Press. All photos by Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein © 2014. You can purchase The Bay Area Forager from your local bookstore or through our affiliate links with Amazon or IndieBound.
(Rubus spp. )
Rosaceae (Rose, Plum, Strawberry, Thimbleberry) Eurasian weed and native shrub
Almost everyone in California has gotten to enjoy blackberries off of the bush. They seem so domestic that it’s hard to call them a wild edible, but they are perhaps our most successful and abundant one. Many of them are considered terribly invasive, though there is a native blackberry as well.
What does it look like? Blackberries are both vine- and shrub-like—they cling, climb and crawl, and can also support much of their own weight. We often call plants like this bramble, especially when they cover a large area, which they often do. Blackberries have medium-sized pointed leaves with serrated edges and small thorns. The berries, which look like large black raspberries, grow in clusters and are preceded by white flowers.
In the Bay Area you’ll usually find the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor ), which has larger leaves, thorns, vines and berries than the native one. Be careful because blackberries have a three-leaf pattern that typically turns reddish with age, similar to poison oak. Just remember “if it’s hairy it’s a berry” and that should keep you safe.
Where can I find it? You’ll see blackberry plants growing just about everywhere, from under the forest canopy to a crack in the sidewalk. The bushes that are big enough to produce berries are also widespread, but they need some sun and access to at least some ground water. They grow near creeks, gullies, forest edges, biking trails, city parks, alleyways, near buildings, roadsides and in hedgerows between lawns. There are even blackberries growing in industrial areas of Berkeley. We certainly advise against eating these—though testing them for metals and toxins would be a great measure of environmental pollution.
How to use/forage: They’re blackberries! They’re great in pies, jams, smoothies and just fresh off of the bush. One thing that many people don’t know is that the leaves are edible. They can be used for tea, fresh or dried. The very young leaves can even be eaten fresh, as they don’t really have thorns. Mia likes to add them to pesto. A medicinal tincture can be made from the root and the entire plant is especially healthy for women, as is most of the Rubus family.
Sustainability: Eat them! Eat them!
Recipe: Blackberry Salad Dressing
Take a cup of fresh, very ripe blackberries. Mix with a little sea salt, olive oil, fennel pollen and stir. Also works without the fennel pollen.
(Prunus laurocerasus )
Rosaceae (Rose, Plum, Cherry, Almond) European Landscaping Plant
What does it look like? Large and glossy leaved, evergreen shrub to small tree. Bears showy, pungent and sweet flowers in late winter and early spring, turning into clusters of small, nearly black cherry-like fruit in summer. This plant is typically kept as a squarish hedge, although it can become tree-like. The flowers are unique, like plum flowers but in bigger clusters, coming off a spike or cylindrical shaped flower head, often quite large. They can be almost as big and showy as buckeye flowers.
When is it available? Fruit typically ripe in summer, June-August. Should be nearly black and a little soft when ripe.
Where can I find it? Common landscaping shrub, often grown as a hedgerow. Cities, suburbs, dentist offices, office buildings. Very drought tolerant once established, but typically these plants get irrigation. Many of you probably pass by these plants all the time and don’t even know it. We did for the longest time, thinking they were some inedible ornamental.
How to use/forage: They are basically strong, somewhat bitter cherries. Use the ripe fruit raw or cooked. You can also eat the seeds cooked as long as they are not extra bitter, although they often are. With the ripe fruit you can make sauces, pies, jams, drinks, cordials and fruit leather. For many, they are best when mixed with other sweet fruits, such as blackberries.
WARNING: These plants contain toxic cyanide compounds like the ones found in cherry pits and almonds, their close relatives. Don’t overconsume and don’t eat any fruit or seeds that are very bitter.
Sustainability: These grow all over populated areas and hardly anyone knows they are edible. Hardly any people that is. Robins and jays in particular gorge themselves on the fruit. Keep this in mind, but there’s plenty to go around. Also, don’t prune or trim off the flowers and forming fruit (which is often done). Instead, wait until after you harvest to do your pruning.
Recipe: Cherry Laurel Cordial
Fill a one-quart mason jar to 1⁄2 full of ripe and pitted cherry laurel fruits. Fill the remainder of the jar with brandy or vodka. Cover and put in a dark place such as your kitchen cupboard. Let soak for at least 6 weeks, shake seldom or often. Strain and drink, alone or mixed with sparkling water. You can also eat the brandy/vodka-soaked fruit—delicious on ice cream!
(Tropaeolum majus )
Tropaeolaceae (no common name, but in same
Order as the Brassicas such as mustard and radish)
Escaped South American ornamental
For San Franciscans, this is the most widely available green in the city. In some ways, it should be the city’s icon for wild edible plants. More abundant than even miner’s lettuce, there are places in Golden Gate Park, for instance, where it overgrows like kudzu does in the South. It’s a beautiful plant packed with flavor.
What does it look like? Nasturtiums are fairly unique looking plants in this area. They are sprawling or climbing vines with large, somewhat circular leaves with visible veins radiating from the center where the stem connects underneath. Large, five-petaled flowers come in various colors, usually bright orange, red or yellow. The petals come together to form a beautiful container for the large pollen spike emerging from the stamen.
When is it available? All year except where frosts are heavy or where it is very dry in the summer.
Where do I find it? Nasturtium likes water, so you need to be near the coast or bay to find it thriving. The parks in San Francisco might have the most of any place in the Bay Area. Nearly always growing near people—in parks, landscaping, gardens, on trails and fences—you might occasionally find nasturtiums in a forest along the coast. Stands of nasturtium can be quite big and impressive.
How to use/forage: The showy edible flowers are common in salad mixes. They have a delicious wasabi or mustard-like spicy flavor. The leaves are also edible and contain the same spice. The spiciness reduces with heat, so they make a great cooked green. The immature seeds are large and can be eaten fresh or pickled like capers—but watch out, they pack a punch!
Sustainability: Make sure you don’t destroy the beauty of the nasturtium where you are foraging and the plant will continue to produce for years to come. That is, don’t pick all the flowers, or any more than one-third of the leaves, leave some to seed (which this plant will readily do). Prune if you like—treat like a prized garden plant or leave it alone; it’ll probably look good and keep producing either way. Just don’t disfigure it.
Recipe: Kevin’s Golden Gate Park Special
Nasturtiums enjoy the most abundance in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. There, in the unique microclimate, they can grow in enormous patches that are the foggy Bay Area’s version of kudzu in the South. And they are available to the forager all year—that is, in an ideal world. Foraging in Golden Gate Park is illegal, and one can receive up to a $500 fine for engaging in this activity. That said, a great hypothetical recipe follows, one that combines nasturtiums with another plant that grows well in Golden Gate Park: the wild onion lily.
On a portable camp stove, add to skillet:
- as many nasturtium greens as will fit (remember, they will cook down)
- 2 long wild onion lily leaves, chopped
- enough olive oil to sauté
• salt to taste
Sauté until thoroughly cooked, to be eaten sitting on the grass, perhaps with BBQ.
(Cirsium spp. )
Asteraceae (Sunflower, Daisy, Dandelion, Artichoke)
Eurasian Weeds (though some native species exist)
Thistles are the icon of thorny weeds. Nearly everyone recognizes the name and has probably experienced their painful sharpness. It’s a bit unexpected to many when they find out that thistles are not only edible but quite delicious.
What does it look like? These are the iconic thistles. They have prominent spines or prickles on the leaves and stalks and produce purple bee-attracting flowers. The much rarer native thistles aren’t mentioned here. For the purposes of foraging, specific identification of species is often not necessary. The thistles that grow in the Bay Area are edible, just make sure it’s a thistle and not some other prickly plant. Thistles can be identified by the puffball-like flower and the serrated leaves. The yellow flowered ones are often very bitter and not recommended. Usually the ones you’ll find here have purple (purple-pink) flowers. If you want to know if a thistle is palatable, do a taste test.
When can you find it? In the rainy season, fall through spring, but mowing, management, and microclimates can have them produce food all year. It’s a very opportunistic weed. When given a window of decent conditions it finds a way to grow.
Where can I find it? Disturbed ground, vacant lots, side- walks, overgrazed ranchland, gardens, lawns, woodlands and wild areas. Thistles grow almost everywhere.
How to use/forage: Thistles are, in fact, a wild cousin of the well-loved artichoke and have a very similar flavor. They are extremely edible, all parts, except those that cut you! They have probably developed their spiny protection to prevent their deliciousness from being consumed. So in order to use them you must do a bit of work and physically remove the spines or prickles. You can do this with the leaves, which is quite tedious, or you can cut a tender and long stalk of the plant, using gloves and a knife, and peel the stalk down until it’s like celery. You can then eat it raw or cooked. Cooked it tastes similar to artichoke but behaves more like asparagus. You can put it on a pizza, in a casserole or a stir-fry. The root, having no spines or prickles, is also edible raw or cooked. It is a bit tough though. The seeds can be easily harvested and eaten fresh or used medicinally. One of the best and easiest parts to eat are thistle sprouts, as the cotyledons don’t have spikes and are large and succulent, similar to sunflower sprouts.
Sustainability: Another one of those invasive and noxious weeds, the bane of many a land manager’s existence, nobody wants this plant around except for crazy foragers like us (and the bees). This plant is so tough (and perennially comes back from the root), that we wouldn’t worry about over-harvesting.
If you do want more, let some go to seed and don’t dig them all out for the roots.
Recipe: Mia’s Famous Thistle Pesto
I accidentally invented this when I had to make a delicious wild food meal in a place that was so impoverished that there was little else available. People loved it and have been requesting more of it ever since.
- 1 1⁄2 cups thistle peeled and de-thorned
• 1⁄2 cup basil, preferably from your garden
• 1⁄4 cup pine nuts
• 1⁄4 cup cashew nuts
• 1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1⁄2 cup Parmesan cheese (the better quality the cheese the better the pesto, don’t use that awful Kraft powdered stuff please, I’m not sure it really even is cheese)
- Salt to taste
Place nuts in a food processor and grind until fine. Add the garlic and blend. Add the rest of ingredients except the cheese and blend. Lastly add the cheese. Try a spoonful to test saltiness, and add salt to taste. Serve with pasta, bread or baked potatoes. By the way, the two cups of greens in this recipe can be replaced with any wild green of choice (other suggestions are nettle and blackberry leaf). It’s good to add some basil, though, unless you want a very different flavored pesto. Feel free to experiment with other proportions of ingredients as well. No two pestos I make are ever the same.
(Foeniculum vulgare )
Apiaceae, Umbelliferae (Carrot, Parsley, Dill, Poison Hemlock)
What does it look like? Herbaceous perennial that is often taller than an adult human when fully grown. Leaves are almost like green needles and closely resemble dill. The flowers are golden and all parts of the plant have a very distinct fennel, anise or liquorice smell.
WARNING: This plant shares habitat and is in the same family as the deadly poison hemlock (Conium maculatum ). The easiest time to mistake it for its poisonous look-alike is when the plants are dead and you are harvesting the seeds. To avoid misidentification, be sure that the plant and seeds smell strongly of fennel and check out the characteristics of poison hemlock in the beginning of this book.
When is it available? Leaves typically spring – through early fall, bulbous stalks in spring, flowers and pollen in summer, seeds in fall.
Where can I find it? Fennel is common in parks and on hillsides, urban and suburban, and sometimes encroaches into wilderness areas. Unfortunately for the forager, fennel often inhabits polluted ground near freeways, garbage dumps, industrial areas and parking lots.
How to use/forage: Fresh leaves can be used as garnish, spice, flavoring, medicine or tea. The commercially grown “bulbs” which you may have seen at the grocery store, are really the swollen bases of the stalks. On the wild fennel, however, these are usually too tough and small to enjoy. Pollen can be collected by shaking the flowers into bags and can be used in many dishes for flavoring. You can also eat the flowers along with the pollen, which makes harvesting easier, though perhaps less gourmet. Seeds can be eaten fresh or dried as a spice. They are commonly used in India as a digestive aid. Just roast them lightly in a pan and add to any dish or eat as a snack.
Sustainability: This is one of those plants you’d be hard pressed to damage, even with the clumsiest of foraging actions. As it is considered an invasive and noxious weed most land managers and ecologists despise this plant– or are at least frustrated by its tenacity. You can chop wild fennel to the ground and it’ll come back. Please think twice before planting it in your garden, as it will easily spread and can take over a large area. Not a significant wildlife plant, so overharvesting is rarely an issue.
Recipe: Kevin’s Blackberry Fennel Ice Cream
I’ve noticed that fennel and blackberry very often share habitat, and grow right next to one another. Their flavors also complement each other amazingly well.
On top of one big scoop of mild vanilla ice cream, add:
- 1 tsp fennel pollen, with or without flowers 1 tsp fennel seeds
• 1 tsp warm blackberry syrup
Mia Andler is an educator, writer, forager and ecological designer in the Bay Area, California. Mia has been leading wild foods walks in the Bay Area for several years. She is well known for her practical knowledge of local plants and her entertaining teaching style. Motivated by her love of food, plants and healing ways, she has spent countless hours romping around Marin and Tahoe sampling wild plants. Mia started foraging at a young age, picking wild berries and mushrooms in the archipelago of Finland with her grandma. Plants have always “spoken” to her, telling them when they are thirsty or what they can be used for.
Mia holds a teaching credential in California and Nevada, is a graduate of the two year Regenerative Design and Nature Awareness program at the RDI and is permaculture certified. She directed and co-founded Trackers Earth in the Bay Area and has taught adults and youth for over 15 years. Mia is excited about fulfilling our human needs and even indulgences while in balanced relationship with the place we live in. She believes the way to succeed at this challenge is to learn as much as we can through quality, hands-on time outdoors, and then freely share the information with each other. She maintains her website and blog at www.miaandler.com.
Kevin Feinstein is a naturalist, writer, teacher, and founder of the Foraging Society. He has lived for over a decade in the Bay Area, California and calls it his home. Originally from Tennessee, he grew up with the standard American diet and lifestyle, never having eaten a fruit from a tree until his early twenties. Other than a handful of small but key nature experiences as a child, his knowledge wasn’t learned until adulthood. Having a massive paradigm shift in his twenties, he became interested in studying food, gardening, ecology, sustainability, diet, and natural health. Since then he has been teaching related classes, especially to beginners and children, and constantly learning. He currently organizes classes and advises for ForageSF as well as offering private classes and workshops on his own. He maintains his website, FeralKevin.com.
Click here to read a conversation with Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein.