By Paul Belz
“Part of the message today is that you already have a vegetable garden, whether you planted one or not,” Philip and Kristen told a group of hopeful foragers. “And if you did plant a garden, it’s growing more food than you sowed. Even if you have a burrito in a bag, you can make it more nutritious by adding some wild oxalis.” The participants gathered on a lawn near the Laney edible garden. This garden is managed by the Mindful Garden,collective, which unites Laney College students and local community members who want to grow healthful food.
Philip Stark is Chair of the Department of Statistics at UC Berkeley, and Kristen Rasmussen is Teaching Faculty in the Nutrition and Toxicology Department at UC Berkeley and the Culinary Institute of America. They’re two of the people behind Berkeley Open Source Food (BOSF), an initiative that encourages the use of wild and feral urban plants as a food source. Kristen also created Rooted Food, a blog with lots of delicious ways to eat these weedy volunteers. Dandelion green pesto, anyone?
BOSF maps the availability of edible weeds in “food deserts,” urban areas far from any grocery store, where commercial fresh produce is hard to find. But free produce is easy to find. “It’s become clear that there’s a lot of incredibly tasty and nutritious food going to waste,” Philip said.
When asked whether the social dignity factor might prevent low-income individuals from being comfortable picking and eating weeds in their neighborhoods, Philip agreed that it was an issue. “That’s why we’re providing education and outreach, including ‘wild food events,’ where top restaurants demonstrate how delicious these plants are. These plants have been part of human diet for thousands of years; they’ve just fallen out of fashion, unfairly marginalized in favor of row crops and industrial agriculture. We are working to remove the stigma, bringing them back into the food system to improve nutrition and gastronomy. All communities certainly need grocery stores that sell fruits and vegetables. But many plants that volunteer in sidewalks and yards can provide an immediate source of delicious, fresh, healthful food for everyone, wherever they live.”
Not only are edible urban weeds nutritious and tasty, they’re also good for the environment. They have practically zero carbon footprint and don’t require watering. They can also be a food source when disaster strikes. “We’re going to have a big earthquake someday, and it would be nice to have some food afterwards,” Philip joked (sort of).
Interestingly, plants like wild mustard, dandelion, and many other “weeds” were intentionally brought from Eurasia as food, but fell out of favor when commercial agriculture started focusing on mass yields and attractive products. “Often we don’t see plants as food unless they’re wrapped in plastic or in a grocery store,” Philip said. He also noted that people often buy plants that they could be gathering—he recalled a visit to a farmer’s market stand selling dandelion greens for $1.75 a bunch, while across the street was an empty lot with bunches of dandelions he could pick for free! “I haven’t bought greens in years,” he remarked.
People might worry about heavy metals like lead or mercury in urban soils, but so far there’s no evidence that common edible weeds accumulate such substances in their tissues. Still, BOSF is currently studying the levels of toxic contaminants in plant tissue. “We’ve been testing the soil in the food desert areas, and the levels of contaminants are below EPA guidelines,” said Philip. While soil contaminant concentrations aren’t high enough to make these plants toxic, foragers should wash the plants before eating them since tire dust and other residues can be harmful.
Current law permits people to forage only from their own property, although an urban gatherer who approaches neighbors politely may find that they are happy to be rid of their weeds. Philip and Kristen hope that future legislation will allow people to pick edible invasive plants from public lands.
At the end of the day, the group had found 29 species of edible weeds in one urban lot! Philip and Kristen helped the group identify all the plants. These weeds probably grow in the areas where you live; learn to identify them, and eat well!
Bay Area Open Source Food: Lots of information about edible urban weeds!
Bay Area Baker’s Dozen Wild Edibles: A field guide for beginners created by BOSF
Rooted Food: A foraging and cooking blog by Kristen Rasmussen, with lots of recipes!
Bay Area Forager: A recently published book that has a wealth of information about edible weeds in the Bay Area! It’s available at local bookstores- if they don’t have it on the shelves, they can order it for you. Support independent bookstores and local authors; please don’t buy it from Amazon!
Species list of edible plants found:
Note: Not all parts of these plants are edible! Please do your research before you decide to eat any of them.
– 2 species of sow thistle
– Italian thistle
– Lamb’s quarters
– 2 species of plantain
– 2 species of wild mustard
– Bristly oxtongue
– Wild radish
– 2 species of mallow
– 2 species of wild lettuce
– Pineapple weed
– Sweet fennel
– Cat’s ear
– California poppy