Apart from botanical pursuits, another hobby of mine is running, and on Sunday mornings I can generally be found toiling along the San Francisco Bay trail somewhere between the Emeryville marina and Point Isabelle. It’s flat and paved and pretty, and it’s also just about drowning in edible CA wild plants. Granted, a fennel, sorrel, and mustard green salad isn’t generally what I’m craving on a long run, but it’s still nice to know that if one of my legs spontaneously dropped off (which sometimes feels possible, in the later miles) I wouldn’t starve. This Sunday I was feeling sluggish, so I took the opportunity to take a few breaks and snap some plant pics.
Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae (aka buttercup oxalis, yellow oxalis, or yellow sorrel)
Without the flowers, oxalis looks very like oversized clover, with shamrock-shaped leaves. There are several varieties of oxalis/wood sorrel that grow in CA (we have some red sorrel in my backyard), but this is the most ubiquitous, and sun-loving. The leaves and silky flowers have a nice lemony taste. The long stems under the flowers are more sour and fleshy, as kids my brother and I used to chew on them. Buttercup oxalis generally flowers in early spring around here, but it’s been eerily dry and mild this winter, so they’re coming out precociously. The flowers are also strongly phototropic, so I kept getting in my own light trying to take pictures.
Wild mustard (Hirschfeldia incana, formerly Brassica geniculata)
Not actually native to California, mustard was probably introduced from Europe in the missions era, and now it’s widespread, verging on invasive. The young leaves have a peppery flavor (a bit like arugula) that’s nice in salads, although the older leaves are a little too tough to enjoy. They’re also good cooked, like you would for beet greens or spinach.
Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum and R. sativus hybrids)
These greens are also edible (at least when cooked), but I’ve never tried them so I can’t advocate for their palatability. The plants (especially without flowers) look very similar to those of mustard, but a bit more bushy, and the flowers (which can be yellow, white, pink or purple) are larger, and come up on sturdier stems than the long wispy ones of mustard. I think the roots are edible (if the plants are young and the roots haven’t gotten too fibrous)–they’re the same genus and sativus is the same species as store-bought radishes–but I’m not totally sure on that so unless you’re feeling adventurous and forgiving don’t go digging up a whole bunch of them for lunch.
Fennel (Anise) (Foeniculum vulgare)
This is the same stuff you would buy in the store; it was introduced to California from southern Europe at least 120 years ago and now is an invasive weed (in some places, like Catalina Island, it has spread rampantly and outcompeted most of the local flora). Despite its ecological bad rep, the feathery young leaves are delicious IMO, with a sweet, slightly licorice flavor. I nibble on them a lot when I’m outside. The bulbs from younger plants can be cooked just like store-bought fennel (old plants will be too tough and woody). The seeds have a very strong licorice flavor, and are nice to chew on if that’s a taste you like.
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sps.)
These particular bushes are almost certainly planted, but manzanita grows wild in mountain and chaparral regions of CA. The clustered bell-shaped flowers are pink or white and have a sweet honey-like flavor.
I know I know; not wild, but rosemary likes our warm dry weather, and flourishes around here. The bushes along the trail have an orangey-yellowish tinge (maybe from all the salty bayfront wind?) that contrasts prettily with the light purple flowers. I sometimes steal a few sprigs for cooking at home.
Blackberry (Rubus armeniacus, see David’s comment below…)
This proliferates all over northern California (although I will own up and say that I’m not totally clear on my blackberry/marionberry/loganberry/ollalieberry subtypes, so I’m very open to clarification or correction about which type grows wild in Berkeley/Oakland…anybody know for sure?). There are a couple of thick tangles near the Berkeley marina. It’s not at its best in winter, with the canes all died back and bare, but I found an anachronistic flower. I’ve made pies and crisps from these over the years—when they have plenty of sun and water the berries are lush and sweet, but on under-developed plants they can be small and kind of flavorless, with the seeds being too noticeable to really enjoy.
Here’s an approximate map of where I found today’s collection. I left out oxalis, fennel, mustard and radish, because they’re basically everywhere. Cesar Chavez park is full of all of them.
Anybody found any other notable edible plants out along the trail, or near the parks? I’d love to be introduced to new ones!