Toxic and toothsome: a tale of two wild Asteraceae

Toxic Interloper:

Not long ago, I planted a bunch of coriander/cilantro seeds in my back yard.  When the seedlings emerged, I found not only cilantro, but also this:

Not cilantro as it should have been, but common groundsel. Don’t try to fool me with your toothed leaves–I can totally see you’re sending up flower buds already.

Senecio vulgaris, known as common groundsel to me, but also as Old-man-of-the-spring. It’s just about everywhere right now–I’m seeing it along roadsides, in gardens, at the park and clawing its way through sidewalk tiles.  It starts off with lobed leaves and an emerging crown of flower buds that’s visible really early, and ends up with nearly-closed yellow flowers, and fuzzy gray seed heads like tiny dandelions (whence the “Old man” name–it looks a bit like a tousled gray head of hair). Continue reading


Best-kept secrets of your neighbor’s yard part 2: Guava flowers

It’s guava flower season!  If you’re in California or the South, there’s a very good chance that someone who lives next to you is using pineapple guavas (Acca sellowiana) for their hedges or shrubbery.  These Argentinian natives (also called feijoas) don’t always set fruit, but their flowers are a great snack all on their own.

Pineapple guava flowers peeking out from the Berkeley shrubbery.

Look for bright red clusters of stamens on tall shrubs with grey-green leaves.  Then make sure that the cluster of stamens is surrounded by 4 petals: light pink on the outside, and pink-purple on the inside.  On the best ones, the petals will be a little bit spongy.  Pluck off the petals and try them (the stamens are edible too, but don’t taste like much).

On the best guava flowers, the petals have curled so that you mostly see the light pink spongy exteriors.

Delicious, right?  Soft, juicy, sweet, with a kinda spicy tropical tang.  If you’ve ever had guava Kern’s nectar, you recognize the flavor, because it’s the same plant.

Pineapple guavas need 50 hours of cold to set fruit, don’t set well in high temps (90 degrees or higher), and many cultivars also need a pollinator, so if you’re in a very warm climate your new snack may never mature into fruit.  Still, it’s best to be optimistic and leave the stamens and pistil attached to the shrub–if you’re lucky in a few months there will be egg-sized leathery looking green fruits to eat as well.

Pineapple guava fruit. Photo by HortResearch via wikimedia.

I will confess to often liberating guava petals from their owners without asking permission, but it’s probably better to tell your neighbor that you’d like to eat their shrubbery.  Ideally, they’ll not only be happy to let you have at it, but gratified to learn about the tasty treat in their yard.

Special thanks to my college adviser Dr. Daniel Martinez, an Argentinian native himself, who introduced these to me back in the day.  And a tip for fellow folks at the Stanford med school: the bushes next to the patio at LKSC should be full of these any day now.

I’m also told they’re a popular cultivated fruit in New Zealand.  Can anyone confirm?

Of wild carrots and the death of Socrates

There is a plant I keep encountering, both on foraging trips and while out running, and for a long time I had been entertaining the hope that it was wild carrot (Daucus carota), while secretly suspecting that it was actually poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).  These two members of the Apiaceae/Umbelliferae family look very similar as young plants (and both are sometimes called Queen Anne’s lace), but armed with Samuel Thayer’s “Nature’s Garden” on our recent Redwood Park foraging trip, I was able to pin down once and for all that…dammit, yes: it’s hemlock.

Poison hemlock, Conium maculatum. Not the wild carrot I was hoping for. Photo courtesy of Jen at willblogforfood.

The Apiaceae are a fickle lot of plants: some are friendly foodstuffs (carrot, fennel, celery, parsley, caraway), some are vicious poisons (poison hemlock, water hemlock, fool’s parsley), and some are something in between (like cow parsnip, which is edible but whose sap can be a strong irritant).  Several of them look similar as young plants, too, with rosettes of feathery leaves and umbels of delicate white flowers.

Caraway, Carum carvi. If I hadn’t read the title, I might have thought it was fennel, because all these darn Apiaceae look similar. From Koehler’s Medizinal Pflanzen.

Over the centuries, many people have been poisoned by mixing them up.  A handful of case studies from the last decade of folks who ate a variety of toxic Apiaceae can be found  here, here, here, and here.  For those who forage, wild wood survival offers a sturdy guide to telling tasty wild carrot from its toxic doppleganger.  (Quick and dirty version: hemlock has smooth stems, sometimes speckled purple or with a chalky residue.  It doesn’t smell very good, and its flowers are loosely packed in umbels, like caraway, above.  Wild carrot has fuzzy stems, smells strongly of carrot, and has tightly-packed umbels of flowers with one dark purple flower in the middle.  And if you’re in doubt, don’t eat it!)

Wild carrot, Daucus carota. Similar enough to C. maculatum to give you pause, and make you wish you’d brought some store-bought carrot leaves along for comparison. Photo from Gunther Blaich’s website.

And then, of course, there are the more sinister, deliberate poisonings. Continue reading

Best-kept secrets of your neighbor’s yard part 1: Loquats

If you live anywhere in California below about 2000 feet of elevation, somewhere in your neighborhood there is a loquat tree.  Your job this May/June is to find it and forage it (you’re allowed to ask the neighbor first.  In fact that might be a good idea).  I love these things so much, and every time I see an under-appreciated tree with its fruit littering the ground in early July it breaks my heart.  You guys have to help me out.

The lovely, luscious, little-loved loquat is Eriobotrya japonica, a Chinese native (confusingly), and member of the Rosaceae family, just like apples, pears, and all those Prunus species I was celebrating back in February.  It’s a moderate-to-large evergreen tree that’s often used for shade, because its large glossy leaves are great at blocking the daylight.

A shade-casting loquat tree in one of the east-side courtyards of Stanford's main quad. Small clusters of unripe green fruit are visible among the leaves.

In December/January, it produces nondescript sweetly-scented yellowish flowers, that very very slowly give rise to clusters of fruit.  In May, these reach their full size (a little smaller than a golf ball, and either round or slightly oval), and ripen to a peachy orange color.  The fruit at the tops of the trees ripens first.  Some of my fondest memories from college are of my friends and I foraging these off the tree-tops in Claremont, trying to reach the uppermost fruit without getting totally covered in tree bits and spiderwebs.

The fruit (and the leaves) are covered in a downy fuzz, and this coupled with the color always makes me think of peaches…so much so in fact that I have trouble deciding what they actually taste like, because it’s hard to get peaches out of my mind.  I think they may taste a little like raspberries with a radically different texture.  A heaping pile of miner’s lettuce to anyone who can help me pin down the flavor.

A loquat leaf and full-size unripe fruit, with quarter for scale.

The fruit is best when its fully ripe, and it’s easiest to tell if this is the case by looking where the fruit meets the stem: it should be orange-yellow, and not at all green.  The fruit should also pop easily off the stem.  When they’re a little under-ripe, they’re a bit tart but still very good, and when they’re fully ripe they’re heavenly: very sweet and fragrant.  I like them best with the skin peeled off (a word to the wise though–peeling the skin will stain your fingernails brownish if you don’t wash your hands), but you can eat the skin too if you rub off the fuzz.  Inside, there are several large glossy dark-brown seeds.

The same loquat leaf and fruit split open to show the shiny brown seeds. There can be anywhere from 1-8 seeds, usually depending on how large the fruit is.

One final thing: they don’t store well (only a day or two in the fridge, max), so as you go out and find your local neighborhood loquat tree, don’t hesitate to enjoy them on the spot.  Spread the word!

April showers bring fruitful foraging!

It’s been a while since I had a foraging-themed post, but a lovely trip through Redwood Regional Park in Oakland with JYL and TC two weekends ago yielded some good material.  JYL has a fantastic foodie blog (willblogforfood), and she’s posted a nice slideshow of all our various wild food sightings that you should check out, with some great pics from her macro lens.

To recap some highlights, we saw berry plants in abundance (thimbleberries, red-flowered currants, blackberries, and wild strawberries), but while the strawberries, blackberries and currants were in flower, nothing was yet in fruit.  So stay tuned for a follow-up post when we make a return foraging trip to collect those guys in June.

Bay trees were everywhere, some in flower.  We saw lots of mustard, and gathered some greens from that, and quite a few young fiddlehead ferns.  A few things that I was certain we would see, some of the guarantees of California wild food, were surprisingly absent: namely fennel, wild radishes, and oxalis/sorrel (even though we went to Redwood park specifically because I was sure we’d see redwood sorrel! We found it in a random yard instead).  Since I’ve posted about all those things before, no harm done.

The highlight of the foraging was probably miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata, also sometimes called winter purslane), which was rampant along the side of the trail.

Miner's lettuce, Calytonia perfoliata. The large, round, single leaves (bracts) with small white flowers in the center are unmistakeable. Photo courtesy of Jen Lee at willblogforfood.

I grew up eating its distinctive, spinach-like leaves (actually bracts, to the botanists) as a kid, but in San Diego and Riverside counties they were usually the size of a quarter.  After the bouts of late rain we’ve had this spring, the bracts at Redwood park (and also all around Stanford), are nearly the size of my palm.  They also have great texture–delicate and juicy just like young spinach, but with a milder flavor.  I gathered a large ziploc full of the stuff, and brought it home to try out on my husband, who turned out to be a big fan.

Miner's lettuce washed and ready to eat!

Miner’s lettuce is easy to recognize as a plant: the round, cuplike bracts emerge singly from the basal rosette on long stems up to 10″ long, and centered on the top of each bract is a small stem bearing a little cluster of white flowers (the true leaves are thin and triangular, and hide out in the basal rosette at the bottom of the plant).  The whole plant is edible, but under rare conditions they can accumulate toxic oxalates, so as with any wild plant, after positive identification you should eat small amounts first until you know how it will make you feel.  I’ve eaten lots of this stuff from several counties across California, and find it to be one of the most palatable and reliable raw wild greens.  It’s high in vitamin C–the gold rush miners for whom it’s named ate it to prevent scurvy.  Miner’s lettuce favors damp places with high to intermediate shade and poorly drained soil.  Roadsides in shady areas are a good bet, or in moist back yards.

We separated the bracts from the stems and washed them thoroughly, and used them in place of lettuce in a couple salads and also in chicken tacos.  There’s still a huge amount of miner’s lettuce growing around campus right now, so I plan to bring home more while it lasts.

Chicken tacos with cheese, homemade pico de gallo and miner's lettuce. Delicious!

Bon apetit!

Two book reviews: Edible and Useful Plants of California, and Nature’s Garden.

Last weekend I got two books about edible plants and foraging, and after having a chance to give them both a good perusal, I’m excited about each of them but for different reasons.  They’re actually nicely complementary: some of the weaknesses of one are strengths in the other.  This is a longish post, so here’s the take-home message for the impatient: I’m really glad I bought both, but if I had to recommend just one, I’d go for Nature’s Garden.

1) Edible and Useful Plants of California.  Charlotte Bringle Clarke, 1978.

The first thing worth noting about this book is that it’s older than I am, which means it’s been around for a long time and has been followed by a couple generations of foragers; in fact it’s one of the references for the second book I got.  Since all the same plants are available now as in the 70s, the publication year isn’t really an issue–it isn’t as if the content has gone out of date.

Solid field guide to local foodstuffs. Sadly, the photos on the cover are a sizable fraction of all the photos in this otherwise excellent book.


-Regional specificity and completeness: All the plants are found wild in California, and there are many, many entries.  All the wild CA plants I’ve highlighted so far (manzanita, nettle, fennel, radish, etc) are in there, and I’ve been delighted to find that quite a few plants I recognize are in there that I never knew were edible.  Field trips galore!

-Organization: She’s broken the book down into sections by type of location (mountains, coastal, urban, etc.), which will be handy for foraging.

-Recipes!  For more than half of the plants mentioned, there’s a recipe given, and sometimes there are several.  I’m already looking forward to fennel seed cookies,  fancy nettles with bacon, oxalis lemonade, and a few dozen more for plants I’ve only ever eaten raw, or have never tried.

-Preparation and harvesting tips: It’s quite clear that she approaches plants with food in mind (as if the title and recipes weren’t a giveaway).  She’s conscientious about highlighting which part of the plant is edible and how to prepare it.

-Glossary and index: there’s a very good section about nomenclature for different parts of plants.  The index is sound, with entries for common name, Latin/binomial name, and use.

-Physical size: this is a little book: about 5×7″ and less than 200 pages long.  Easy to put in a pocket (well…maybe for guys) or bring on a backpacking trip.


-Pictures.  There are a handful of photographs on the front cover and a few pages of smallish photos in the center of the book, but otherwise all the plants are represented with line drawings (or in some cases, no picture at all).  This is insufficient for gathering unfamiliar plants: you have to be absolutely sure a wild plant is what you think it is before you eat it.  Between things like iPhones and Google images, this is not a crippling limitation: once you know what name to look for it’s easy to find lots of pictures.  But you couldn’t just take this book off into the woods and be able to tell whether you have wild carrot or poison hemlock.

-Look a-likes (or lack thereof): many of the plants that are listed look similar to other, less palatable or even poisonous plants, and there’s very little attention given to what an edible plant could be mistaken for, and how to discriminate between possibilities.  There’s also little attention given to the pitfalls of particular plants: elderberry is delicious to some people, but can cause bad stomach aches in others, and should be sampled cautiously.  Cow parsnip is huge and can feed an army…unless you’re allergic to it and break out in blisters if you handle it.

-Organization: apart from breaking the plants down into regions where they grow, the entries seem pretty haphazard.  This is not such a problem because the index is good.


-Historical info.  There’s quite a lot of discussion about which Native American tribes used the plant and for what.  Because I’m mostly interested in the book as a food guide, this isn’t so much a plus for me, but it may be for others.

-Other uses: if you want plants to make into cloth or bowls or boats, you can use this book for that, too.  Uses for plants other than edibility are given in many cases.

2) Nature’s Garden: A guide to identifying, harvesting and preparing edible wild plants.  Samuel Thayer.  2010.

The cover has a fair sampling of the breadth of content: Blueberries, walnuts, prickly pears, many delicious things described with lots of pictures, careful thoroughness and a handful of funny stories.

Samuel Thayer has two books: Nature’s Garden is the sequel to Forager’s Harvest.  Based on how awesome Nature’s Garden is, I’m eager to get Forager’s Harvest as well.  (I just can’t help giving a word of caution, though: if you mix these two titles up in your head like I did and go looking for Natural Harvest, that will lead you to a very different book.  Eww.)


-Pictures!! There are many large photographs for almost all of the plants described.  In most cases he’s been careful to include pictures of several different parts of the plant, so you’ll have a clear image of the root, stem, leaf, flower, and fruit.

-Thorough harvesting tips. There are over 20 pages on acorns alone:  which species taste best, how to choose fresh acorns from old, how to spot weevil holes, several methods for how to crack them, grind them, leach them, dry them…it’s very complete.  If I wanted to get into eating acorns, I could confidently use this book to get me from tree to bread.  For all the plants in this book, he’s pretty conscientious about detailing which part to use, when it’s best to harvest, what differentiates a tasty example of the plant from a less-tasty one, and what tools to use to collect the best parts.

-Look a-likes: this is stellar.  For plants with dangerous look a-likes, he’s put in a ton of side-by-side pictures of each part of the plant, and binary guides for telling which is which.  I think anyone could confidently tell wild carrot from poison hemlock with this book.  Amazingly, I found out that something I’ve been avoiding my entire life, thinking it was deadly nightshade, is actually edible black nightshade.  Even for non-hazardous look a-likes there are helpful rules given for telling them apart: for example there’s a multi-part guide to telling apart all the edible members of the asteraceae family (dandelions, wild lettuce, chicory, salsify, etc).

-Glossary and index: like Clarke’s book, this book also has a very good guide (with pictures) to the names of plant parts, a glossary of all terms, and a good, cross-referenced index.

-Narrative style: It’s also a really fun read, with a chatty tone and plenty of anecdotes.  I literally laughed out loud at some of the foraging myths–like the wilderness traveler who patiently explained to his native guides that eating wild food was dangerous, and how they interpreted this as him being like “We can’t eat these bananas!  They are probably deadly false bananas!  Doesn’t this wilderness have any labels?”


-Limited content.  The trade-off for covering each plant in such awesome detail is that there just isn’t room to cover that many plants. I think there are about 40-50 edible plants mentioned, while I know there are actually many more than that in California alone, thanks to Clarke’s book.

-No geographical partitioning.  Samuel grew up in the Midwest, and all the plants he introduces can be found there, but only 75% can be found in CA.  Apart from giving this overall percentage of how many of these plants are found in each state, and general environmental preferences for each plant, he doesn’t usually really clarify which plants can be found where.

-No recipes.  Lots of detail on which part of the plant to pick and what kinds of food it’s good for (flour, cooked greens, seasoning…), but no real recipes.

-Physical size: it’s a bit bigger, maybe 7X9″–so it would totally fit in a backpack but not a pocket.

Whew!  Ok. That was a lot of words, but I hope you find them useful.  If anyone wants to get together for a foraging trip and try these books out I am totally game!