Falling behind

See: because it’s fall.  And because I haven’t posted in a season.

As a lifelong California resident with many friends and loved ones that have moved here from points east, I’ve heard a broad range of disparaging comments about the inferiority of our fall colors.  And I’m totally willing to concede that we don’t offer the hundreds of square miles of lurid orangeness that folks in NC or DC (or wherever–no favoritism here, those are just two East Coast places I’ve actually been to in the fall) enjoy this time of year.  Showoffs.  It’s gaudy, if you ask me.  Here we get our fall colors in trim little accents, like this one, which I pass by about 15 times a day:

A particularly pretty Chinase pistache (Pistacia chinensis) tree at the corner of Roth and Campus Drive.

This is one of maaaaany Chinese pistache (or Chinese pistachio) trees distributed around campus in an effort to keep all our homesick transplanted students and faculty from fleeing back to their states of origin this time of year.  Or possibly just to sprinkle a little extra red around the place.  As you’ve probably already suspected, Pistacia chinensis is a close relative of the pistachio of culinary fame, Pistacia vera P. vera is a Mediterranean native, and it’s in Mediterranean desserts that I like pistachio nuts the best: baklava, biscotti (recipe below), and the like.  The Chinese pistachio fruits are not edible (except to birds–the bluebirds go nuts for them here), but they look like a plausible smaller relative, and unlike commercial pistachio nuts, Chinese pistachio fruits are naturally red.

Fruits of the Chinese pistachio tree. They’re doused in very sticky sap, which left my fingers tacky for the rest of the day after this pic.

P. chinensis is common all over the Bay Area, so if you live nearby there’s a good chance a few of these are brightening up your neighborhood, too.

Pistachio and anise biscotti recipe:

(Since P. chinensis is not edible, this is a bit of a stretch as a foraging recipe, but I did pick the anise flowers myself last week.  Currently anise/fennel is in flower, and I really like their delicate flavor, but you could substitute seeds at other times of year)

1/3 cup butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour

4 tsp chopped fresh anise/fennel flowers

1 cup pistachio nuts

1. Preheat oven to 375 F; spray 1 cookie sheet with cooking spray, keep another ungreased cookie sheet on hand. Cream together butter and sugar, beat in baking powder, salt, vanilla and eggs.  Stir in flour, fennel flowers, and pistachios.

2.  Divide dough into 3 portions. Shape each third into a roll 8-9″ long.  Place rolls several inches apart on sprayed cookie sheet, and flatten so each roll is about 2.5-3 inches wide.

3. Bake at 375 F (190 C) for 20-25 minutes.  The “loaves” should be golden brown around the edges and cracked on top.  Cool 30 minutes.

4.  Use a sharp serrated knife to cut each roll on a diagonal into slices, about 1/2″ thick and 4″ long.  Lay slices cut sides down on ungreased cookie sheet.  Lower oven temp and bake at 325 F (163 C) for 8 minutes, then flip cookies and bake on the other side another 8 minutes until dry and crisp.


A collection of sham-shamrocks

I spent a lot of my weekend looking at clusters of three heart-shaped leaves.  You may have done the same, possibly (just possibly) in the company of a Guiness or something similar.  And in the course of all that shamrock-ogling, I became slightly vexed that the shamrock’s  officially recognized botanical representative is Trifolium dubium, the common suckling clover.  Dubium, indeed.  Its leaves are dinky, and they’re not even consistently heart-shaped.  So for your consideration, I hereby nominate the various species of Oxalis (wood sorrel) that are overtaking my yard as shamrock alternatives.

White Oxalis purpurea (this guy was planted, the rest are wild). The leaves are perfect hearts, but kinda small.

Oxalis pes-capre, or Bermuda buttercup. You might remember these from "Roadside edibles on my run." They're really more notable for their fluorescent-yellow flowers.

Oxalis stricta, yellow-flowered oxalis, sometimes sports reddish leaves like these, bringing a little variety to all that green.

And finally, Oxalis oregana, redwood sorrel, whose leaves are the size of a silver dollar. Go ahead and tell me this isn't more like what comes to mind when you think "shamrock" than some dopey little clover.

Relishing Radishes

Yesterday we took our dog to his favorite place, the Point Isabelle dog park, where the wild mustard and radishes are in full flower and the ground is currently soft enough to gather roots.  The radishes were so appealingly enormous that we hauled up a handful of them, and brought them home to sample. Since the bay area is liberally strewn with radishes right now, you might want to do the same!

Radish (R. sativus, foreground, large white flowers) and mustard (background, small clustered yellow flowers), growing wild at Point Isabelle. The ripe pointed silique (seed pod) of the radish is visible in the center of the picture.

Radish flowers can be purple, white, pink, or yellow. They grow singly or in small clusters, which is one way to tell yellow radish flowers from the more heavily-clustered flowers of mustard. Another difference is the siliques, which are young and thin on this radish, but still much larger than those of mustard.

Harvesting tips:

-Don’t eat the ones that have started to flower.  The roots will be tough and fibrous.  The root should snap with a nice crunch when you chop or break it.

-look for radishes with one whorl of large leaves (not a whole clump, which signifies an older plant), and take a look at the root underneath before you dig it up.  It should be smooth and white or pink–not woody and dry, although some good roots look dry on top, so peek down under soil level. We found some very nice large radishes with appealing leaves and roots growing under the protection of fennel plants, so that might be a place to start.

Radish greens that are good for eating, from a plant with a nice big healthy taproot.

-wash and scrub them extremely thoroughly when you get them home.  I even peeled them with a carrot peeler.

-break off the long tendril-y root tip.  It’s too fibrous to enjoy.

-If you plan on eating the greens (which are good if you like bitter greens; similar to beet greens), choose evenly-colored leaves, make sure you wash each leaf thoroughly, look for and remove any bad spots, and remove the stems.

The best (and biggest) of the radish greens and roots we collected.

I followed this recipe from food and wine magazine for roasted radishes and greens.  The roots were very good cooked this way–it cut the spicy isothiocyanate flavor, and gave them a nice crisp-tender texture.  The greens were good too, but a whole bowlful of bitter greens turns out to be a bit much for me.  Definitely good side-dish material.

The finished product: roasted radishes and radish greens. Very tasty!

Bays by the Bay

Anyone for soup?

No need to go to the store for bay leaves, California residents; we have our own more potent variety right here!

Like Laurus nobilis, the Mediterranean bay leaf we more commonly eat, the California bay is in the Lauraceae (Laurel) family, but bears the rather delightful Latin name Umbellularia californica.  It came out way ahead of the California poppy in nomenclature.  It’s the only member of the genus Umbellularia, which seems like kind of a shame.

Leaves of the California bay, Umbellularia californica. The bottom leaf is creased where I bent it to take a whiff.

California bay trees (aka California bay laurels, or California laurels) grow in the coastal woods around the bay here, but are more abundant further north where it’s more moist, and also in Oregon (where they’re called “Oregon myrtles” which seems a bit like cheating.  It’s U. californica after all, Oregon).  They’re also sometimes used as ornamentals, so I’m not sure whether the ones we’ve got growing at Stanford (where it’s drier) are wild or planted.

Some of the foliage sprouting from the base of a bay tree near the hospital Emergency parking lot.

In my opinion California bays don’t have a hugely distinctive morphology–the trees are tallish, the leaves are 2-4″ long, glossy, slim and pointed like other bay leaves.  The wood is supposed to be very fine as a tonewood for making guitars, but that’s not necessarily obvious as you saunter by the tree.  In the spring when they’re in flower they’re more obvious: the flowers are yellow-green and small, and grow right where the leaves meet the stems.  Later the fruit grows as a walnut-sized green oval (Wikipedia describes it as like a tiny avocado and that seems very apt).  But if you’re in doubt, just crinkle a leaf and smell it–the fragrance is unmistakable.

A stately bay tree towers above the path near the Stanford mausoleum. There are a few more tucked in behind the mausoleum, too.

And you can eat it!

You can use California bay leaves as a flavoring, but I can vouch that they’re much stronger than store-bought bay leaves, so experiment with caution–use half a leaf to start where you would normally use 1 or 2.  The fruit is also edible, but I haven’t tried it personally.

Extra nitty-gritty: a note of caution to migraineurs or other headache sufferers

Unfortunately, the fragrance of the California bay isn’t universally loved, and for some people it’s downright noxious, leading to the nickname “headache tree.”  The compound responsible for this effect is a monoterpene ketone called Umbellulone.

Umbellulone: shortcut to a headache

In a recent paper, Italian neurobiologists investigated the basis for headaches caused by Umbellulone, and found that its inhalation triggered pain in rats by stimulating trigeminal ganglion neurons via the pain receptor ankyrin 1/TRP1A.  A similar response was evoked from other headache triggers like cigarette smoke, chlorine, and formaldehyde.  So if you’re headache-prone, take a cautious whiff before you stick some in your food.  Speaking as a migraineur myself, I’ve never found bay to be a trigger, but scents aren’t generally triggers for me and I’d hate to have any of you guys knocked into an attack by incautious bay-huffing.

Want more details? Here’s the reference:

Nassini R, Materazzi S, Vriens J, Prenen J, Benemei S, De Siena G, la Marca G, Andrè E, Preti D, Avonto C, Sadofsky L, Di Marzo V, De Petrocellis L, Dussor G, Porreca F, Taglialatela-Scafati O, Appendino G, Nilius B, & Geppetti P (2011). The ‘headache tree’ via umbellulone and TRPA1 activates the trigeminovascular system. Brain : a journal of neurology PMID: 22036959

Poppies: You’re getting sleepy…very sleepy…

No you’re not, wake up! You haven’t even started reading yet!

I suffered a nasty shock recently when I discovered that the audaciously sunny California poppy is called “Eschscholzia californica.” Eschscholzia? Bleh. Such a slushy mouthful to hang on a cute little flower. But despite the disservice done to it by Linnaeus, the California poppy has held up bravely, bringing sunshine and some surprising biochemical utility to our coast.

Undaunted by its miserable Latin name, a California poppy brightens up the median.

Doped up on poppy seeds

Ever since I watched the Mythbusters episode where Adam and Jaime were able to make themselves test positive for morphine and codeine by gobbling poppy seed cake and bagels, I’ve been curious about how widespread the expression of narcotics in related flowers actually is. The first surprise was that the poppy seeds we eat are straight from Papaver somniferum, the same opium poppy used to make, well, opium. Can someone with FDA expertise please explain how possession of poppy seeds is no problem, and growing opium poppies in your yard is totally cool (really, some of my neighbors have them right out front), but you could never do that for cannabis or coca plants?

Meanwhile, both California poppies (genus Eschscholzia) and opium poppies (genus Papaver) are members of the Papaveraceae family, which has been around for 70 million years or so, and these two genera are roughly 30-50 million years distant from each other in evolutionary time. So what is the likelihood that the biosynthetic machinery for morphine and codeine and the like is shared between them? Surprise #2: quite high!

Morphine and codeine are both alkaloids made via several steps from the amino acid tyrosine. California poppies have all the enzymes involved in this pathway, but because of the bias in the way those enzymes are used, very little of these narcotics are made in California poppies, with several other alkaloids being favored instead. (Everybody got that?  So don’t go off and start smoking CA poppies now, ok?) One of the benzophenanthridine alkaloids made by California poppies, sanguinarine (named for the bloodroot where it was first found), is worth a little more discussion.

Do I have any poppy seeds stuck in my teeth?

In the 1990s, sanguinarine was found to be a potent antimicrobial, and so effective against plaque bacteria that the company Viadent added it to their toothpaste and mouthwash for several years…until it was found that it also killed off human cells, leading to precancerous mouth lesions. Yuck.

mmm...toothsome sanguinarine

But wait! That actually was handy for sanguinarine, because in the course of characterizing its toxicity to human cells, it was found to preferentially target dividing cells, and where are dividing cells a problem? In cancer of course! Consequently, sanguinarine and a related E. californica alkaloid, chelerythrine, are under investigation for their antiproliferative and pro-apoptotic effects in prostate cancer.

Extra nity-gritty: Poppies in the lab

At the same time, the actual yield of any of these compounds from living poppy plants is pretty low, so a fairly rigorous side discipline has sprung up around trying to get E. californica to make more of sanguinarine and other useful alkaloids. One approach has been to find the rate-limiting enzymes of benzophenanthridine alkaloids and force the plant to express more of them. Another has taken advantage of the fact that all these alkaloids are made as a stress response in plants, and has involved stressing the plant with everything from aspirin to yeast extract in order to drive up their production.  Both approaches use a cell culture system based on small chunks of E. californica tissue, and I derive a small amount of joy from imagining racks of agar petri dishes filled with poppy plantlets.

Want more detail? Here are references!

Adhami VM, Aziz MH, Reagan-Shaw SR, Nihal M, Mukhtar H, & Ahmad N (2004). Sanguinarine causes cell cycle blockade and apoptosis of human prostate carcinoma cells via modulation of cyclin kinase inhibitor-cyclin-cyclin-dependent kinase machinery. Molecular cancer therapeutics, 3 (8), 933-40 PMID: 15299076

Cho, H., Son, S., Rhee, H., Yoon, S., Lee-Parsons, C., & Park, J. (2008). Synergistic effects of sequential treatment with methyl jasmonate, salicylic acid and yeast extract on benzophenanthridine alkaloid accumulation and protein expression in Eschscholtzia californica suspension cultures Journal of Biotechnology, 135 (1), 117-122 DOI: 10.1016/j.jbiotec.2008.02.020

Takemura T,, Chow YL,, Todokoro T,, Okamoto T,, & Sato F (2010). Over-expression of rate-limiting enzymes to improve alkaloid productivity Methods Mol Biol, 643, 95-109 DOI: 10.1007/978-1-60761-723-5_7

Roadside edibles: missed one!

As I was jogging through the Berkeley marina yesterday, I realized I left a roadside edible out of last week’s post!  How could I forget the bright and peppery nasturtium?  It’s pretty much everyone’s favorite edible flower, an easy garnish to dress up your salad.

Tropaeolum majus, or Nasturtium to its friends. I found this one at the Berkeley marina near the parking lot of the Doubletree hotel.

The leaves are good too, but quite spicy.  I just learned that the flowers I know as nasturtium are from Tropaeolum genus (this one is most likely T. majus), but are named for the Nasturtium genus that includes watercress, because they produce a similar peppery-flavored oil.

Nasturtiums are native to Central and South America, but grow easily here. They’re popular not just because they’re pretty and hardy, but also because they deter many types of insect pest, and can act as a “trap crop” for pests (specifically aphids) that would have a more devastating effect on other crops.  Pretty and selfless!

Roadside edibles on my run

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.

Pretty nice view, right? If you squint you can see the Golden Gate bridge along the left.

Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae (aka buttercup oxalis, yellow oxalis, or yellow sorrel)

Buttercup oxalis. Light and lemony.

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.

Two brassicates:

Wild mustard (Hirschfeldia incana, formerly Brassica geniculata)

Wild mustard. The flowers are a bit sparse at this time of year, but the plants are everywhere.

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)

Wild radish

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)

One of a few thousand fennel plants I passed on my run. These big ones are too woody for eating, except for the youngest leaves.

Newly sprouted fennel leaves are the tastiest!

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.)

Honey-flavored manzanita flowers

A closer look at manzanita flowers.

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.

Enough rosemary to flavor a farmful of chickens!

Blackberry (Rubus armeniacus, see David’s comment below…)

A lonely blackberry flower in January (also kinda hard to see. I'll have to get better at this plant photography business)

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.

An approximate guide to roadside edibles (minus the ones that grow everywhere).

Anybody found any other notable edible plants out along the trail, or near the parks?  I’d love to be introduced to new ones!