LOTM: Useful Plants of California's Edgelands

© 2010 Joshua Stark

California is blessed with hundreds of microclimates, a huge variety of soil types, elevations, and rainfall patterns.  We are also blessed and cursed with a popularity that has brought with it many botanical 'hitchhikers' and freeloaders.  Where else, for example, can you pick wild fennel, rosemary, Himalayan blackberry, and Sierra gooseberry all on the same trip?

But, in our zeal for the New and Modern, Californians have lost many of the cultural memories that brought these plants, and in our violence and inadvertent spreading of diseases, we also lost the lion's share of knowledge about California's immense diversity of native plant life - more than all other states' taxa combined.

On California's marginal lands, those empty lots and levees, roadsides and burned-out parcels, many of these plants still hold their treasures for those who take the time to learn them.  These treasures do not fit neatly into our lives like a USB.  They aren't factory installed, or sterilized and packaged into 5 oz. servings.  They become ready in their own time, following the seasons, the rains, winds and the Sun.  Their use often requires curiosity, and a desire to learn a new skill or hone an old one.  But these skills are quintessentially human, born deep in our pre-historic past, honed over millennia.  And these skills, when tapped, fill a void within us like no other enterprise.  It is our ability to find food and utility from wild things, to know and understand their tempos and temperaments, to coax and cajole amazing flavors and beautiful works of utilitarian artistry from their raw forms, to intimately connect ourselves to a place and its life.

Here, then, is a sampling of the more commonly found edible and useful plants of California's edgelands.  Most of these plants are of the 'edible' variety, a few are 'useful', and a couple of them are both.  This list is in no way exhaustive, but meant for people who are new to foraging to find some real treasures among the weeds, to connect to their local spaces, or try out a new hobby.  Many will find foraging a "value-added" service, as it gives hikers, hunters, fishermen, and birdwatchers something else to do in the field, and it builds a broader and deeper understanding of habitats and places they frequent, improving their chances for success. 

I'm staying away from fungi, and a number of plants that resemble hemlock, for obvious reasons.  I'm no botanist, nor mycologist, and I'm no professional gatherer.  Of course, then, there is the obvious disclaimer:  Pick at your own risk, as some plants and fungi can kill ya.  Get a good reference book, or better yet, get out in the field with an expert, and learn the lifecycle stages, habitats, etc., of the plants you wish to gather.  And do not eat anything you haven't 100% identified as food. 

With that, here is the list, with links and more to come:

Mission figs








Wild radishes