It’s surprising how many visitors to public gardens ask if ornamental plants are edible. For most people, this is a question that rarely comes up outside of vegetable gardens, farmers’ markets, or grocery stores, especially when the plants in question are clearly not being cultivated as food. But frankly, aside from breathing oxygen, eating is our primary interaction with plants. If people hadn’t been curious time and again, if they hadn’t gathered as well as hunted, then we wouldn’t have the varied diet we have today. Who was imaginative enough to first taste the artichoke? To figure out how to process cacao into chocolate? Our clever
ancestors – and we thank them.
Today, this curiosity is finding a new outlet in the foraging movement. Foragers report feeling a deep, natural, and intimate connection to food, by reenacting gathering as a means of survival. A market of sorts has grown up to support foraging on wild lands. You can take a class, buy a how-to book, or even enjoy a guided holiday where you forage for your dinner. You know the interest has gone mainstream when gourmet restaurants boast of their foraged ingredients. Copenhagen’s Noma, recognized as one of the world’s best restaurants, has a menu built around foraged foods.
Here in California, native people have long cultivated “wild” plants to maintain sustainable harvests. They learned how to gather in ways that increased the number of plants. When harvesting bulbs, for example, they would take care to replant the tiny offsets so another crop would follow. These relatively small numbers of people harvested over large areas so they wouldn’t push the plants beyond a sustainably yield. Many native Californians still gather – and tend to – wild plants today.
Our problem is that there are more than 18 million people in the Los Angeles area, and large numbers of people can’t forage sustainably. As the number of foragers increases, the pattern is clear: without cultivation and purposefully stewardship, the stocks of edible plants or animals will crash, endangering the very existence of the species we want to harvest. It’s happened to ramps (wild leeks), American bison, Atlantic cod, and Pacific sardine, to name a few from recent memory. Each of these species is actively managed today.
The perils from foraging aren’t just limited to the target species. Many foragers focus on exotics, but few novices can accurately distinguish between native and invasive plants, meaning that rare natives are collected or harmed inadvertently. And while most foragers strive to take only what they will use, we must remember that native plants in the wild are not going to waste because people aren’t eating them. When we remove or damage these plants, we remove critical resources from other species. Native plants provide shelter for reproduction and irreplaceable forage for insects as part of complex interrelationships that have evolved over millennia. Excessive human foraging diminishes these resources and makes survival harder for our fellow species.
Yet foraging for food encourages good habits, too: curiosity, observation, and an understanding of the seasons and of plant growth. In fact, we can use these practices to bring city people closer to nature through cultivation of native plants for foraging in home gardens. This would provide multiple benefits, from the reintroduction of plants to their original home and restoration of habitat for birds, insects and other pollinators; to providing an introduction for Angelenos to their own local plants, and adding interesting new culinary flavors to modern diets.
There are plenty of opportunities to add to our horticultural repertoire. Southern California has a tough yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii) that makes a great ground cover but also is perfect for tea and medicinal uses. Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) grows effortlessly in hot, sunny exposures and makes a delicious pesto, as well as fragrant dried sachets. You could make a local salad of miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata ssp. perfoliata) sprinkled with the sweet edible flowers of Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and spiced with leaves of one-leaf onion (Allium unifolium). Native wood strawberries (Fragaria vesca) are quite tasty, too. The list goes on.
Despite the fact that Los Angeles County is a hotbed of urban gardening and agriculture, native forage gardens have hardly made an impact. Community gardeners and home gardeners have endless opportunities to cultivate edible native plants in their backyards, plots, and planting strips. Native plants are a perfect complement to conventional edible gardens since they attract myriad beneficial insects while requiring fewer inputs of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Foraging also opens up an economic opportunity: Are u-pick natives in our future? It’s certainly an unexplored niche market.
So, yes, you “can eat that,” give a boost to Mother Nature, and possibly make a profit, too.