A short primer on the edible wild plants available in the Chico area
“What to eat?” It is a singularly human question, a vexing ideological debate that has raged on for centuries, with all the entrenched dogmas and fanatical zealotry of a holy war. Every week, someone’s waving a new book around, shouting themselves hoarse, trying to cash in on the hysteria. Vegetarians versus Paleo. Atkins versus blood type. Vegans versus everybody.
Recently, one quiet voice in the debate has been gaining traction. “See that little green weed growing through the cracks in the pavement?” it says. “The one nearly crushed beneath the weight of your soapbox? That’s what you should eat.”
The wild food movement, reinvigorated in the 1960s by the writings of Euell Gibbons, is taking it back to the old school (as in, pre-agricultural revolution—12,000 years, give or take).
Most of the food on the market today is a result of thousands of years of selective breeding by primitive gardeners. Take lettuce, for example: There are hundreds of named varieties of lettuce, and every last one can be traced back to a single wild ancestor—what we call “wild lettuce” or “prickly lettuce,” (botanical name: Lactuca serriola), first brought under cultivation by the ancient Egyptians. These wild ancestors have been with us all along in their original forms, growing at the edge of the garden, populating lonely alleys and vacant lots, offering their strange and bitter nutrition.
If you are looking, there is food nearly everywhere.
Here in the North State, something good is on the menu every day of the year. There’s cream of stinging nettle soup available in the winter, while spring offers elderflower fritters and cattail pollen bread. Summer drops the bomb with purslane omelets and milk thistle quiche. Fall brings acorn pancakes made divine by elderberry syrup.
And while combing the upper reaches of the Deer Creek watershed for morels has an undeniable appeal, a better introduction to the foraging arts can be had by taking a bike ride and gathering a simple wild salad along the way. Many wild edible plants thrive in disturbed soils; as our tenure on the Earth can be charitably described as a lengthy and ongoing disturbance, this means good foraging is often as close as your own front yard.
All of the ingredients for a wild salad for tonight’s dinner table can be found in a few hours’ time on a bike, without leaving the city limits. Once you begin to make connections and foster relationships with wild plants, you’ll whittle down your trip time, but don’t be in too big of a hurry—a foraging trip is an occasion to wander, to dream on your feet a little. Quiet early mornings are best, while the plants are still bathing in dew, before the belching of tailpipes and industry bruises the day.
A good field guide is indispensable. Don’t go nibbling plants without first making a positive ID. Poison hemlock, for example, bears a superficial resemblance to wild carrot and is highly poisonous. Pokeweed, another local plant, is only edible when very young, increasing in toxicity as it matures. If you’re on Facebook, the Chico Foragers Action Squad page can help with questions of plant identification.
Your first time out, you could do a lot worse than Lower Bidwell Park. You’ll find miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and chickweed (Stellaria media) growing thickly on the roadsides, and tangy yellow dock (Rumex crispus) practically everywhere. The small, tender leaves of dock are best for fresh eating, but even the larger, fibrous leaves are delicious when lightly boiled or steamed and dressed with butter. Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), mallow (Malva neglecta) and common self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) are also abundant in Lower Park.
But leave the park and circle back through the streets or the avenues, wherever there are alleys and medians and vacant lots ripe for harvest. Here you can find wild lettuce and the ribbed vertical leaves of ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), great food and better medicine (for coughs, insect bites, etc.). The pleasantly bitter leaves of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and the versatile violet (Viola odorata) crowd the lawns here, their flowers every bit as tasty and useful as their foliage. The branches of the western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), a common yard tree, are loaded with sweet, pink, edible flowers now (in summer/fall the young pods can be eaten like snow peas). Don’t be afraid to knock on a few doors if your search demands it; most people are warily curious, but supportive. Some are downright tickled.
Keep riding. Toward the edges of town there’s pungent field mustard (Brassica rapa) and spicy wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) in the fertile, mulchy understory of valley oaks, exploding with bright edible flowers, usually growing in a half circle at the southern drip line. Along the way, look for shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), a roadside weed here, but valued for its peppery greens in Chinese cooking.
Some of these greens will keep longer than others, but in general don’t plan on keeping them overnight. Wild greens have not been bred to stay fresh during shipping; if they start to go limp before you get home, a quick soak in cool water will freshen them up. Once your palate becomes attuned to these complex new flavors, the orderly rows of watery cellulose on the supermarket shelves will never look the same.
Thoreau said it best: “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Building a regular foraging practice not only saves money and promotes robust health, it also entrains our senses to the subtle magnetisms of this place, ultimately leading to a deeper and more meaningful residency here. And while it doesn’t comprise an answer in itself, it can go a long way in helping resolve that ancient philosophical conundrum: “What to eat?”