My husband and I bought our first house last year, and with it came a large and beautiful back yard—that was almost completely overrun with weeds. I spent many a summer afternoon of 2009 pulling said weeds, many of which looked like giant, mutant white carrots. “I wonder if these are edible?” I said to my husband, as we tossed each armload onto the compost pile.
Turns out, they were hemlock. Yeah, that hemlock: the one poor Socrates was forced to consume for his court-ordered suicide.
You might think I spotted this dastardly delectable because it was featured on an episode of House this season, but no (I’m not that observant). I discovered the deadly weed on an herb walk with the inimitable herbalist Brigitte Mars. She allowed me to tag along while she led one of her classes on a walk up the Mount Sanitas trail, pointing out each useful, edible and decidedly not edible plant as we went.
I’ve been fascinated by the recent trend of urban foraging; sites have sprung up in cities like Portland, Santa Fe and Los Angeles detailing where hipster foodies can glean wild fruit, mushrooms and other edibles. The movement got me interested in what edible delicacies might be springing up in my own sidewalk cracks.
Turns out, quite a lot.
“Everything is something,” Mars told her class as we examined the local flora. A common yellow wildflower called salsify or goat beard has edible roots, and is actually cultivated in France for its reported oyster flavor. Prickly pears and yuccas both have edible parts and are abundant in the dry rocky parts of the mountains. And some plants even have conveniently foodie names like biscuit root and lemonade berry.
Mars pointed out wild apple trees, wild plums and gooseberry bushes as we walked as well, and I was astounded by the bounty available within just a few hundred feet. “Wild foods may be smaller,” she told the class, “but they’re very satisfying—on a cellular level.”
But it’s important to be absolutely certain of what you’re picking, lest you meet the same end as our friend Socrates; have a good book or go with a guide. Another good rule is not to be too greedy; once you’ve correctly identified a plant, be sure not to harvest all of it from any given site. Leave some growing to propagate for next year and for any other foragers who might follow you. A tree full of wild plums would be ridiculously tempting, but how many will you actually be able to use for yourself? Finally, be sure you have permission. Check the rules before foraging in parks or on public land and always ask an owner before foraging on private property.
The few hours I spent with Mars were incredibly enlightening. I’ve started spotting blue mustard, smooth sumac and chickweed on my daily dog walks. And, as it turns out, my weedy yard is actually a veritable salad bar of wild green goodies. We just have to watch for the hemlock.
5 Edible Plants I Found in My Back Yard…Literally
I had already identified this great bush in my yard and am eagerly awaiting the chartreuse berries that will ripen in another month or two.
2. Prickly Lettuce
I’d previously mistaken this for dandelions. Edible when small (under 10 inches) after which it gets terribly bitter.
3. Penny Cress Mustard
These pretty yellow and grey-green plants have completely taken over the furthest back corner of our yard where the grass can’t/won’t/doesn’t grow. Once the seeds have matured, they can be dried and added to food like mustard seeds for seasoning.
4. Rose Hips
We have a large, old-fashioned rose bush in the front yard that, in the fall, was covered in bright red-orange rose hips. Rose hips can be made into jams and jellies and are chock full of vitamin C.
I don’t really have enough of this to plan on a flax seed harvest any time soon, but I’m going to encourage the pretty blue flowers wherever they pop up. Good source of Omega-3s.