While tech geniuses and high-powered CEOs across the city shell out $9.99 per pound for limp romaine and iceberg, a veritable open bar of salad greens sits mere blocks away, completely free for the taking. I’m talking about the wild foods growing in just about every corner of San Francisco, although most people would regard them as merely weeds or even invasive pests. Foraging may sound like an implausible venture in the middle of San Francisco, and yet right there on just the outskirts of Golden Gate Park, scores of not only edible but wholly delicious plants are thriving, hidden in plain sight. Furthermore, these greens are packed with more nutrition than their pale, cultivated brethren could dream of.
I’m far from an expert and was grateful for a bit of guidance myself, so if you’re new to the concept, definitely enlist an a more seasoned forager to help identify your discoveries. It needs to be said that foraging for wild foods is not without its pitfalls, of course. Before diving deep into the urban wilds, bear in mind:
1. It’s illegal, at least in California and most parts of the US, to take anything from public property. Whether or not this is enforced is an entirely different matter, and your mileage may vary.
2. It’s poisonous, at least in some cases, due to polluted soil. The best places to find wild edibles are typically in disturbed patches of earth, which often means near highways or construction sites, which can mean that there are some unsavory things being absorbed by the plants. In parks, they may be sprayed with herbicides, so be very aware of how the areas that you forage are maintained.
3. It’s poisonous– Really. There are some cruel look-like weeds that may seem benign and taste quite delicious, but are genuinely harmful or even deadly. Know what you’re picking up before you think about touching it.
Now, don’t you all want to run out there and go foraging with me? In case I haven’t scared everyone off, just take a gander at the plunder one can take away from a mere 100-yard stroll through the outskirts of grand Golden Gate Park.
Common mallow, one of the most abundant edible weeds where I began my search and a favorite new discovery of the day, they possess thickening powers similar to okra when cooked but are incredibly delicious eaten raw as well. The immature seed pods, also known as “green cheese wheels,” are the best parts. Crunchy and refreshing, just pluck them off the stem and enjoy. The whole plant, from stem to leaf, is edible and delicious.
Cleavers have Velcro-like hairs lining their leaves which gives them a slightly prickly texture, but that is minimized when crushed, chopped, or blended. Also quite tasty both raw and cooked it’s an especially good addition in green smoothies. They’re also fun to throw at your friends because they’ll stick to your clothing.
Black nightshade sounds like something you should avoid at all costs, but is actually related to the potato. In this case, the ripe fruit is the only part that should be eaten. The leaves contain solanine, a toxin that, in great enough quantity, can cause some serious gastrointestinal distress.
Oxalis has a sour, tart flavor, which has given it the nickname of “sourgrass.” Both the flowers and leaves are edible and highly nutritious. It contains an impressive amount of vitamin c, but should be used in small amounts due to its strong taste.
Miner’s lettuce is a prime salad green, juicy and with a flavor incredibly similar to good old spinach. To preserve the patch and allow it to grow back, be careful to simply pinch or snip off the leaves, rather than pulling out the roots. For anyone new to foraging, I would highly recommend you sample these leafy greens first, as the flavor is one of the most universally agreeable of all the common edible weeds.
Chickweed is another one that you’ve likely already heard about, since the leaves are very good raw in salads and are often paired with miner’s lettuce for variety. The stalk is stringy though so it’s best saved for cooking.
Wild radishes are quite different from cultivated radishes, as the root is tough and stringy. It’s the buds and flowers that you want in this case, which contain a pungent mustard flavor. The flowers come in all colors of the rainbow, and you’ll often find many different colors altogether in the same patch.
Yarrow is more of a medicinal herb rather than a purely edible one, as it’s incredibly bitter when eaten straight. I do not recommend this at all! The flowers are more potent than the leaves but all parts can be used to brew a calming, mildly sedative tincture. It also reacts strongly with yeast and can help bread rise if you’re an avid baker. Only a little bit is needed to make a big impact.
Wild plums are likely the most abundant wild fruit growing in the bay area. These pictured above are still unripe, as they’ll be in season come mid- to late-June.
Trust me, this is just the beginning of a wild food odyssey, and absolutely anyone could harvest exactly the same haul for themselves with very little effort. I didn’t spend more than hour looking or walk beyond the well-trod trail to find all of these goodies. It pays to do your research and pick very carefully, because the culinary reward is priceless.