The flavors of Santa Cruz have slipped under the radar.
When food choices fluctuate between the variety of supermarkets and the farmer’s market, who would think to eat weeds?
Native plants have been overshadowed by domesticated produce and have for the most part completely disappeared from the plates of industrial nations. But free food has gained an extra sparkle from the economic crunch and the city’s weeds never looked more tasty.
This re-emerging art is known as foraging and all it requires is a tramp through the woods and a precise knowledge of local flora to give dishes a wild touch.
“I would only caution people to know what they’re gathering,” said Stephen McCabe, director of education at the UCSC Arboretum. “Both so they won’t get poisoned and also so they won’t pull up something rare by mistake.”
McCabe went on to warn against the yellow Bermuda buttercup, or sourgrass, that took Santa Cruz by storm this spring and is commonly known to be edible. The plant also contains oxalic acid and should be eaten in small amounts to avoid calcium deficiencies. He described it as a frustrating weed accidentally imported from South Africa and advocated careful consumption.
“But as long as [people] are eating the invasive non-naturals, its also helping the environment,” McCabe said.
Awareness of poisonous plants is especially important when it comes to fungus and mushrooms should be carefully researched before consumption.
Mushrooms can be found throughout the Santa Cruz area, and in general, are endemic to the world. Third-year environmental biology major Christian Shwarz has done extensive research on fungus and stated that many eastern and southern European countries have strong mushrooming cultures, a pastime that is less prolific in the United States.
“Formerly Americans have had problems eating things they didn’t know about, though not so much anymore,” Shwarz said. “Fungophobia is a documented phenomenon.”
Santa Cruz fields, forests, and even well trod paths can attract fungi such as the Bovista plumbea, a white puff-ball mushroom that has been found around the UCSC music center.
Edibles suggested by Shwarz included chanterelles, boletes, and candy caps. Candy caps are flat orange-brown mushrooms that taste and smell like maple syrup, and has been use to flavor ice cream. Boletes can be extremely variable, but usually have brownish to reddish caps, while chanterelles are golden and rippled.
Iso Rabins is a new generation hunter-gatherer who is capitalizing on wild foods. Rabins founded forageSF, where he sells Community-Supported Forage (CSF) boxes filled with a variety of wild fruits and vegetables from the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, his favorite foraged food is seaweed, gathered fresh from the oceans.
“Take a look at the tidal charts and look for the days where there’s a minus tide, when the water is below the normal low tide,” Rabins said. “There’s a lot of nori exposed and you can eat it raw or dry it out.”
Rabins went on to caution against gathering too much, stating that it is often illegal to harvest past a certain amount. He also said that wild foods are more nutritionally dense then their cultivated relatives and appreciated that the only energy used to harvest it is what the human body expends when picking it.
“[Eating wild] is a great introduction to plants not necessarily found in the grocery store,” Rabins said. “We’re used to food coming from farms and when you see food growing wild, it changes the way you look at the world.”
UC SANTA CRUZ GUIDE TO EDIBLES
Photos by Alex Zamora.
Tastier then lettuce bought at the grocery store, miner’s lettuce was a favorite of the California forty-niners. This easily recognizable plant can be found growing under oak trees and other damp areas such as the woods around Oakes college, and the trees around Hahn Student Services.
A member of the sorrel family, rumex’s sharp lemony flavor is also due to oxalic acid, and must be eaten in moderation. This herb can be delicious in soups, and has also been used to flavor certain kinds of cheeses.
Secluded patches of prickly pears can provide one of the most historically sought after food. The red pears are sweet and juicy and once the skin is removed from the pads, they can be used in a variety of dishes. However, gatherers must forage and consume carefully, or wind up with hair-like spines lodged in tongues and fingers. Cactus can be found growing in clumps above the UCSC farm.
from top to bottom: gooseberries, blackberries, wild strawberries
Blackberries, gooseberries, and thimbleberries are possible to find in the wilder areas of campus and up into the Santa Cruz mountains, though animals often get to them before students. Wild strawberries often do not bear fruit, but the leaves can be boiled into a tea.
If you don’t like black licorice, stay away from fennel. But if your tastes are otherwise, the leaves and seeds of this herb can provide a sweet treat on the way to class. It often grows in fields and meadows, and has also been spotted in front yards throughout Santa Cruz. Feathery and tall, fennel is edible from flowers to root, and is also thought to relieve indigestion, sore throats, and gas.
The “good herb” is a low growing ground cover plant. Extremely fragrant, soaking the leaves can make a delicious wintergreen tea.
This plant tastes somewhat like raw broccoli. Best eaten when tender and lush, wild mustard is extremely common and can be found in most UCSC meadows and fields.
Tall, with white to purple flowers, wild radish tastes similar to the radish root common to grocery stores. Frequently found alongside wild mustard.
These nuts do not ripen until around August, but if you keep your eyes open, the large shrub can be found throughout campus. The nuts themselves are hidden under serrated green leaves, but once discovered and cracked, can be used in anything from tea to cakes.