I am easily distracted by fruit in Berkeley. This may seem like a strange thing to stay, until you too start to look up on your walk around your neighborhood. You can’t stop seeing it. Lemons, plum trees, loquats, fresh figs — the East Bay has it all. Sadly, the fruit often goes to waste unless it’s tended to by neighbors.
As I left Berkeley Bowl after grocery shopping the other evening, a parent was standing with their two children at the intersection, manning a loquat stand quite similar to a lemonade stand. I stopped and smiled to admire their ingenuity to share their bounty with anyone curious enough to try the fruit.
In the case you don’t have a fruit tree on your property, and don’t happen to run across a friendly family sharing loquats from their backyard, I wanted to share a few tips on urban foraging. Not only is foraging — as long as you’re doing it legally, of course — a great way to reduce food waste in our community, it’s a simple way to benefit from all the local produce we have at our fingertips thanks to city fruit trees.
Disclaimer: Please be sure to correctly identify a fruit before consuming something you don’t recognize. See more below.
How to find fruit
My number one resource for finding fruit is to look up as I walk around town, but there are lots of online resources to help you begin your search and help you identify produce. I particularly like Falling Fruit, a collaborative map of food sources across the globe. Scroll into the Bay Area, and you’ll see there are 11,000 sites pinpointed along the East Bay, with over 5,000 sites in the Berkeley area alone.
It will point you in the direction of plum and loquat trees, walnut and almond trees, and special species of plants. All of the listings include the plants’ Latin names and comments from the produce finders. Similar maps exist at Edible Cities, Forage Berkeley and Found Fruit, so check both in case one has more information on your immediate neighborhood.
How to confirm it’s edible
Once you’ve found your fruit, use your senses and examine the color, shape, and size. I have had success with Googling “yellow plum varieties” to find similar photos of what I’ve found on walks, and I also use the phone app PlantNet. This handy app allows you to snap a photo of the fruit, leaves or bark of the tree, and it will search its database for a match. It does a great job with of-the-moment searches of the fruit varieties I’ve found common in Berkeley.
If you want to go beyond basic fruit varieties, I recommend you attend a training to be able to identify medicinal herbs, weeds and other edible items. The UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens offers classes, as well as the parent organization of soon-to-open Forage Kitchen, Forage SF.
How to communicate with neighbors
Before you begin harvesting fruit, be sure that you are not encroaching at all on private property. I cannot stress this point enough, as it is important to respect others’ fruit trees. However, fruit trees hanging over public sidewalks are considered public property according to California law, so you’re free to pick this fruit. I am always conscious to take no more than a small amount so that others can benefit from these trees as well.
If you notice a tree heavy with fruit that is growing on a stranger’s property, don’t sulk away disappointed. I know many who have had great success in knocking and politely asking, or leaving a short note for the owners in their mailbox. Try it — asking for fruit is also a great way to continue building community by meeting your neighbors. You could even end up helping someone out who doesn’t have the ability to harvest their own fruit themselves.
How to be safe
Safety is important when harvesting fruit. There are obvious things to avoid, such as pulling on branches or climbing up into fruit trees, but also keep in mind that you’ll want to always confirm the identity of the fruit before eating it (see above). Harvest first from lower-hanging branches, and use a fruit-picker tool for harder to reach areas. Recruit a friend or neighbor to participate and make it fun!
Ripe fruits, from figs to stone fruits to lemons, can all be washed gently and dried before being stored in a fruit basket (if not fully ripe) or the refrigerator (if ripe). Any bruising can be cut off; these pieces of fruit should be consumed within a day or two. Unblemished ripe fruit will last four to five days in the refrigerator.
Use that fruit!
Now what? Perhaps you’ve harvested some local fruit, and your favorite cookbooks don’t even know what a loquat is. (Loquats are related to apples, pears and quinces, and they look similar to apricots. They taste somewhat like a blend of apricots, plums and cherries.) Below, are a few of my favorite recipes for foraged fruit in jams, desserts and summer salads:
Vanilla Yellow Plum Jam from Food in Jars
Loquat Crumble from The Domestic Front
Sunflower-Oat Thumbprint Cookies with Meyer Lemon Curd from Uproot Kitchen
Fig Butter from 101 Cookbooks
Peach and Plum Caprese Salad from Love & Lemons
Cilantro Limeade from Shutterbean
You can also check out Nosh’s recipe archives for more ideas.
Additional resources for urban foraging
Want to learn more? Read about Edible Cities on Berkeleyside and Forage Oakland in the New York Times. Learn more about the UC Berkeley lecturer hoping to promote edible weeds as a source for food in the East Bay.
Get involved by donating your backyard fruit. Or get connected with urban gleaners at North Berkeley Harvest or Village Harvest. And be sure to check out Zukeeni, an organization currently raising funds on Barnraiser to bring an online marketplace for local handmade goods and food to neighborhoods to the East Bay.
Marisa Westbrook is a public health professional, recipe developer and food photographer. Visit her website Uproot Kitchen for simple and healthy recipes made with whole ingredients, kitchen DIY ideas, and urban gardening posts, and connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.