Where the wild things are: This group in Berkeley makes a case for eating weeds

A collection of foraged wild greens and flowers, including wild radish, white clover, vetch, and dandelion, that grow abundantly and readily in the East Bay. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Most city dwellers get their produce from the grocery store, but Berkeley Open Source Food wants residents to consider taking a walk around the neighborhood the next time they run out of greens.

As part of an overall mission to increase research and development of healthy and healthful food systems, the BOSF conducts studies and outreach on the benefits of foraging. Their aim is to change attitudes and policies, and to make it easier for city folk to gather food from the “wild.” The BOSF measures the nutritional content of foraged greens, tests collected produce for consumer safety — vis-a-vis environmental contamination and pollution — and sponsors the Wild/Feral Food Week, happening for the fifth year, May 24-31.

“There are a lot of reasons to forage whether you’re a city dweller or not,” said Philip Stark, associate dean of math and physical science and a professor of statistics at Cal. Stark is a principal investigator with the BOSF, the prime mover behind Wild/Feral Food Week and forager extraordinaire.

Daily, Stark gathers greens on his commute between the UC Berkeley campus and his North Berkeley home. By his own estimate, he hasn’t bought commercial greens in six years. BOSF uses the iNaturalist app to connect and document the abundance of edible plants in East Bay. On the app, Stark has both the highest number of pinned observations (468) and of identified individual species (42). (The next highest are 57 and 16, respectively.) Those 42 different species end up in Stark’s kitchen as salads, cooked greens, spices and herbs, and when all else fails, they get infused into booze, “because, why not,” he said.


Philip Stark in a patch of blooming wild radish. An avid urban forager, he says he hasn’t bought commercial greens in six years. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Foraging is an innate skill, according to Stark, one anyone can easily pick up. “We’re hunter-gatherers,” he said. “We really are programmed to look around for what’s useful and what’s dangerous.”

A short walk with Stark yielded a veritable chef’s salad of edible greens: white clover blossoms, vetch, redwood tips, mallow, dock, wild radish, split leaf geranium and dandelion. “People see weeds, I see food waste,” he said. “There’s just tons and tons of food available if you learn to recognize it.”

Stark may be a bit of an exception from most of his fellow city dwellers. Besides gathering all his own vegetables from his habitat, Stark roasts his own coffee, hand cuts his own shoes (leather sandals with tie-on straps — less Birkenstock, more Ben Hur), then takes both on long runs in nature, sometimes 100 miles at a time. He’s something of a recreational survivalist, in other words.

“People see weeds, I see food waste. There’s just tons and tons of food available if you learn to recognize it.” — Philip Stark

But even those who blanch at the idea of eating weeds can benefit from learning more about the plants around them, Stark feels. Foraging gives depth to a person’s understanding of the environment. It gives a new perspective — the ability to see plants as individuals and as species, each one a distinct and necessary member of an ecological community, and more than mere pixels filling out a background wash of green. Foraging allows people to see their surroundings, even dense urban ones, as ecosystems where they too can have a participatory role in the local food chain.

While most domestic vegetables have been bred for sweetness or mildness, if they have been bred for flavor at all, many wild greens have much stronger and more complex flavors. Stark forages the pungent, peppery leaves, flowers and seed pods of wild radish. Unlike domestic radish, the roots of wild radish are too gnarled and tough to eat. Flowers are almost always milder than leaves, and clover has a delicate, pea-like sweetness, as does vetch. The fresh green tips of redwood and the new leaves of dock plants are both astringent and somewhat sour. Dandelion is bitterly potent, rich in iron, calcium and vitamins C and D.

“Recognizing individual plants and knowing what they’re good for really changes your relationship to the world in a fundamental way, ” said Stark. “From viewing things as resource-limited, where everyone is in competition and there’s not enough to go around, to seeing that in a lot of parts of the world, we really live in a Garden of Eden.”

Stark sees the primary hurdle to public acceptance of foraged greens as a cultural one. Commercial foods are bred for transport, shelf life, yield (“Yield measured in pounds not nutrition,” Stark points out) and appearance.

Foraged cow parsnip buds, redwood tips, cleavers, vetch shoots and flowers, wild pea shoots, short-pod mustard and black mustard flowers, 3-corner onion flowers, plantago flower buds, feral mint, pineapple weed flowers and dandelions that Philip Stark gathered in the Berkeley hills. Photo: Philip Stark/Instagram

And it has to be said: Most of the plants Stark forages look rather, well, weedy. More or less a guarantee that while they may make it to the table of some game and inventive chef, they are not likely to be featured anytime soon at a grocery store near you.

Nor should they, Stark feels, as they’re already free for the taking. A boon both economically and nutritionally for families and neighborhoods operating a disadvantage when it comes to money and access to healthy foods.

The results of a recent study from the BOSF found that foraged edible greens were of comparable or even superior nutritional value to commercially produced kale. One weed in particular, mallow (malva sylvestris), was found to contain more calcium and potassium per serving than kale and nearly seven times as much iron. Additionally, the study found that even wild greens foraged in heavily trafficked or contaminated areas could be rendered safe for human consumption after a rinse with tap water.

Mallow contains more calcium and potassium per serving than kale and nearly seven times as much iron. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Further tests would be needed over a larger area before eager urbanites start plucking salad from just any sidewalk. (Not to mention, in much of the East Bay, such activities are illegal.) But the research does suggest that wild greens could contribute to nutrition and food security in areas otherwise underserved by access to fresh produce.

“There are many places in the Bay Area that don’t have an easy supply of commercial, fresh greens,” said Stark, “But in many of those places there’s lots and lots of food growing, it’s just not recognized as food.”

That is at least in part the point of the BOSF’s research and outreach and of Wild/Feral Food Week: to change attitudes towards this abundant and overlooked food source, transforming it from marginal fare to desirable dinner.

Wild radish pods. The flowers and leaves are also edible; all have a peppery flavor. Photo: Cirrus Wood

However Stark is leery of the research and his own favorable attitudes being misinterpreted as a directive that marginalized communities manage insecurity with marginalized foods. Stark doesn’t want the message to be “let them eat weeds.”

“I actually think in both cases the marginalization isn’t just,” he said, “and these are really first-rate foods.”

Foraging is already common in Latin America, Asia and Europe, particularly in Scandinavia. In Finland, Norway and Sweden, laws allow residents to enjoy low impact activities like hiking, swimming, berry picking and mushroom gathering on private property without needing consent of the property owner as long as they cause no damage to agricultural crops, the natural integrity of the environment or disturb the owner. This is known as “everyman’s right” (jokamiehenoikeus in Finland, allemannsretten in Norway, allemansrätten in Sweden). Here, it’s known as trespassing and vandalism.

The light green redwood tips are edible. Photo: Cirrus Wood

In most of the prime foraging areas in the East Bay, it is illegal to gather wild greens. Even in the subprime areas, Berkeley city codes more or less embrace the ethic “leave no trace:”

“It is unlawful for any person to cut, trim, remove, mutilate, injure or in any way impair the growth of any tree, shrub or plant being or growing in or on any street, parking strip, public square, park or playground in the City, or to cause or permit the same to be done.”

But further down the code does allow that those with an aim to “impair the natural growth of any such tree, shrub or plant,” can apply for a permit with the Director of Recreation and Parks. And once approved, be subject to supervision by said Director. East Bay Regional Parks codes are equally proscriptive, with the added threat of arrest and citation.

Stark would like to see that changed. To that end, he has written a policy brief for local lawmakers and has reached out to Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Most of Stark’s foraging, as he currently practices, is illegal. He doesn’t feel it should be. He goes on eating his way across the Berkeley hills, stalking greens from sidewalks and medians — unpermitted and unsupervised — in clear and rebellious violation.

“I’m a scofflaw,” he explained by follow up email. “Sometimes I ask neighbors whether I can harvest their weeds. The usual reply is ‘take them all!’”

Public education around foraging is lacking because of a three-pronged problem: People won’t eat what farmers won’t grow. Farmers won’t grow what chefs won’t cook. Chefs won’t serve what people won’t eat.

Besides bureaucracy, public education around foraging is lacking because of a three-pronged problem: People won’t eat what farmers won’t grow. Farmers won’t grow what chefs won’t cook. Chefs won’t serve what people won’t eat.

Which is why Stark started Wild/Feral Food Week in 2015 with Kristen Rasmussen de Vasquez, a culinary nutrition expert and proponent of “West Coast Nordic,” a California food philosophy based on the New Nordic diet, placing heavy emphasis on foraged foods.

Wild/Feral Food Week is BOSF’s big effort to get people across the globe to consider wild greens as a worthwhile and palatable addition to their diet. In order to get greens out of the wild and onto the plate, Stark and the BOSF first have to convince chefs, farmers, growers, distributors and consumers that they are both edible and marketable. “We’re really trying to pull the chain together,” he said.

“Often in discussing consumer goods there’s a last-mile problem,” said Stark, referencing the issue of transporting the final distance from distribution center to a consumer’s doorstep. “With these wild and feral foods we have a first-mile problem. How do you get them off farms? How do you convince people it’s worth harvesting them?”

A duck quesadilla prepared during the 2018 Wild/Feral Food Week. The toppings include foraged vetches and wild brassica flowers, and an aioli made from gleaned lemon. Photo: Philip Stark/Instagram

Restaurants participate in Wild/Feral Food Week by adding foraged foods to one or more menu item. In 2016 Chez Panisse created an entire meal where every item had at least one foraged ingredient, such as wild green pansotti with morel mushrooms and yerba buena, grilled pork loin with wild fennel, and for dessert, buckwheat crepe with wildflower honey ice cream and strawberries.

Other previous Berkeley participants of Wild/Feral Food Week have included Sweet Green, Brown’s Cafe, Mission Heirloom, Guerilla Cafe and Ippuku. Chez Panisse will again be participating this year, with a menu yet to be announced.

A salad made with endive and chico, supplemented with foraged Mediterranean short pod mustard, baby curly dock, dandelion, winter vetch, wood sorrel, cat’s ear, baby bristly ox tongue, baby yarrow, ribwort plantain, chickweed, baby bedstraw, mallow, coyote mint and feral spearmint gathered in the Berkeley hills. Photo: Philip Stark/Instagram

But the geographic reach extends well beyond the East Bay. This year includes participating restaurants and chefs from the U.K., Denmark, South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Sweden, Singapore, Norway and Japan, in addition to several others elsewhere in the U.S.

Stark isn’t looking for a 100% participation. He just wants more people, even city dwellers, to see foraging as no more unusual than recreational hunting or fishing. Perhaps even better, as foraging doesn’t require firearms or necessitate travel to more natural areas, and potential foragers already have the best tools available to them — their eyes, hands and brains — at no extra cost.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get many people to forage in the course of their daily lives,” said Stark, “but we can renormalize these foods that have been part of human diets for tens of thousands of years and have just fallen out of fashion.”