Wild Greens

Something Wild

Michael Amsler

Weed Like to Know More: Wild greens gourmet Doug Gosling eats his words.

Are they weeds–or dinner?

By Marina Wolf

T HE STRETCH OF TRACKS between Railroad Square and College Avenue in Santa Rosa is a short, bleak walk–10 minutes if you stay on the packed gravel and move at a brisk clip. But on a recent Sunday stroll there, I found enough berries, cooking greens, and salad fixings to even get the five sullen men sharing a bottle against the brick backside of a railroad warehouse dressing up for dinner.

Welcome to nature’s supermarket, open 24 hours, self-service only.

Few of us haven’t lingered a little in a dusty blackberry patch or dismembered a head of clover for the bits of nectar within. Such furtive encounters tap into our collective heritage from the earliest days of humanity, when foraging was the way we survived. Now we pay top dollar for gourmet greens while wielding a wrathful hoe at the bounty that pops up in our front yard. Oblivious to the irony, we may even plant domesticated produce in the exact same location where we uprooted its wild cousin.

But there are still a few people who maintain the original connection, in one way or another. The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, for example, grounds its “weed policies” in very practical principles. “Weeds are good for the garden,” states head gardener Doug Gosling, who oversees the two acres of bio-intensive beds at the center. Thriving “volunteers” (“I have a hard time with the definition of ‘weed,'” he chuckles) keep the center’s seed bank diverse, and they also make an excellent living mulch, which holds down the soil and retains nutrients. And, of course, they’re good, dependable eating as far as the menu-makers at the OAEC are concerned. “I’d say that well over 50 percent of the salads we eat, all year round, are made of so-called weeds,” says Gosling.

And why shouldn’t the weeds take center stage? These brazen green marauders are more intensely flavored and, frequently, more nutritious than any froufrou cultivated green stuff. Early-spring favorites–dandelion, lamb’s-quarters, curled dock–have exceptionally high levels of vitamins A and C, which would explain why people of yore placed a great deal of faith in these greens as “spring tonics” after a long winter of poor provisions.

Even into the first part of this century, New York City opened Central Park each spring to the rummagings of Italian immigrants, who loved the tender young leaves of the radichielle (dandelion).

Nowadays you don’t want to do that: a clean civic lawn bespeaks a liberal hand with the herbicides. Fortunately, the urban landscape still abounds with foraging opportunities for those who are willing to stray from the beaten path. This has less to do with iconoclasm than with self-preservation: the beaten path has more cars and fewer buffers against them. A road might be lined with wild food to feed an army, but without a curb, surface pollutants wash off that road right into the soil. “There is no formula of feet away from the road to substitute for common sense,” says John Kallas, a wild-foods consultant who has been leading expeditions in Portland, Ore., since 1978.

Like Gosling, Kallas expresses a certain indifference to the term “weed.” “I get a much higher response when I call them ‘wild gourmet garden vegetables,'” he laughs. At any rate, most of his classes and field trips extend beyond weeds into the underexplored realm of eating the neighbor’s landscaping. “A lot of people plant things as ornamentals,” says Kallas, “and they either don’t know or don’t want to bother with the edible aspects.”

Asking permission is an essential part of foraging in a neighborhood; not only is it courteous, but it gives you a chance to inquire–nonjudgmentally, of course–about past and present gardening practices. You won’t always be able to find out, as in the case of abandoned sites and for-sale lots. But, as both experts say, unless you’ve been gardening your own land for years, there is never any way to know for sure what’s in the soil.

So with all these concerns about safety, why bother to eat wild foods at all? Wouldn’t it be safer and more convenient to go to the store?

MAYBE. Or maybe not. It’s true that, as a forager, you end up biting into a lot of bitter leaves and getting prickly things in your socks. You also have to be more aware of pollution than the average rose-smelling pedestrian does. But even an earnest grower of organic vegetables can legally be next to a major thoroughfare. And foraging connects you to your own food supply in a way that’s truly miraculous: finding wild food in the concrete jungle sometimes feels like tripping over a chunk of manna in the desert.

However, Kallas gives one pause when he talks about foragers’ motivations. “I think there’s an underlying insecurity about having to depend on the industrial food complex.” Hmm. How strangely millennial. And I must admit to an occasional apocalyptic fantasy of the Big One hitting and my being able to hole up in a hedge for weeks, emerging in far better shape than those who had to turn to looting the 7-Elevens.

But mostly I just like to play with my food, and foraging is an immediately gratifying way to explore and get messy. My fingers were purple for weeks when I picked olives from the trees around my apartment complex. I chewed happily on muddy wild radish leaves on the OAEC hillside. And when I bit into that inexplicable December berry near the railroad tracks, I hopped a happy little dance over the glittering fields of broken glass.

The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center hosts volunteer garden days every Wednesday, with a vegetarian potluck lunch (874-1557). For a more focused look at foraging, John Kallas offers his quarterly newsletter, The Wild Food Adventurer, for $12 a year. See his website for more details.

From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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