By T. Eric Nightingale, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
I love California native plants. I also love to eat. Until recently I had not considered the possibility of an overlap between these two passions. Eventually it occurred to me that there must be many edible native plants to complement those brought here by European settlers.
Would it be possible to plant a garden of perennial natives that also supplies food? I found the idea appealing, in part because I figured such a garden would produce food easily. Our state's native plants tend to need less care, often less water and can be less prone to attack by insects and disease. I realized that that my fantasy of walking through my self-sustaining Californian Eden, picking fruit to eat as I wander, was probably not achievable, but still I set out to investigate the possibilities.
Indeed, many native plants are edible, but you must proceed with caution. Some are safe to consume just as they are, but many require some form of preparation to make them safe, or even desirable, to eat. Before eating anything unfamiliar or anything you have foraged in the wild, do your research and be sure you are not taking a risk.
That said, I have found many exciting edibles around our state, many that have been right under my nose for a long time. Most fascinating to me were the edible cacti and succulents. The fruit of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) is well known. New to me, however, was the chaparral yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei), the flowers and seeds of which can be eaten either cooked or raw.
The barrel cactus (Echinocactus acanthodes) grows a crown of attractive flowers that leave behind small, edible (but not very tasty) fruits that resemble miniature pineapples. More appealing is purslane (Portulaca oleracea). Often considered a weed, this tender succulent is flavorful and a great addition to salads.
Sedum spp., also called stonecrop, is used as a ground cover in drought-tolerant landscaping. All species are technically edible but can cause gastrointestinal distress if consumed in high quantities. They apparently have a peppery flavor that may justify their addition in a creative meal.
The leaves and flowers of the ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis) are reportedly edible raw. You will recognize the pointed leaves and brightly-colored flowers of this vine-like succulent at almost any stop along the California coast. As this plant is not native, and is in fact extremely invasive, you may be doing a public service by consuming it. Perhaps if we all made a habit of eating ice plant salad, we might help clear the way for native plants to reclaim their lands.
Many native shrubs produce edible berries. My favorites are currants and gooseberries (Ribes). The berries are tasty and can be made into jam, but these shrubs sit at the top of my list for their flowers. The colors and shapes are impressive, guaranteeing aesthetic as well as culinary appeal. The berries of the black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) shrub are delicious and useful in pies and preserves. The foliage and flowers, while not particularly striking, are attractive and a fine addition to any landscape.
Berries in the wild are often misidentified, so I recommend sticking with home cultivation. Birds like them, too. While growing currants and gooseberries is an excellent way to support local wildlife, it can be frustrating if you dream of a pantry full of gooseberry jam.
One group of often-overlooked edibles is what I dub “roadside salad.” Most of the members of this little club may be recognizable to many people as weeds. One such roadside trooper is miners lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata). Its disc-shaped leaves are tender and have a delicate flavor. To add some zing to your roadside salad, look for the peppery bittercress (Cardamine spp). This plant has a much more traditional weed-like appearance.
Surprising to me, native cattail (Typha domingensis) is also edible. The young shoots can be eaten raw and are said to taste like corn. The seeds and starchy roots can also be used if cooked.
One definition of a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place. If we appreciated these plants a bit more, we might start to view them not as weeds but as convenient snacks.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will conduct a workshop on “Rose Care” on Saturday, June 2, from 10 a.m. to noon, at University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Roses will grow without any care. But they will thrive with a little TLC. UC Master Gardener rose experts will answer your questions regarding rose care at this popular forum. By June, the first spring blooms have faded, and many plants are beginning to show evidence of stress. Look for black spot, rust, mildew and possible aphid infestation. Bring samples for identification. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.