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    Exploring the book called ‘How to Forage for Wild Food Without Dying’
    • October 21, 2023

    After recently writing here about Esperanza (Tecoma stans), a plant that flowers virtually non-stop with golden yellow, gramophone-shaped blooms, I received an email mentioning that, according to one report, this species is highly toxic to pets and people. 

    Upon closer examination of the literature on this subject, the evidence is not conclusive as to Esperanza’s toxicity. Still, I would not recommend eating any part of any plant that you are not entirely sure about; check with an expert to ensure that it’s edible. As for pet cats and dogs, I would not allow them to consume any plant, including those eaten by us, since these are carnivorous animals and vegetation of any kind should not be part of their diet.

    Addressing the dilemma of plants that look good enough to eat, but shouldn’t be eaten, “How to Forage for Wild Food Without Dying” (Storey Publishing, 2023), by Ellen Zachos, forays into the recent craze of foraging. Whether it’s the movement to simplify our lives by relying more on mother nature for our sustenance, or merely an interest in saving money on groceries, foraging has more adherents every day. Yet the author issues this warning at the outset: “Never put anything in your mouth that you’re not 100 percent sure what it is.” Exactly.

    You don’t have to go into the wild to forage, however. Many of our common weeds, including dandelion, pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus), and lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album) have edible foliage. The only caveat is that the foliage of these three plants should not be consumed in large quantities due to the oxalates they contain. Yet spinach, chard, endive, and French sorrel are also rich in oxalates and so caution is advised in their consumption as well.

    I learned from this book that flowers of our two most widely planted magnolia species are edible and “ginger, cardamom, and clove” are among the flavors that may be experienced when chewing on the flowers of these trees. The species in question are bull magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), an evergreen possessing huge white flowers and leathery sea-green leaves with cinnamon undersides, and saucer or tulip magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana), a deciduous tree that blooms in late winter with pink to purplish to burgundy flowers  

    If you have an oak tree in your backyard, consider it a free source of nutty flour for baking purposes. Acorn flour is coming into favor as a comestible product of sustainable gardens and landscapes since oak trees yield abundant crops yet require no inputs of water or fertilizer. Whether driving north as you approach Santa Clarita or west on the way to Thousand Oaks, the dominant tree on the hills is coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), an evergreen. However, another oak native to this same area, although less commonly seen, is the deciduous valley oak (Quercus lobata), whose acorns are meatier than those of coast live oak. 

    First, check that you’re following the proper safety guidelines and know that you have edible acorns in hand. If you have done your safety check, the first step in turning acorns into flour is to remove their shells with a rubber mallet; place the acorns in the folds of a towel before striking them. After you have the acorn meats separated from their shells, cold leaching to remove tannins is recommended. You may have to repeat this cold water treatment three or four times – tasting the acorns after each treatment – until bitterness caused by their tannins disappears. You can leach acorns in hot water, too. However, hot water removes acorn gluten so, in this case, you will have to combine regular flour with your acorn flour for baking purposes. Once your acorn meats have been leached, pound them with a mortar and pestle or grind them with a coffee bean grinder until they turn to flour from which you can make acorn pancakes, for example, for breakfast.

    Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) is another California native that is worth foraging, and it is a candidate for garden growing as well. The fruit is sweet and a mature plant yields dozens of them, but to be fully enjoyed they are best frozen and then roasted. Yucca moths that pollinate yucca flowers lay eggs that hatch into larvae which feed on the fruit before tunneling through, dropping to the ground, and spinning their cocoons. So your harvested fresh fruit is likely to contain larvae, yet when you freeze it, the larvae burrow out of it before they die, leaving the worm-free fruit behind. Having killed the larvae, you still have an issue with the multitude of seeds found in each fruit. Roast the fruit at 400 degrees for 30 minutes to soften it, slice it in two, and strip out the seeds before you indulge in the sweet pulpy treat. Yucca baccata flowers are edible too.

    California native of the week: Although I have never planted a redwood tree and don’t have enough room to do it justice on my lot, I have long been searching for the ground cover that grows in California’s redwood forests. It’s called redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) and, in the words of Carol Bornstein in her book “California Native Plants for the Garden,” it possesses “tenacious character.” It’s “a plant that will thrive in mature gardens with deep shade and plenty of root competition from established trees.” It is one of the few species that will grow under oaks and pines as well as redwoods. Three-leaflet leaves have the appearance of clover although individual leaflets are heart-shaped. Redwood sorrel grows four to eight inches tall and carries one-inch flowers in white or pink during the spring. Stems and leaf undersides are burgundy. This plant is native to northern California and will not grow in the desert. It is most suited to coastal climates but I think it would grow in shady spots in the greater Los Angeles area. If anyone knows where this plant or its seeds are available from local or online vendors, please advise.

    If you have foraged successfully and have a wild plant or two to recommend, please send your experience to [email protected]. Your questions and comments regarding any gardening practice or problem, as well as your photos (taken horizontally for possible publication) are always welcome.

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    ​ Orange County Register