I’m quick when it comes to spotting potentially edible foods in the wild; partly from lots of reading about California flora, and how the native peoples provided for themselves; and partly from an all-consuming curiosity that’s been with me since childhood. I like to decipher the connections between plants; what’s related to what; and I’m willing to try almost anything once.
Fruits and Berries
It’s a bit artificial to create a listing like this which is defined by the months of the year; as we all know, nature does not follow the human calendar. Day lengths are set and reliable, but local weather is not, and neither are the conditions within micro habitats. The natural world responds to these influences - and more - in the unfolding of various life cycles.
A native plant that we all know (or certainly should!) is Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobium) because it is so widespread in the Bay Area. Many people get a very uncomfortable rash if they touch any part of the plant, so knowing how to identify it and avoid contact with it is pretty important. Poison oak is a plant, as the specific name denotes, of extremely variable forms; it can grow as a shrub, as a climbing vine, or a groundcover. It is also poisonous in the dormant state—touching the bare branches can result in a rash for those that are especially susceptible.
Elderberries and Other Native Fruits of Summer
California native plants provided a rich and varied diet for the native peoples; this is a flora of plentitude, and I really like to partake of it. I recently picked and cleaned the fruits of Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) and in removing the flesh from seed within, discovered that, true to its common name, these fruits make a wonderful pink, Indian lemonade!
I’m experiencing a love-hate relationship with the rains as they continue, with so few dry days in between for the outdoor activities that are such a big part of my life. I’ve measured more than 30 inches here on our Novato hillside since January first!
The scarcity of truly dry days in between poses all sorts of frustrations for the dedicated gardener; it’s great to have the rains, and this is the time of year to plant, but it’s not good to work the soil when it’s totally soggy.
Propagating from Seeds
Even if it’s just for an hour or two, I make time to do some work in my garden every single day, and my favorite time to be outside is at dusk when all sorts of creatures are stirring. Since my tasks, like weeding or potting up seedlings, are often simple and somewhat repetitive, I’m in a meditative state and absorbing all that goes on around me.
A number of animals store acorns for later consumption; notably the Acorn Woodpeckers with their ‘granary trees’. They place each acorn just so, packed tightly into a hole, and then tend to their store regularly, moving the acorns to smaller holes when they start to dry up and shrink.
I was lucky enough to be outside at just the right time about a week ago when I noticed a lot of activity around a Toyon - the most spectacular Toyon I’ve ever seen, and it lives on the top side of the meadow next to my house and garden. This Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is a tree, about 30 feet tall, with a trunk that looks to be about 7 to 9 inches in diameter. Several smaller Toyons that are more shrub-sized also grow close by.
This year my Nevin's Barberry (Berberis nevinii) truly made that leap and ‘came into its own’! Lovely, fragrant yellow flowers smothered the plant in early spring, right about the same time as many Ceanothus start to bloom; and then abundant, small red berries followed, maturing in June.
All through the rainy season many birds rely on fruits as a major part of their diet. These birds often travel in flocks, like the Cedar Waxwings and American Robins. Sometimes the flocks are mixed; several different species will travel together, and all are “on the lookout” for resources.
Bright red berries are easy for birds to spot; and large quantities of fruits in one place make foraging more energy efficient. Red Toyon berries (Heteromeles arbutifolia) certainly attract the attention of hungry birds, but so do other red berries such as Cotoneaster and Pyracantha.