Since I launched Urban Hiker SF, an urban hiking tour company in San Francisco, I’ve become much more connected with The City. I now notice minute architectural details, hidden alleyways — and, for the first time in my life, plants.
I had never been a plant person. But, one day as I walked around The City with my father, a lifetime plant lover, he pointed out a nasturtium plant and told me it was edible.
Now he had my attention.
As a foodie, I find plants infinitely more interesting when I also see them as food. Now that I know what to look for, I see numerous edible plants on a daily basis on my hikes.
While the summer’s blackberries and plums have disappeared until next spring, there are a number of other edible plants around the Bay Area that you can enjoy year-round.
Here’s a mini field guide to help you on your urban foraging expeditions.
You can identify nasturtiums by their jewel-toned yellow, orange, and red flowers as well by their lilypad-shaped leaves. The flowers can be enjoyed as a colorful and spicy salad topper, and you can also eat the leaves. I’m intrigued by this nasturtium pesto recipe that makes use of both parts of the plant.
Fennel is easy to spot with its long stalk, feathery dill-like leaves, and yellow flowers. You can also often smell the plant’s licorice scent before you see it.
In restaurants, you’re most often eating the fennel bulb, but on hiking trails, it’s much easier to eat the flowers and seeds. These above-ground parts of the plant have a lovely anise flavor and act as a great natural breath freshener.
There are multiple of varieties of lavender all over The City, but the ones I most often see are English lavender hybrids and Spanish lavender.
An easy way to make sure you’re dealing with lavender and not something like Mexican Bush Sage — which is not edible — is to give the plant a pinch and sniff your fingers.
If you smell the signature lavender smell, you’ve hit “purple gold.”
Most people don’t eat lavender by itself, so — inspired by the Bi-Rite honey lavender ice cream flavor — I’ve taken to making these honey lavender cookies.
If you’re not seeing rosemary everywhere in The City, you’re not looking hard enough. I’ve seen rosemary in almost every neighborhood. Sometimes it can dominate entire walls and gardens.
As with lavender, there are many varieties of rosemary; it can be “creeping,” it can grow as a bush, and it can feature blue, pink or white flowers.
Since there are so many types of rosemary, do a sniff test before you eat to make sure you’ve got the right plant. Lately, I’ve been using rosemary to make these delicious biscuits.
Before you head out into the streets and woods, remember that foraging can quickly become dangerous if you accidentally ingest the wrong plant. You should be meticulous in your plant identification in order to stay safe.
Once you know you’re indeed dealing with an edible plant, enjoy! The City is your salad, so get outside and start snacking.