Gardener’s Corner | Questions and Answers with Local Experts
By Dan Songster, 2018 March
This regular newsletter feature offers chapter members and local experts a chance to briefly share information on many things related to gardening with natives. The question for this issue: Which native culinary plants and edibles are your favorites?
J. Mark Sugars—“Fragaria vesca (Woodland Strawberry) has been very successful in my yard, and is a dependable source of tasty little berries every year. For an intense and distinctive tea, there’s nothing quite like Salvia apiana (White Sage).”
Rama Nayeri—“My favorite edible California native plant is Satureja douglasii – Yerba Buena. Not only is this plant easy to grow, but you can use the leaves in herbal tea, cook with it like you would with mint and eat the leaf like a breath mint.”
Brad Jenkins—“For just eating reasons, Southern California Wild Grape, also known as the Desert Grape (Vitis girdiana) supplies tangy tendrils for snacking, leaves for cooking, and fruit for dessert. Water needs are somewhat high, so plant beside a fence bordering an HOA or neighbor that irrigates regularly. (Yes, this is said with a grin.) Growth is rampant, so I pulled one out after a few years, but the food production level is wonderful.”
Greg Rubin—“My all time favorite native edible is woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca/californica) with berries as flavorful as any store-bought strawberry 3 times their size. Close behind is Ribes aureum gracillimum, which is as good as any European currant, followed by Sambucus and Berberis ‘Golden abundance’ (recently tried to make jam but over-heated it and created yummy hard candy). I’ll use Salvia clevelandii & mellifera for seasoning. And I love Prunus illicifolia/lyonii for the thin Bing-cherry flavored meat; I’ve tried the cherry marzipan made by the Luiseno’s from the pits and it’s delicious. Prunus virginiana demissa makes a wonderful compote or jam. Custard-like acorn mush mixed with native chia (Salvia columbariae) is actually pretty tasty (I believe they prefer Quercus kellogii). Torrey pine nuts are as tasty as any pine nut, but nearly the size of almonds. Probably the most surprising culinary delight was roasted Agave deserti root – OMG, it was like the most delicious, sweet candied fruit you could imagine. Slightly reminiscent of candied camote, but the flavor was more complex. They roast the Agave in a pit oven for like 2 days, after having harvested it with digging sticks.”
The native people have described old California as a cornucopia of food.
Chuck Wright—“Sarah Jayne told me the best is Cleveland sage. The first plant barely grew and the painters stepped on it and I planted another and it is doing fantastic and is a great spice for almost everything. The critters love my little native strawberries: nice bloom for me and pollinators but the fruit is gone in a blink.”
Leon Baginski—“Ribes speciosum. Prickly but very tasty.”
Greta Helphry—“ Love using Salvia clevlandii whenever a recipe calls for culinary sage, but our native sage is potent so it’s important to adjust quantities to taste. I use it in soups, roasts, herb butters and sweet baked goods. The same principle applies when substituting our California bay (Umbellularia.californica) for Laurus nobilis.”
Take care to “start low and go slow” when substituting these natives for common grocery store herbs.
Linda Southwell—“Pesto made with Cleveland Sage and Wild Onion is delicious!”
Dan Songster—“Of course, Miners lettuce for salad and the various mints for teas come to mind. Golden currant and the small ‘Montana de Oro’ strawberries are very tasty as well. Cleveland Sage leaves for making a California beer-batter sage leaf fried quickly in olive oil. I need to enjoy a couple Dichelostemma bulbs next!“