When survival foraging is on my “TO DO” list for the week, I often referred to, what I call a rule of fair foraging, “Reap where you did not sow, but only if it would otherwise go unused unless you take it?” And it’s amazing how much goes unused . . . especially in community gardens.
A bountiful world
Imagine utopia, a place where shopping means just selecting what you want, never purchasing. Imagine a society where your tax dollars are spent to cultivate exotic edibles: luscious berries, fragrant tropical fruits, orchards of rare and costly nuts; money actually being forked out on a truly worthy cause!
Then, imagine this community garden offering free access to all; no wardens, no fences to keep fruit poachers out, no signs to say you can’t pick the treasures within. And imagine this garden upkept by a culture of people completely oblivious to the wonders within this foraging preserve, a society of people so far removed from the wisdom of their forefathers that they no longer recognize what’s edible and what’s not, and come only to look.
Think about how much food that could leave to the wise with knowledgeable eyes!
Sounds too good to be true?
Survival foraging on local grounds
Such a place and a people exist, and they’re called your local park and your neighbors. Modern cities everywhere harbor virtual gardens of Eden, greenbelts of gargantuan gardens in concrete jungles rife with groceries for the green gourmet to gather.
Every playground, every civic center, library, college campus, and every parcel of public property is another aisle in the super urban grocery store where wise shoppers come to shop, but never spend or wait in lines.
In a city, there are to be found more varieties of cultivated plants than the number of indigenous species growing in a forest meadow watered by a stream. More varieties of plant life can be counted in a block of homes than in an acre of the woods. No pond, no streamside, no chaparral-covered hill can hold a candle to the variety of flora in the city environs. And what’s more, a great many of these “citified” plants are edible, delicious, and nutritious, and entirely free for the taking.
Suggested reading: Tips For Foraging Safely During A Survival Scenario
It’s a wonderful fluke of nature that many of the most beautiful ornamentals are also delicious food-bearing plants as well. And where else but in public places are these glorified edibles so carefully tended and so abundant?! “Then why don’t more people eat them?” I am asked.
They do, but not in the United States. These floral beauties come from the remote corners of the globe, from Asia Minor, eastern Australia, Africa, and South America, and it’s only because these foods have no prior history in our own culture that they are neglected as such.
But would it be possible to subsist merely on this public-subsidized fare alone?
We decided to find out for ourselves by taking that question to the source. Last year, we took a map and drew a five-mile circle around it, looking specifically for those areas marked in green, designating public places. With these strategic zones clearly marked, we hit the streets. The following is an account of our find and a good example of what awaits the hard-core forager in any urban area.
The first foraging grounds I approached was the local state-owned college campus, where I found quite a haul. Hedges of natal plums (Carissa macrocarpa) bordered the walks and were offering their purplish fruit. Natal plums, an African fruit, grow quite well in temperate regions. The plum-like fruit gives a juice with a beautiful color, that makes one of the most colorful jellies, jams or sauces I know. When picked, the fruit oozes a milky white sap, which most unknowingly takes as an indication of its not being edible. Figs also do the same thing.
One of the reasons that many ornamentals never became popular American food items is that they often require processing to bring out their best. On its own, the natal plum is good, but nothing to write home about. The taste is both sweet and sour, though there’s something lacking in each. The texture is moist but mealy and filled with numerous, flat chew-able seeds. Cook and sweeten it, however, and the natal plum is second to none.
Pyracantha berries (Pyracantha coccinea) in their prime burst upon the scene, filling planters with the bright scarlet red that announces the coming of winter. As a kid, I was told these berries were poisonous, and nearly everyone I’ve met has voiced the same thing. But then, the children of medieval Europe were once told the same thing about the tomato.
In their native home in Asia Minor and the temperate hillsides of southern Europe, the pyracantha is regarded as one of the best sources of marmalade. Out of hand, the berry is too dry and mealy to be really enjoyed, attracting only songbirds who thrive on the bush.
Covered and simmered in water for half of an hour; however, the resulting reddish-orange juice can be expressed from the fruit and mixed in a one-to-two ratio with sugar, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cloves, a tablespoon of freshly grated orange peel, and a package of pectin to create a marmalade taste treat. It has a flavor like spiced apple butter with just a hint of the orange.
Olives, also, this late fall, were still on the trees. Olives are a very popular ornamental that I found not only scattered around the campus but in half of the parks that I visited. It’s hardly a secret that olives are edible, but it’s a mystery to most how those astringent, bitter berries could come to be the pimento-stuffed hors d’oeuvres they love as if it were a process steeped in mystery and magic. To the contrary!
Simply mix one quart of ripe black olives with 1 ¼ cups of unionized salt in a large bowl or crock, then pour another 2/3 cup salt on top and let sit. Every third day dump the salt-covered olives from one crock into another. If you keep this up for a month, you’ll end up with Greek olives. They’re much stronger flavored than the store-bought variety, but after getting used to eating “real” olives, the commercial kind seems rather anemic.
It is from these same olives that virgin olive oil is expressed, though slightly underripe fruit is best. There’s any number of ways to do this, the simplest and most primitive being to stuff them in a cloth bag placed in between two boards, then pile some heavy rocks on top. Catch what oozes out, bottle, and refrigerate.
Survival foraging and chocolate substitute
In more than one park, I found the showy dark green leaves of the carob (Ceratonia siliqua) and drove through several neighborhoods where both sides of the streets were shaded by this same tree. In the past twenty years, the popularity of carob has skyrocketed, the health-conscious regularly eat it in a variety of ways as they formerly did with chocolate.
Some of these carob fanatics live on those same carob-lined streets, paying exorbitant prices for this favored sweet, while at the same time paying a gardener each week to clean up the fallen pods from their trees! One would think they’d put two and two together, and save a bundle on both.
Unlike cacao (the source of chocolate), the wholesome sweet chocolate-like substance of carob comes from the pod, not the tooth-breaking seeds. When dried, these pods contain 50 percent sugar per weight, making them a fantastic survival energy source that can be easily stored for hard times. ln good times, the dark ripe pods taken straight from the trees make a great nibble when out for a walk, tasting a bit like a chocolate graham cracker, although the smell is slightly repugnant.
For the adventurous cook, he/she can bake up some excellent chocolates, treats out of those pods collected during a stroll down the street to the park. First, remove and discard the stem ends, then boil the rest of the pod until soft. Drain off the water and, when cool enough to handle, carefully remove all the seeds. Boil or steam again for half an hour to thoroughly soften, drain one last time, and puree in the blender.
Use the pulp as is, substituting three tablespoons of wet carob pulp for one tablespoon of dry cocoa that any recipe might call for. For long-term storage, spread the pulp thinly on a cookie sheet and dry in a slow oven. Grind afterward to a flour and store in an airtight container.
Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) is a native South American plant and popular park and yard ornamental on the West Coast that does well in hot, drier valleys and cool, moist coastal areas. This small tree, with its pretty silver leaves, produces an abundance of bumpy green, oval-shaped fruit that somewhat resembles a banana and a pear on the inside and tastes like a pear and a pineapple. Since the color changes little from the young to the mature fruit, the best way to tell if it’s ripe is to see how easily it is plucked from the tree.
In New Zealand, this fruit is universally known by the tree’s genus name of feijoa, and in season it is one of the country’s most popular commercially raised fruits. The inhabitants of down-under find it almost as incomprehensible that it’s raised in California just for its looks, as Californians find it incomprehensible that it’s eaten.
Pineapple guavas, like any guavas, have a lot of presence about them and are best stored in a cool pantry outside or in airtight containers in the refrigerator (unless you don’t mind the entire house smelling of them).
Eat as is, discarding the bitter green skin, scooping out the vitamin C rich pulp with a spoon, or use in any cake, pie or sauce recipe in lieu of the called for pineapple. If you can’t wait for the fruit to get ripe, have an early season’s snack on the velvety burgundy and white flowers. The sweet petals are added to salads.
Survival foraging and Flower Power
Speaking of flowers, brightening up borders, and planters of a majority of parks that time of year was the common pansy. The pansy, like its relative the edible blue violet (Viola odorata), is surprisingly high in both vitamins A and C and in iron.
The leaves are slightly astringent but make fine greens, and the sweet petals have been candied and used as a garnish for hundreds of years. The easiest way to enjoy them is as an addition to otherwise dull lettuce salads, where they add needed texture, taste, and color. It’s a flavor that also combines well when sauteed with meats.
Adding autumn color to the flower garden as well were golden rows of marigolds (Calendula officinalis), another edible beauty. Marigolds (or calendulas) have been purposely sown since at least 1573 by the Romans, who enjoyed their subtle flavor and texture, and the hue it imparted to wines. Use marigold petals when cooking with rice as an inexpensive substitute for saffron.
No park flower garden worth its salt would be planned without roses. It’s widespread knowledge that those carrot-orange hips with the pink rosy blush are high in vitamin C, but it’s not common knowledge how high they are. One tiny cup of freshly deseeded hips has as much vitamin C as 120 to 144 oranges!
They’re also potent in calcium and phosphorus and, like the other fruits found, are in their prime towards the end of the year. A tea from the glossy green leaves or the roots is pleasant in flavor and makes a useful remedy for colic. The hairy inner seeds leftover from preparing the hips are a rich source of vitamin E and can be boiled then ground for a gruel or flour.
Survival foraging goes on
Other common park ornamentals I spot that day and which usually aren’t thought of as food include: birch trees and fir trees. Birch has long produced a number of edibles, especially in Norway and Sweden. The leaves, when very young, can be cooked into greens and were eaten by our own North American Indians. The young twigs make a pleasant nibble for hikers, bread from the sawdust of felled trees, and the catkins (while still soft and green) are edible when cooked. A wine has been made of the sugary sap, and a mild laxative is derived from the cooking water saved after preparing the leaves.
Read next: Foraging for Edibles In The Concrete Jungle
Many of the beautiful ornamentals I plundered were none other than the everyday fruit trees commonly purchased and eaten by all. These also are often planted in parks, and in the parks, I cruised on my mission I noted and relocated: avocados, macadamia nuts, grapefruits, oranges, lemons, persimmons, and dates. In the end, I was more concerned with how I would carry it all than with what I would find.
Could I live off of public lands? Judge for yourself!
There’s a real feeling of freedom in knowing that I’ll never starve, an independence rooted in the assurance that comes from being self-sufficient, if not in practice, at least in possibility… even if somebody else grew the food!