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Edible Plants

There are better places than the waste bin to put those pesky dandelions that relentlessly sprout in the lawn and those abundant yellow-flowered mustard plants that have taken over the vacant lot next door.

Instead of cursing and discarding them, try eating them.

Going out for a quick bite to eat can take on a whole different meaning once you learn to recognize, gather and use native and other wild edible plants in your meals.

Rather than driving to a fast-food restaurant for that quick snack, you could be foraging in your own lawn for a nutrition-packed meal. Wild foods are often richer in vitamins and minerals than cultivated fruits and vegetables.

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Precautions

* Be careful: Eating the wrong part of a plant, or even the right part at the wrong time of year, can make you sick. Also, it’s important to watch for allergies.

* Know your plants: Get a good book that includes either photographs of plants or well-done illustrations.

* Eat clean plants: Steer clear of heavily traveled roads where plants have absorbed a lot of auto emissions. Be sure the plants are being fed by a clean water source.

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* Know the rules: Be aware of whose property you’re on and whether foraging is allowed. In the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. For example, gathering ripe fruit is permitted, but it must be eaten onsite.

Finding Out More

* Selected books: “Edible and Useful Plants of California” by Charlotte Clarke; “Wild Edible Plants of Western North America” by Donald R. Kirk, and “Guide to Wild Foods” by Christopher Nyerges.

* Classes: Pierce College and Glendale Community College offer field classes. Call Pierce Community Services at (818) 719-6425; for Glendale information, (818) 548-0864.

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* Wild food outings: Wilderness Institute, (818) 991-7327; Earth Skills, (805) 245-0318; School of Self-Reliance, (213) 255-9502; W.O.L.F., (818) 991-2515; and W.I.L.D., (818) 781-4421.

Palatable Plants: A Local Menu

Yucca (Yucca whipplei)

* Where: Dry slopes from the desert to the mountains.

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* When: Spring

* Taste: Shoot jicama-like, fruit like squash.

* Nutrition: Good protein source.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

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* Where: Wild, just about anywhere.

* When: Spring and summer.

* Taste: Slight bitter taste. Leaves extremely bitter once plant flowers.

* Nutrition: Vitamins A, B and C, beta carotene, calcium, sodium and potassium.

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Black Mustard (Brassica nigra)

* Where: Wild, covering hillsides and meadows.

* When: Winter and spring.

* Taste: Firm texture; horseradish-like taste mellows when cooked in soups and stews.

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* Nutrition: Vitamins A, B and C, protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron and potassium.

Cattail (Typha latifolia)

* Where: Near bodies of water.

* When: Spring.

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* Taste: All parts edible. Inner part of nonflowering shoots has cucumber-like taste.

* Nutrition: Shoots rich in potassium and phosphorous, good source of beta carotene.

Other Edible Greenery

Plant: Sow Thistle

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What it tastes like: Slightly bitter

When to find it: Winter, spring, summer

Where it grows: Disturbed soil, gardens, stream banks

Which part to eat: Young, tender plants

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How to use: Raw in salads, boiled, steamed or cooked in soups and souffles.

Nutrition: Vitamins A and C and calcium

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Plant: Chickweed

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What it tastes like: Mild and sweet

When to find it: Winter

Where it grows: Shady places, gardens, lawns

Which part to eat: All parts above soil

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How to use: Salads, sandwiches, blended drinks.

Nutrition: Copper, C and B complex vitamins, potassium, calcium

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Plant: Mallow / Cheese Weed

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What it tastes like: Mild and sweet

When to find it: Winter, spring

Where it grows: Along roadsides, in gardens, disturbed soil

Which part to eat: Leaves, fresh seeds

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How to use: Raw, boiled or steamed in soups, gumbos.

Nutrition: Vitamin A, potassium, calcium, beta carotene

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Plant: Purslane

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What it tastes like: Slightly tart, sweeter when cooked

When to find it: Summer

Where it grows: Lawns, gardens, cultivated fields

Which part to eat: Fleshy leaves, small stems

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How to use: Salads, soups, gumbos.

Nutrition: Vitamin A, iron, potassium, riboflavin

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Plant: Lamb’s-Quarters

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What it tastes like: Green flavor, mellow when cooked

When to find it: Winter, spring, summer

Where it grows: Gardens, stream banks, vacant

Which part to eat: Leaves, dried seeds

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How to use: Salads, soups, stews; dried seeds ground into meal

Nutrition: Rich in vitamins, minerals, particularly calcium

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Plant: Curly Dock

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What it tastes like: Sour lemon-like flavor

When to find it: Winter, spring, summer

Where it grows: Fields, dry open areas, lawns, stream banks

Which part to eat: Leaves, stems

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How to use: Chopped or sauteed in salad and stuffing

Nutrition: High in vitamins and minerals

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Plant: Amaranth

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What it tastes like: Leaves taste like spinach

When to find it: Summer

Where it grows: Disturbed soil, cultivated fields, gardens

Which part to eat: Leaves, ground

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How to use: Boiled seeds ground into meal for cereal, breads

Nutrition: Leaves: Calcium, potassium; seeds: phosphorous, calcium

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Plant: Filaree

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What it tastes like: Celery-like

When to find it: Winter, spring

Where it grows: Disturbed soil, roadsides, fields, lawns, cultivated areas

Which part to eat: Leaves, stems

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How to use: Cooked like spinach, salads, soups, blended drinks.

Nutrition: Calcium, potassium

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Plant: Miner’s Lettuce

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What it tastes like: Leaves and stems are mildly flavored

When to find it: Winter, spring

Where it grows: Shaded, moist areas

Which part to eat: Leaves, stems

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How to use: Salads or cooked like spinach.

Nutrition: Vitamin C

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Plant: Toyon

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What it tastes like: Chewy, apple-like bitter almond flavor

When to find it: Winter

Where it grows: Chaparral, southern oak woodlands

Which part to eat: Berry-like fruit

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How to use: Eaten whole or chopped, should first be baked, boiled or dried, in pies, sauces and ciders.

Nutrition: High sugar content

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Plant: Currant

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What it tastes like: Soft, sweet, fleshy fruit

When to find it: Late spring, summer

Where it grows: Moist shaded or open land, riparian

Which part to eat: Berries

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How to use: Eaten raw or baked for pies, preserves, sauces, wine.

Nutrition: Vitamin C, phosphorous, iron, sugar

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Plant: Prickly Lettuce

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What it tastes like: Slightly bitter like spinach

When to find it: Winter, spring

Where it grows: Disturbed soil, woodlands, meadows, stream banks, gardens

Which part to eat: Leaves

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How to use: Salads, steamed or boiled.

Nutrition: Potassium

Sources: Naturalists Hilla Futterman, Christopher Nyerges and Robert Remedi; Q. Gatson, National Park Service ranger, and “Edible and Useful Plants of California” by Charlotte Clarke; Researched by SHARON MOESER / For The Times.


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