When my dog and I go for a walk in the big field near my home, I have to pay attention to the earth. This is because the ground of the field is quite uneven, damp in spots, and in the winter thickly covered with a carpet of grasses and weeds. It’s a good cognitive exercise; I constantly have to watch for holes, guessing how soft or hard the ground is under the green, and noting where certain types of vegetation prefer dry spots, while others (the pickleweed, for instance) gravitate to damp, mushy areas.
The soil at the south end is riddled with broken sea shells, a middens of some sort. Nearby, the remainders of tall weed stalks after mowing are dry, hard, and sharp-ended, sticking up vertically out of the ground. I wince, thinking of what would happen if I should trip out there, and land on my hands. Near the middle of the field, there is a large, mysterious swatch where the grasses come up tall and straw-colored, as though some chemical underground is leaching out the color. The south end of the field is covered in emerald green clover, a surprisingly calming color to gaze upon.
Now that we’ve passed winter solstice, I look forward to foraging for New Zealand spinach, which is found in my “secret” cache near the ocean. Likewise, the burgeoning vegetation in the field prompts me to wonder what might be edible there. Early in winter, what looks like millions of tiny, dark green lettuces emerge from the soil. There are also greens with feathery leaves that look like parsley or cilantro. Wouldn’t it be great to have a free parsley source? And there are broadleafed greens sprouting tiny yellow buds. I also see a few clumps of that stubborn cheeseweed (also known as Malva neglecta, and Bastardia viscosa sanctae crucis–or the viscous bastards from Santa Cruz) that infests my backyard every winter, and is so hard to get rid of.
Now in mid-January, the “lettuces” still look like something that could be tossed in a salad, but some are sprouting tiny pink buds. So much for the “lettuce” theory. Wild radish? I pull a small one out of the ground. Yes, the white and pink root does look a bit radishy. I wonder if they are edible. The broadleafed weeds with the yellow buds are now knee-high, and they look a little like young broccoli (rabe).
While examining the feathery “parsleys,” I detect the warm, sweet scent of fennel — another plant that might be fun to harvest. I don’t see it, but I smell it. And that reminds me of something: fennel grows near poison hemlock. I look closely at the “parsley” stems, and notice that there are tiny purple spots on them. It’s hemlock!
Back at home, I find a useful website, Calflora: What Grows Here. You can type in the county and zip code, and a page will come up listing all the flora growing in the area, along with photographs.
I was right about the wild radish and the hemlock, which is also known as “poison parsley.” The “broccoli rabe” was in fact wild mustard. Since the field is usually overrun with hemlock during most of the year, I’m now loathe to try out the fennel, wild radish and mustard (all edible), fearing that they might absorb the poison in such close proximity.
So, although I’ve lived in Elkhorn for about two years now, perhaps I know the Central California area better than I think; I know the earth here — I know enough to be wary. How many fields have I walked through in my life? How many times have I followed a path near water, and noticed fennel growing near hemlock? As a child I squeezed the milky juice from wild radish pods. I didn’t know the names then. Now I do.