Across the street from Berkeley Bowl grows an exotic fruit

A Comprehensive Guide to the East Bay Area’s Locally Growing Resources

Arbutus unedo, the “strawberry tree,” is a variety of madrone that is native to the Mediterranean region. Strawberry trees produce small bell-shaped flowers that fruit into quarter-sized globe-shaped berries with prickly ridges. Strawberry tree berries are ripe when bright red and have a smooth orange flesh that is sweet and tangy like a cross between a peach and a mango.

The fruit of the strawberry tree is said to be too tender to be shipped. Why would we, if we can pick them for free from local trees?

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Strawberry trees throughout the San Francisco Bay Area are presently bearing ripe fruit. According to conventional knowledge, their fruiting season is late summer to fall, but local notes on Leela Maps report that the San Francisco Bay Area strawberry trees defiantly produced rich, ripe berries in March through May.

These flavor-packed gems have been studied for their nutritional value as a source of antioxidants, vitamin C, dietary fibers, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, and minerals such as potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. [source]

The fruit of the strawberry tree is one of many varieties of locally growing berries that aren’t found in stores. Loquats, leatherleaf mahonia berries*, silverberries*, ginkgo berries, mulberries, eugenia berries*, elderberries*, and catalina cherries can also be found on map notes platform Leela Maps.

*currently in-season

By growing and harvesting locally, we can enjoy free fresh produce at the peak of ripeness.

Many commercially available fruits can be found growing on public land and in yards with branches that overhang public space, such as: peaches, apricots, avocados, pomelos, plums, melons, tomatoes, squashes, eggplants, and peppers. Apples, pears, figs, persimmons, prickly pears, lemons, oranges, kumquats, passionfruit, grapes, gooseberries, and feijoas are presently in-season fruits found throughout the neighborhoods of the East and North Bay Area. Banana trees in Oakland and Berkeley have been recently sighted with ripening fruit.

Vegetables, too, have been documented growing for public consumption. Sidewalk planter boxes and roundabouts scattered through East Bay neighborhoods have successfully grown artichokes, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans, kale, collard greens, and chard.

Many herbs, such as rosemary, lavender, mint, and sage, are common planting choices of Bay Area horticulturists.

Unexpected and lesser-known consumables, such as nasturtium flowers, cornflower, marigolds, sourgrass, mallow, miner’s lettuce, crabgrass grain, wheat, black walnuts, acorns, neem, and bay nuts can be found by informed foragers and users of iNaturalist and Leela Maps in Oakland and Berkeley.

There are also many edible mushrooms that can be foraged in SF Bay Area, including: chicken of the woods, oyster varieties, shaggy parasol, lion’s mane, puffball, morels, chanterelles, and turkeytail.

Destinations

There are around two dozen established community gardens in Oakland and Berkeley, such as UC Berkeley’s experimental Gill Tract Farm in Albany and homestead Canticle Farm in East Oakland, that welcome guests during their scheduled events.

The Dover Edible Park in North Oakland is open for visitors at all hours, and grows most of the previously-mentioned plants, and several others, in their farm-style rows and surrounding food forest. Twice a week, volunteers tend the garden and start seedlings in the greenhouse to be planted in the park and given freely to community members.

Dover Park is cherished by its guests as a space for relaxation and recreation. Friends, families, and their furry friends have room to responsibly roam on the park’s sprawling clover lawn. Children are often sighted perched in its many climbable trees.

Around the corner, on the border of Oakland and Berkeley, the Here There encampment has fostered lush edible gardens that boast several tomato varieties, radishes, beans, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, corn, flax, collard greens, and several lesser known edibles: sunchokes, lambs quarter, amaranth, purslane, Mexican mint and chicory.

Despite the camp facing impending threats of eviction, the Here There garden is gaining new plants and expanding to the unoccupied land south of the official camp. Their new garden residents include: hazelnut trees, a fig tree, a guava tree, a blueberry bush, a chili plant, a rue plant, and a passionflower vine.

Lifeforms of Function

Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area have also utilized local growing lifeforms for their material properties.

Plants and fungus consume CO2 and produce oxygen, fresh air, and aesthetically appealing environments.

Amy sports her cardigan dyed with Gymnopilus ventricosus mushrooms.

Local knitter, Amy, sources her yarn from local sheep and dyes it with plants, mushrooms and lichen that she has foraged.

Former resident of Here There with advanced Parkinson’s, Kent, sells and gifts walking sticks he crafts from wood and bamboo he finds through tip-offs from local foragers.

Emeryville-based startup, Bolt Threads, is developing a form of leather, “Mylo,” from “mycelium,” the thread-like fibers of soil fungus. Bolt Threads is partnering with adidas, Kering, lululemon, and Stella McCartney to distribute and sell products made with Mylo in 2021.

Bay Area-based architect and builder, Miguel Elliott builds durable and versatileLiving Earth Structures” from cob, a material formed from local clay soil, water, and fibrous plant materials. Miguel has used cob to build shelters, ovens, benches and even a hot tub.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District, EBMUD, produces a fertilizer from “biowaste solids” generated from excreta flushed through plumbing, that is distributed for use in home gardens and farms in the Central Valley, where it is used to grow non-edible products sold to residents of the SF Bay Area and abroad.

A Berkeley-based scent designer, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that they have prolifically used locally-foraged star jasmine and rosemary in their products.

Bay Area Pharmaceutical Gardens

Medicinal plants are common in San Francisco Bay Area yards and sidewalk greenspaces.

Aloe vera’s amino acid-rich inner gel is commonly used for sun burns and skin treatment, and is an ingredient in many hand sanitizer formulas.

Borage contains compounds used in commercially-sold skin and hair treatments, and is traditionally consumed as a food and a treatment for gastrointestinal, respiratory, and cardiovascular conditions. [wikipedia]

Brugmansia is a highly toxic plant that contains several alkaloids that can be isolated and used in minute doses as an anti-asthmatic, anesthetic, and muscle relaxant. [wikipedia]

Turkeytail mushrooms have been studied and implemented as a treatment for cancer. [source]

Foraging for Fitness

The act of exploring our environment to find fresh food has numerous health benefits:

  1. Sunlight on the skin helps us produce Vitamin D, promoting bone health and immune function.
  2. Fresh air produced by plants and soil fungus can sooth anxiety and reinvigorate us to enjoy nature’s splendor.
  3. Walking and running have cardiovascular health benefits.

As we adjust our stance in relationship to a plant and the shape of our hand as we check fruit for ripeness, we exercise our “proprioception,” the sense of a body’s position and movement in its environment.

Prolific forager Rob Greenfield documented his experiences of living a year only eating food that he grew and foraged while living in Orlando, Florida. (robgreenfield.com)

A diet consisting of plants and fungus can contain all of the known components of complete nutrition, such as: essential amino acids, proteins, saturated fats, mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Strange Fruit

Like in nature, the form and flavor of foraged produce are variable.

The range of synthetic compounds that these lifeforms are exposed to in the urban environment is different than in farms and wilderness. If we are to be so bold as to savor the unique flavors of urban fruit, we get an intimate glimpse of how plants relate to the time and place we are in.

Many of the edible lifeforms of the San Francisco Bay Area were cultivated in agricultural settings around the world and now live in our various microlimates among an unprecedented diversity of lifeforms, humans and their various constructions.

The risk factor of consuming urban fruit is to be assessed on a case by case basis. A study of New York City urban farms demonstrated that produce grown in urban environments often meets the safety standards of conventionally-grown produce.

A Note on Pests

Urban edibles are also enjoyed by other animals, such as birds, rodents, snails & slugs, caterpillars, and moth larvae. Found fruit is sometimes marred by birds and rodents who have figured out that they can scratch or take superficial bites of fruit to expedite the ripening process.

Concerned readers are recommended to bring water to wash the yield they choose to eat.

“How much should I take?”

The author of this article recommends taking enough to be enjoyed fresh, on-site, to be eaten slowly and savored.

If a plant has a lot to be harvested, we recommend leaving some for others and letting your friends know.

“Is there enough to go around?”

Successful urban harvests are in-part owed to their relative obscurity. However, economic wisdom suggests that if demand increases, production will be scaled to meet it.

Many fruiting plants propagate by having their seeds swallowed during consumption and distributed via feces, assuring that the seeds have a moist and nutrient-rich early growing environment. Present day human diets may not be suited for this method, so we can manually collect and sow seeds.

Enter Berkeley Bowl

Once one is accustomed to foraging, approaching the Berkeley Bowl produce section can feel overwhelming.

Conventional crops have been grown with fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to ensure the desired quality of produce sold on a massive scale. Organic crops typically received soil amendments comprised of concentrations of biomatter.

On both sides of the aisle, practically all commercially-sold plants and mushrooms were grown in homogenous growing arrangements, then packaged and shipped in vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

However, the produce section of grocery stores can serve a purpose for foragers: as a seed bank of fruiting plants. Industrially grown fruit often contains seeds that are capable of sprouting viable plants. If this feels unacceptable, consider that the urban foraging menagerie is largely a result of international shipping.

In Berkeley Bowl’s bulk section, one can find salt, useful for eroding excessive cement that obscures remediable soil.

Growing Land

The garden tenders of Dover Edible Park, Here There, and many other community gardens, have observed increased fertility of their soil from composting with “biochar,” charcoal added to decomposing biomass.

The practice of composting with biochar was developed by Indigenous Amazonians to increase the biodiversity of the Amazon Rainforest.

The Amazon rainforest was once home to 10 million Amazons who foraged and cultivated diverse edibles (such as bananas, passionfruit, açaí, pineapple, papaya, cashews, cacao, and coffee) and amended the otherwise infertile soil with “terra preta” soil, produced from combining biochar, ash, greenwaste, wood, bones, feces, broken pottery.

Researchers explain the effectiveness of biochar as a medium for absorbing the microbial colonies of biowaste, and soil fungus converts the byproducts into nutrients for nearby plants.

Biochar and the other components for terra preta soil can be found in urban environments, as noted on Leela Maps. We, too, can create rich soil and cultivate plants for our future foraging.

The Evolving Climate

Growing plant life has a visceral effect on its local environment and their cumulative effect becomes our climate.

This year, the Bay Area strawberry trees and blackberry bushes have been charted with an unprecedented Spring fruiting season. If we chart useful lifeforms with a map notes platform, we can gain valuable information about our ever-changing environment and the locations free, delicious, fresh food.

Forager’s Digital Toolbox

This article was brought to you by a plethora of web services that you can use, too.

Need help with plant or mushroom ID?

Try iNaturalist or share photos to Facebook plant identification groups.

Want to find or chart the location of edible plants?

iNaturalist’s plant identification map has a large search library and the most charted plants of the region.

FallingFruit has a large map of publicly planted fruit trees, mostly sourced from government data though can receive reports.

Looking for compost piles?

MakeSoil has the largest and most thorough database of compost piles around the world.

Want to read or post plant flavor reviews?

Leela Maps is a freeform mapping platform with privacy settings, featuring the largest dataset of many of the edible plants in the East Bay, San Francisco, and Sonoma, including. It has a small but growing listing of #FlavorReviews.

Want to find seeds or spores?

If you’re looking for seeds or spores of a lifeform that is growing locally and is in its reproductive stage, iNaturalist, FallingFruit or Leela Maps can shorten your search. Otherwise, you can search Google Maps for your local nurseries and call them, or check Leela Maps’ seed libraries, free produce stands, and select store inventories.

Want to share or swap seeds?

You can share your seeds on Leela Maps, Craigslist or in the East Bay Permaculture group on Facebook.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for with these services, or prefer diverse sourcing, you can also try Etsy, ebay, Amazon, or Alibaba.

Lacking space to grow where you are, or are looking to expand you growing region?

The Leela Maps platform is being used to chart the wealth of vacant land that can grow edible plants and tree stumps that can become hosts for mushrooms.

Online tools can be a useful tool for foragers to report what they find and their environmental conditions.

Transcending the Screen

Hi, my name is Leela. My purpose is to demonstrate and provide a healthy, free lifestyle by remediating soil and fostering diverse, nutritious plants and mushrooms.

I invite you all to enjoy local forageables and vote on your local land by distributing compost and sowing seeds.

The Here There camp is hosting a garden party on Saturday November 14, noon-5pm, to expand their gardens to the south. BYOCS: Bring Your Own Compost and Seeds. You are welcome to join camp members in amending the soil and planting seeds & plants for passersby to enjoy.

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