Foraging for Wild Plants in a Domestic Garden

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picWhat is a weed? A witty gardener will tell you it is any plant growing in the wrong place at the wrong time. What makes a time and place wrong is when multiple plants are competing for the same small patch of soil nutrients, water and sunlight. If you are trying to grow a row of beans, and an ambitious brigade of sow thistle decides that bean patch is just what it has in its botanical mind for putting down thistly roots, well – you’ve got a plant conflict. A sow thistle is just another green product of nature, but in this context, the gardener sees a weed and yanks it out. Poor sow thistle.

But a gardener who is not only witty, but also savvy, will tell you to prepare the kitchen when you are pulling out some of those weeds. If you’ve been a good steward of the soil and have not used chemical herbicides anywhere in your garden, then you can explore the potential edibility of everything in it. You can go foraging in your garden.

Right now in the Robb Garden is a particularly good time for reaping a windfall harvest of weeds you didn’t plan. The word “windfall” applies quite literally here, since Nature uses the wind to sow her serendipitous crops, sending seeds aloft to seek a cozy patch of soil. Of all the wrong-place-wrong-time plants we have in the Robb Garden, we are lucky to have one that is wonderfully nutritious: purslane.

2018-05-22 16.10.13Purslane (Portulaca olereacea) is a low-growing plant with small, rounded green leaves and thick, reddish stems. The leaves are slightly succulent, and taste a bit tart, similar to sorrel, with a tang like lettuce. Both the leaves and the stems are perfectly edible, a crisp little snack you can pop in your mouth right in the garden. If you collect a handful of purslane, you can chop it up into any sort of salad; it’s especially good in mustardy potato salad. If you have enough of it, you can fry it up with onions as a side vegetable. It is a common ingredient in cuisines of the Mediterranean region.

Not only is purslane tasty; its nutritional benefits are remarkable. Purslane is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids: 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of purslane contains 300-400 mg of alpha-Linolenic acid, which is one of the two essential fatty acids (essential because our bodies cannot manufacture it, so we need to obtain it from nature through the foods we eat). Purslane also contains higher amounts of melatonin than other fruits and vegetables. Melatonin is a hormone manufactured in the pineal gland in your brain, and it plays an important role in regulating sleeping and waking cycles. Melatonin also scavenges the free radicals in our bodies that can otherwise cause damage to our cells, which may play a role in the development of cancer. And melatonin  has anti-inflammatory properties. So ingesting some extra melatonin in a mouthful of purslane is not a bad idea.

Is there a cultivated garden in your life? Take a closer look at the weedy companions in the garden beds and see if you can identify a friendly purslane plant, waiting to offer you its juicy crunch.

Sources used for this post:

Artemis P. Simopoulos, Dun‐Xian Tan, Lucien C. Manchester, Russel J. Reiter. 2005. Purslane: a plant source of omega‐3 fatty acids and melatonin. Journal of Pineal Research Vol. 39, pp. 331-332.

Gift, Nancy. 2011. Good Weed Bad Weed: Who’s Who, What To Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance. Pittsburgh: St. Lynn’s Press.

Madison, Deborah. 2002. Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. New York: Broadway Books.

Giving Thanks for Gardens

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picNature is a gardener. When we leave it alone, Nature produces perfectly sustainable gardens – nothing is brought in, nothing is taken out. Nature’s gardens are not static; they ebb and flow along with patterns in weather and fire and the serendipity of animal visitations. Nor are Nature’s gardens wildernesses – humans have been walking through them since time immemorial, harvesting their bounty, learning from them, imitating them with cultivated gardens.

There was a time hundreds of years ago when humans were pretty good stewards of Nature in this land we now call California, but today humans of that sort seem to be overrun by humans who don’t value Nature, either willfully obliterating it for their own short-term gain or simply being ignorant of how absolutely essential it is to life.

pie pumpkin 1

Photos by Alaya Hubbard

The more I see Nature’s gardens being eaten away by development, the more I want to cultivate imitations of Nature’s gardens in urban and suburban spaces, and encourage others to do the same. The willful short-termers may be lost to this cause, but fortunately I think there is a much larger share of humans who simply have not yet had their connection to nature activated. That’s an opportunity.

So if I give thanks for anything this week, it is for gardens. I am feeling grateful for what they teach us, and how they begin to transform us the minute our fingers touch the green of their myriad plants. This week I am going to walk into the Robb Garden at the University of the Pacific, I am going to pluck out pumpkins and sweet potatoes, and then I’m going to make pies. I wish for you the pleasure of preparing something from a garden this week, and sharing it with someone you care for.

 

Gardening with Purpose

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayAs part of the University of the Pacific’s “Leading with Purpose” campaign, Pacific students, staff and faculty have been asked to reflect on the question, “What’s my purpose?” and answer it in a single statement. Exercises like this can easily slip into the superficial, but I like the way Pacific’s promotional video about this caught people in the act of not being able to answer the question right away. There’s an appealing honesty and informality in this that rings true and resonates with my experience since joining Pacific less than a year and a half ago.

All of this inspired me to think about my own purpose as Garden Program Director at Pacific. Here’s how I would put it:

As Garden Program Director, my purpose is to connect people with the green, growing world, to find people (especially students) who would never in a million years think of themselves as gardeners, and help them have an experience in nature that transforms their understanding of where our food comes from, and transforms as well the way they think about their capacity to grow at least some of the food they eat.

All of this purposeful reflection is part of a campaign to demonstrate that Pacific is a worthy beneficiary of the generosity of our donors. The support we receive from donors is hugely significant at Pacific, and this is particularly so for the Pacific Garden Program. The Ted & Chris Robb Garden and the Bon Appétit Native Plant Garden would not exist if were not for the generosity of two donors: Walter Robb and Fedele Bauccio. But I know that not everyone who supports these gardens has the capacity to donate on the scale of these two founding donors.

So I love what Pacific is up to this month: next week, on November 15-16, we will be having a 24-hour marathon called the Day of Giving. It starts at 11:15am on the 15th and ends at 11:16am on the 16th. The focus is not on the size of the gifts, but on the number of people we can involve in giving gifts of any size. If you’ve taken a stroll down that walkway with the Robb Garden on one side and the Native Plant Garden on the other and felt a sense of happiness that comes from being surrounded by nature’s beauty, this is an opportunity to express your appreciation through direct support.

What you’ll be supporting is more than the aesthetic beauty of the gardens – it’s the capacity of the gardens as special natural spaces of experiential learning for students, as well as the whole community. The size of the gift doesn’t matter – we’ll make it go far, just like a single packet of seeds can bring a whole garden bed into bloom. If you’ve got a particular idea of how you’d like your gift to be used, we’d love to hear it – and we’ll make it happen. You can stroll by anytime and see. Come on over!