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.


July Heat in the Ecology Action Garden

By Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotThe past two weeks have flown by! The week of July 18th was extremely hot with temperatures rising to 111 degrees, and apparently we have already beat last year’s record high. Although I worked in the garden at the University of the Pacific, I am not used to working in such hot weather. I’d find myself taking a lot of breaks and was easily irritable during this week of hot weather. But I got through it and was rewarded with cooler weather the following week! I keep asking locals what they expect the rest of the summer’s weather will be to like and they all talk about heat waves to be expected in July.  I am hoping the weather stays below 100 degrees so that I can work comfortably. I want to be able to give my full attention to the plants and learn as much as I can, but this won’t be easy if I’m frying in the sun.

Despite it being hot, we have been getting a lot of work done in the garden. The garden has been going through some amazing transformations and already looks very different from when we started. The grains are being harvested and baby plants are getting transplanted into the beds. I wish I was doing the six month internship so that I could be here when the baby plants are being harvested. I’d like to be able to witness the full life cycle of the plants that I started from seed. Maybe I will come back up and visit when it is time to harvest the plants that I started.

Speaking of seeds, I have found a new passion in seed saving. I have been told that since 1903, 93% of the known fruit and vegetable varieties have gone extinct! This means that there is only about 9% of the corn varieties left in the world, 8% of the tomato varieties left, 7% of carrot varieties left…and much more has been lost! We often talk about animal extinctions and our efforts to preserve the endangered animals species, but there’s not much talk about plant extinction. These plant extinctions are just as important as the animals; in fact, I would argue that they are even more important because plants feed the world. With the changing climate and our demand for food increasing, preserving plant varieties is becoming more important. This has sparked a new interest in seed saving for me. I’d like to save seed from every crop I grow from now on, especially heirloom and rare varieties that are at risk of becoming extinct. There is a great documentary that I recommend watching called Seed: The Untold Story. This documentary sheds light on the challenges farmers have been facing and the importance of saving seed.

With every passing day I think of this internship less as a one-time experience, and more as the first step to a path of agriculture and sustainability. I am grateful to have this opportunity and I plan to continue on my path after the internship is over!

Potato Love

My Love Affair With Potatoes
By Patty A. Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director

PotatoesI recently dug out my first harvest of potatoes from the Robb Garden: a little clutch of warm-hued Yukon Golds huddled atop the soil, ranging from ping pong ball-sized to fist-sized, promising a couple of tasty meals at least. As I began to gather them up and toss them into a canvas bag, something in the motion, and the feel of the smooth skins, and the thunking sound of potato against potato in the bag triggered a memory.

Russia, 2001. A potato field in the Republic of Mari El, in the rich and fertile Black Earth region. I’m walking a row alongside members of the family I am staying with, picking up potatoes that their tractor just churned up, dropping them, thunkety-thunk, into a large canvas bag standing at the end of my row. The potato field was this family’s mainstay, supplying their own needs as well as a surplus to sell at market. Eating potatoes day after day, year after year, did not diminish the family’s enthusiasm for these “earth apples”. When it came time for a lunch break, they eagerly started a small campfire right at the edge of the field and roasted a few potatoes by snuggling them in around the coals and setting a metal bucket over them. The anthropologist in me relished observing and participating in this example of social behavior; the hungry human in me relished the taste of freshly-roasted potatoes, and the satisfyingly full feeling in my belly.

I think that was the moment when I became infected with potato-love, and the first chance I got, I started growing my own potatoes. That chance was when I moved into a small house – a glorified cabin, really – in Fairbanks, Alaska. The gardening season is brutally short there – the last spring freeze happens in mid-May, and the first fall freeze can be expected in early September – but the extreme day length makes gardens burst into action almost overnight. I planted a raised bed full of German Butterballs, a mouth-wateringly savory little tuber that is unmatched if you favor waxy, salad-type potatoes (which I do, voraciously). After planting, I had a few seed tubers left over, and I decided to just dump them in some leaf litter along the side of my driveway. Let them take their chances, I thought. The raised bed produced a bumper crop, which I found pleasant enough; but what amazed me was that the potatoes sprouted up even in that leaf litter, and yielded a respectable amount of creamy potato flesh. At that point I became convinced that you could grow potatoes anywhere, and I resolved that I would never be without a potato patch in any garden I tended.

Imagine my amusement some years later when it became clear I would be moving to Ireland, seemingly the ancestral land of the potato (which of course it isn’t: potatoes are a quintessential New World crop, hauled back to the Old World by travellers who knew a good thing when they saw it). I grew a bed full of potatoes each of the eight years I lived in Dublin, and never once had a speck of blight – the Irish are of course potato experts by now, and blight-resistance is built into pretty much every variety of seed potato you can buy. My problem, however, was that I disagreed with the prevailing Irish opinion on which potato varieties are the best to eat. Irish tastes run to those big, floury potatoes, which I find bland, unless you slather them with butter and salt – which is, as it turns out, what any eejit (idiot) should know you are supposed to do. I remember trying to convince one Irishman of the merits of my beloved waxy/creamy varieties, and he actually had a gag reflex right in front of me. Alas.

So of course upon taking up my current position as Garden Program Director at the University of the Pacific, I knew I would grow potatoes in the Robb Garden right here on campus. Potatoes had so far not been among the crops planted in the Robb Garden, and when I shared my plans, some asked incredulously, “Isn’t it too hot?” Ah, but that is the beauty of the California climate: there is a growing season for everything. Planted in early February, during a rare break in the torrential spring rains this year, our two small beds of potatoes are now yielding their golden treasure.

Any potato-love out there? We’ve got tubers to spare!