Foraging Guide

Welcome to our brief foraging guide to the plants, animals and fungi of the Pitzer Multi-Species Commons and Urban Ecosystem. This is not meant to be a complete guide – what fun would that be? The commons is yours to discover and shape – speak with Joe Clements and the grounds crew – they know and care deeply. Use the books in the foraging kitchen, look in the library and make your own. Share these and share your knowledge – lead a foraging walk or host a foraging picnic. Go out into the community. Pretty much every species could be used in some interesting manner: Develop new projects – what plants could be used to remediate? Could one cultivate weeds more effectively than a garden? Can spontaneously growing urban plants replace water intensive plants? What will grow if we stop watering? For many of these examples we have recipes – you can follow the links to these or simply go to the recipe page. If you are curious about why foraging is such an important ecological activity we have a longer discussion of the issues here. Adin Bonapart (Pitzer ‘15) assisted us in the cataloging of many of these plants. An (AB) follows the species that he wrote up – thank you Adin.


Cherry, Holly-Leaved

Other common names: Catalina Cherry, Hollyleaf Cherry.

Prunus ilicifolia, Family: Rosaceae

Description: Shrub or small tree with serrated and curled leaves. Fruit ranges from red to yellow, 12–15mm long with thin, sweetish pulp. Blooms April through May with fruit ripening in summer and fall.

Uses: The thin outer pulp of the fruit may be eaten, or made into a sweet sauce or drink by simmering it in a little water and adding lemon and sugar to taste. The kernel is dried, crushed, and leached. The nut can be substituted into acorn recipes and has traditionally been boiled into a soup by the Cahuilla. The bark was also used to make tea for treating colds. (AB)

Elderberry, Mexican

Other common names: Desert Elderberry, Southwestern Elderberry

Sambucus mexicana, Family: Caprifoliaceae

Description: Deciduous shrub or small tree with numerous small cream-colored flowers that occur in umbels 3–10cm across. BB-sized berries are blue with a whitish bloom. Blooms March through September with fruit following if rainfall is sufficient.

Uses: Both the flowers and the fruit are edible, and the stems are made into a variety of instruments and dyes. Many Indian tribes brewed the blossoms into a tea which was used for fevers, upset stomachs, colds, and flu. It was also considered good for newborn babies and for teeth. The flowers can add flavor and fresh vitamins to pancakes, muffins, and cakes. Although the fresh fruit is not always palatable, after drying or cooking it can be made into delicious sauces, jellies, wines, and syrups. Wine is also made from the flowers. Because of the delicious taste of products and the ease of gathering large quantities, the elderberry is a favorite in the households of many foragers. The elderberry is also an important source of food for many bird species. (AB) Click here for recipe.

Gingko Tree

Ginkgo biloba

Other Names: Maidenhair tree

Description: A large tree that can reach 55–115 feet, Ginkgos have thick erratic branches, and a distinctive leaf shaped like a fan. Young trees are often tall and slender, and have few branches; the crown becomes broader and more angular as the tree ages. During autumn, the leaves turn a bright yellow.

Ginkgos adapt well to the urban ecology, tolerating pollution, variations in water and confined soil spaces.The nuts are edible and can be used in congee (rice porridge) as well as several other dishes. Dried and ground, the nuts are reported to have aphrodisiac properties; consumed in extremely large quantities the nuts are toxic, so be careful! Due to its production of butyric acid, the female Ginkgo tree smells like a cross between rancid butter and vomit. Ginkgo has demonstrated potential as a treatment for senile dementia and is currently being tested for a number of other diseases.

The ginkgo is a living fossil, dating back to the 270 Million years ago to the Permian epoch. About 2.5 million years ago, Ginkgo fossils disappeared everywhere except in a small area of central China, where the modern species survived. For centuries, the Gingko was thought to be extinct, until in 1692 a German naturalist named Engelbert Kaempfer discovered a small grove of trees that had been preserved by Chinese monks for over a 1000 years. All modern Ginkgo trees are descended from this amazing example in conservancy and, because all of their predators are largely extinct, the Gingko trees now thrive across the globe. The Gingko tree’s resilience has been demonstrated in a number of contexts; six trees grew less than a mile from the epicenter of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and survived – a testament to their hardiness and adaptability.

Manzanita, Bigberry

Other common names: Manzanita

Arctostaphylos glauca, Family: Ericaceae

Description: Large evergreen shrub with reddish exfoliating bark and gray-green leaves. Fruit is round, sticky, and reddish-brown when ripe. Blooms December through March; fruit appears in spring.

Uses: Indian tribes collected the fruit by handpicking or shaking it into baskets. The Miwok of Central California ground the berries and poured hot water over them through a strainer to extract the flavor, which resembles apple cider. In some tribes, the seeds were separated and ground into flour. The blossoms of some species are steeped for tea. The strawberry tree appears in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as a metaphor for the joyous, innocent pleasure that existed before mankind knew the difference between good and evil, nature and culture. Eat from the strawberry tree and taste what the world could be like if it was not separated into the fallen world of culture and the pure realm of nature. (AB) Click here for recipe

Oak, Coast Live

Other common names: Oak

Quercus agrifolia, Family: Fagaceae

Description: Coast live oak is a native, drought-resistant tree with a broad canopy ranging in from 19 to 82 feet in height, with sharp or spiny-toothed evergreen leaves. Fruit is the acorn.

Uses: Before acorns can be used, the bitter and constipating tannin must be leached out. Traditionally, this was accomplished by rinsing chopped or ground nuts in a stream or river until they are no longer astringent (2–3 days of moving water). One may try this in the toilet’s filling tank, or by leaching with several rounds of boiling water. People who use acorns today agree that they resemble other nuts in oiliness and flavor. Acorns contain significant quantities of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, fat, and protein. They are especially good in cookies, breads and pies. (AB) Click here for recipe


Other common names: Hollyleaf redberry, Redberry buckthorn

Rhamnus crocea, Family: Rhamnaceae

Description: A native evergreen shrub with round, dark green leaves. Blooms in early spring with fruiting and seed following.

Uses: The fruit from the shrub is a red berry, hence the name. Native Americans traditionally ate the berries right off of the bush. Redberries ripen in July in Southern California, and only stay on the bush a short time as birds quickly eat most of them. A sweet syrup made from the fruit is a recommended addition to cocktails, sodas, ice creams/sorbets, and other sauces.(AB)

Sweet Gum Tree

Liquidambar styraciflua

A medium-sized to large tree, growing to 65–155 feet (20–35 m) with a trunk up to 6 feet (2 M) in diameter, can live to 400 years. Leaves alternating, usually have five (but sometimes three or seven) sharply pointed palmate lobes. dark green, glossy turning brilliant orange, red, and purple the autumn. Leaves have substantial amounts of tannin. Fruit, compound, round, 40 to 60 capsules, each with one or two seeds. Flowers later spring, fruits in summer, persists in winter.

The American sweet gum tree is easily identified by its five-pointed star-shaped leaves and its hard spiky fruits. True to its namesake, the sweetgum produces a fragrant resin that when dried becomes a tasty if somewhat bitter gum. Sweetgum has strong antiseptic properties and is one of the main ingredients in Tamiflu, the primary treatment for the common flu. When boiled the spiked sweetgum pods and bark release a powerful dye that can be used to color fibers.

Strawberry Tree

(Arbutus unedo). These wonderful trees can be found just north of West Hall. Be on the lookout for their fruit.


Other common names: Christmas berry, California Holly

Heteromeles arbutifolia, Family: Rosaceae.

Description: Toyon is a medium to large shrub with sharply toothed evergreen leaves. In the early summer it produces small white flowers with bright red berry-like fruit following in the fall and persisting into late winter. Uses: The berries provided food for local Native American tribes. Although poisonous in larger quantities, Native Americans made a tea from the leaves to make a stomach remedy. Most berries were dried and stored, then later cooked into porridge or pancakes. Sometimes berries were eaten fresh, or mashed into water to make a beverage. Later settlers added sugar to make custard, wine, and jelly. (AB) Click here for recipe


Amaranth, Pigweed.

Pigweed, or amaranth is a weedy plant that grows up to eight feet tall. Their ovate shaped leaves typically have a herringbone vein pattern and are 2–5 inches long in mature plants. The grooved, stems are light green or reddish. Amaranth flowers, which bloom in the late summer and fall, appear as dense, tiny green clusters. Inside these flower clusters are thousands of shiny black seeds. Amaranth’s high protein seeds grow more efficiently than modern grains, needs less energy and water and produces a greater yield. Young leaves can be eaten raw and used in salads and a quick boiling, steaming or poaching can remove any bitterness. Amaranth seeds have been harvested for thousands of years to produce a tasty, incredibly nutritious grain that can be used in breads, tortillas, soups, cereals and pastas. To collect amaranth seeds, harvest the plants once they have gone to seed and begun to wilt in the late summer/early fall. Strip the flowers into a container. Once removed, allow the seeds to dry in the sun and beat with a flail before removing the chaff. From there you can grind and roast the grain, using it as you would flour.

For over 6,700 years Amaranth has been cultivated by humans; before the arrival of Cortez, it was the core food of the Aztecs, powering their vast empire. The Aztecs capital city, Tenochtitlan supported over 300,000 inhabitants using a complex and incredibly advanced system of aqueducts, paved streets, canals and farms. When Cortez invaded, he burned the Aztec amaranth fields and made its cultivation punishable by death. This proved to be quite short-sighted, as amaranth seeds remain viable for up to fifty years. Amaranth’s durability, longevity and nutrient value have made it a valuable companion species to humans. Its resilience and long-term viability make it a potential replacement for the genetically modified grains used by the industrial food complex. Listen to the amaranth and help it spread; a revolution is being seeded! Click here for recipe.

Buckwheat, California

Other common names: Wild Buckwheat, Eastern Mojave Buckwheat

Eriogonum fasciculatum, Family: Polygonaceae.

Description: Eriogonum fasciculatum is a common shrub native to the southwestern US and northern Mexico. The leaves grow in clusters at nodes along the branches and are leathery, woolly on the undersides, and rolled under along the edges. Flowers appear in dense, frilly clusters and last far into the summer, becoming a rusty-brown fruit as the flowers die.

Uses: As a medicinal plant, its leaves, roots, and flowers were consumed by some Native American tribes to relieve certain pains, illnesses, and stomach problems. Seeds are edible, and can be collected after heads have turned brown. The chaff can be separated from seeds by pushing seeds through a screen and then separating seeds from chaff with an air separator or fan. (AB) Click here for recipe.

Carex Grass

Family: Cyperaceae

Other names: Sedge

Description: A perennial rhizomatic grass that grows as a thick dense cluster, often in conjunction with deergrass. Carex foliage color varies from green, to blue, to gold/orange or variegated. Carex plants generally form arching mounds of thin flat leaves and can grow up to fifteen inches tall.

Uses: Carex makes excellent insulation and can be used as a liner for shoes, clothing and sleeping bags. Drought tolerant and resilient, carex grass is often used in habitat restoration and water remediation. Because of its ability to filter water used by humans and remove toxins, carex grass is frequently planted in bioswales where it prevents erosion and purifies grey water and asphalt run-off.

Cobweb Thistle

Other common names: Thistle

Cirsium occidentale, Family: Asteraceae

Description: Non-native, stout annual herb with large prickly lobed leaves. Flower is purple with numerous spiny protuberances at its base. Flowers May to July. A common weed throughout most of the state.

Uses: The thistles, which include several genera, are related to artichokes and may be treated in the same manner. They are boiled until tender and eaten like the artichoke. The young leaves, stalks, and roots can be soaked overnight in salted water and then cooked and eaten. The thistle heads are best when picked just at the height of flowering, boiled, and the heart (actually the receptacle) dissected out. A substitute for rennet used in coagulating milk for cheese-making can be obtained from the dried flowers of some thistles. (AB) Click here for recipe.


Other common names: California Buckthorn

Rhamnus californica, Family: Rhamnacae

Description: Rhamnus californica is an evergreen shrub with dark red branches and dull green leaves. California Coffeeberry typically flowers from April to June, with fruit ripening from July through November. Immature fruits are green, and turn red or reddish-black when fully ripened. Uses: The fruit is sweet and was historically gathered by West Coast Indian tribes for culinary as well as medicinal purposes. The bark and the berries of the Coffeeberry were used to induce vomiting and are strong laxatives. While some Indian tribes enjoyed the berries boiled and made into jellies, other tribes considered them to be poisonous. The Mutsun people of the Monterey Bay and San Juan areas ate the berries raw and called them puruuic. (AB) Click here for recipe.

Currant, Golden

Ribes aureum, Family: Saxifragacae

Description: Medium sized, deciduous shrub. Flowers may be shades of cream to reddish, and are borne in clusters of up to 15. Berries are about 1 centimeter in diameter and contain several small seeds. Blooms February through April, with fruit appearing in spring and early summer.

Uses: Ripe fruits, amber yellow to black in color, are edible. The flowers are also edible. Fruit can be eaten raw and is also good for jellies, jams, sauces, and pies. Shaking the bushes over sheets of plastic or blankets is a popular method of gathering the berries. (AB) Click here for recipe.


Our most common and recognizable weed: the glorious dandelion. That fast spreading rhizome with the intense yellow blossom, that everyone seems to love to disparage. It is everything that is not exclusive, or unique. It has had a very long shared history with human communities we find it in old roman medicinal text books and other ancient manuscripts. A tonic, a diuretic, a salad, a wine, and a root vegetable, that has been central to our joys, battles and everyday life for thousands of years. It travelled with european farmers to North America as part of the ancient Indo-European peasant pharmacopeia. Its commonness extends beyond the human – the bees swarming to their blossoms, the fungi joining to their roots, the insects sleeping in their nightly closing blossoms. In the commonness of the Dandelion we cross over into other worlds and entangle with desires other than ours. They are everywhere and are everywhere seemingly unstoppable. It is their very will to live – their will to spread – to be ubiquitous and common that we hold against them. But how is it that the beauty of a dandelion blossom is a beauty that we consider to be crass and common? How is it any less beautiful than a Black Eyed Susan, or an Ox Eyed Daisy? How is it that we cannot see this as we busily weed them out (is it not ironic that the word for the plant (a weed) and the process of getting rid of them (weeding) is the same?) How many of us remember the childhood joy of falling into a deep blanket of yellow at the height of spring? How many of us remember lying there looking up at the slow moving summer sky and listening to the bees buzzing? We had common dreams then…

That it is rare to meet a dandelion in the grocery store today is part of a long historical shift from valuing and depending on what is common across species and across a communities to a valuing what is exclusive, distinct and unique, and to the degree we find dandelions in our local Whole Foods it is as exotic foreign (read Italian) greens. These weeds that where under our feet: the curly dock, dandelion, plantain, pigweed, and pokeweed, where the plants that once kept all of us alive and healthy. They have travelled with us across continents, cultures and differing ways of living. Some of these weeds can be traced back 20,000 year where they are found in old cave fire pits. We have always travelled embedded in a complex of plants, animals, bacteria and fungi – they are fully part of us. (Not to get sidetracked but they even make up the majorities of the cells in our body (we are 90% bacteria)). Some of the species are carefully vetted and others are sly interlopers hitchhiking on the bottom of our shoes, or stuck to our socks. Pigweed (Amaranth) – is an old Aztec grain that wonderfully resists Roundup, has travelled slowly with (and shaped) cultures from Peru to the arctic. In our shared persistent desire to stay alive they remain with us – still common to our streets, gardens and back allies. But, it is we who have left these plant entanglements behind, choosing to cultivate in their place, plants of an ever more and more exclusive or unique pedigree. That dandelion is no longer a food of choice, is all part of our choosing to live in a more and more exclusive, divided world with less and less in common with what is beneath our feet. We no longer eat of where we live, nor do we work of where we live, nor do we take a real entangled pleasure in being of a place – and that is a huge tragedy. Let’s rejoin the glorious dandelion. Click here for recipe.


Muhlenbergia rigens

Description: Deergrass can be identified by its dense, narrow pointed leaves that reach lengths of about 3 feet and range in color from light silver-green to purple. The spikelike stems are less than half an inch wide and 3–4 feet (0.91–1.22 m) in length. During bloom, the numerous flower clusters often reach heights of five feet.

Uses: Many Native American tribes, including the Tongva, used long leaves and seedstalks of deergrass to make coiled baskets. Deergrass underwent an early form of cultivation by many California tribes who regularly burned areas to maintain stands of deergrass, and induce the production of long straight stalks for use in basketry. It is believed that much of deergrass’s current distribution is due to propagation by Native Americans.


Docks, especially the curly dock is a very hardy companion species and spontaneous grower of great hardiness. It is critical to many urban ecosystems and can be found coming up at the edges of distinct ecological patches and untended areas. Click here for recipe.

Herbs– The campus has many plantings of the classical european food herbs: thyme, rosemary, lavender, sage, etc. Be on the lookout for them as you walk to and from classes.


Marrubium vulgare, Family: Lamiaceae

Description: Perennial, wooly herb with bitter sap. Leaves wrinkled, toothed, and petioled. Fruit is in a cluster of 4 small nutlets. Blooms spring and summer. A common, non-native weed in waste places and fields throughout the state.

Uses: Horehound has been used to make a candy prized for its soothing effect on sore throats and coughs. A tea was used by the Cahuilla Indians for flushing the kidneys. The plant can be boiled or dried without losing its flavor. One cup of fresh leaves or ¼ cup dried leaves boiled in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes will make a strong concentrate. This concentrate can then be diluted with 2 parts water to 1 part concentrate for a tea. One part concentrate may also be added to 2 parts sugar or honey and a pinch of cream of tartar, brought to hard crack (290°F), and poured into a buttered plate for the old-fashioned cough drop candy. A bit of lemon added at the last minute improves the flavor. A cough syrup can be made of 1 part concentrate and 2 parts honey. (AB). Click here for recipe.


(Chenopodium berlandieri). An incredibly tasty, nutritious and bountiful plant. The name is often used interchangeably with Pigsfoot (a different plant), leading to some confusion. But once you see the two you will know the difference (both are exceptional). Once a key part of the Eastern North American Indigenous food system now considered a weed. Related to Quinoa. Well worth researching for many reasons and adding to recipes from salads to tapenade. Click here for recipe.


Other common names: Lemonade Berry, Coast Sumac

Rhus integrifolia, Family: Anacardiaceae

Description: Rounded shrub with leathery, aromatic leaves. Small flowers in closely packed clusters, white to rose in color. Fruit is a sticky, sour drupe, flattened about 1 cm in diameter and 7mm long. Blooms February through May, with fruit following.

Uses: Indians dried the berries for preservation, then soaked them as needed in water and heated for a form of hot pink lemonade. The Cahuilla used a tea of the leaves as a treatment for coughs and colds. Some say that young shoots were used raw and the dried leaves were smoked. The fruit is eaten by a variety of birds, and the berries make pleasingly tart snacks; the pulp is not swallowed but merely sucked for its juice. Lemonadeberry, true to its namesake, is good for making lemonade – just pick the ripe fruit, crush and soak in cold water, strain, mix with honey and serve over ice. Sumac juice is loaded with vitamin C and has astringent and antiseptic properties. The whole plant, especially the leaves, creates a vibrant reddish-brown color fast dye and, due to its high concentration of tannins, it makes an excellent mordant for activating and fixing other dyes. (AB) Click here for recipe.

Mustard, Black

Other common names: Mustard

Brassica nigra, Family: Brassicaceae

Description: Erect annual, opportunistic plant. Lower leaves long with large terminal lobes and a few small lateral ones. Flowers showy, yellow, and in elongated racemes. Flowers April through July.

Uses: Mustard is grown for its seed, from which the commercial condiment is derived. The best leaves to use are the lower ones. Though sometimes fuzzy, they mix well with other greens or in soup. Due to the strong flavor, they should be cooked for about 20 minutes in water and served with butter or a seasoned, mild dressing. The unopened flower buds can be eaten like broccoli, boiled in salted water for just a few minutes. The yellow flowers give rise to pods that contain several seeds, which can be obtained by collecting the pods and allowing them to dry. To make prepared mustard from the seeds, grind them in a food chopper or mill and roast in an oven until browned. Mix this flour half-and-half with commercial powdered mustard, moistening with a mixture of half vinegar and half water. Mustard plasters can also be made by mixing the ground seeds half-and-half with flour and water. Brought with European settlers as a garden plant, Black Mustard is now typically defined as an invasive weed, but this label doesn’t allow us to get to the full story. The vast majority of the plants we see around us are there because they were cultivated and spread by humans and other animals. To ascribe to the notion that certain plants are innately “of” a place is to miss out on the opportunity to study and understand how they are entangled with the history of the world we go into more detail about this here. Change happens, but that being said, not all change yields a more vibrant world. Mustard, due to its opportunistic nature, must be managed with extreme care and it should be noted that it can destabilize an ecology quite quickly, displacing and killing off other plants. Always take care to dispose seeds that might have gotten stuck to your clothes or shoes and never throw mustard you have picked into the compost or, for that matter, anywhere outside! (AB) Click here for recipe.


(Plantago major). Not the banana-like plant but the small green thick leaved plant found growing in grassy patches. This was called by many North American indigenous people’s “white man’s footprint” as it could be found spontaneously growing in areas that European’s had passed through. It is ok to each in spring, and a very powerful coagulant. This plant is a good place to begin researching the medicinal uses of the “weeds”. Plantain is an incredibly effective treatment for bee stings, cuts, poison ivy and all manner of insect bites.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Other common names: Coast Prickly Pear

Opuntia littoralis, Family: Cactaceae

Description: The Prickly Pear Cactus, found in deserts and low mountains. Is ubiquitous in the southwest and pacific west. This perennial succulent can be identified has no poisonous look alikes and can be identified by its broad paddles and red to violet fruit. Blooms April through June, with fruit following. The pears, which are called tunas in Spanish, are about three inches tall and are covered in smaller spines.

Uses: The paddles, called nopals from the Nahuatl word nōpalli, are used in the popular Mexican dish, nopales, and can be pickled in vinegar. New pads can be scraped with a knife to remove large spikes, they tastes like a mucilaginous mixture of green pepper and purslane and are great in soups. As good as the paddles are, the fruit are the best part. The red-violet buds of the prickly pear ripen in early July to August and remain until late October. They taste like a tangy melon and can be eaten raw, used in salads or juiced. Mexican natives have used the food for thousands of years, to make colonche, an alcoholic drink. When harvesting the fruit beware not just the visible large spikes, but also the tiny invisible ones, known as glochids. A mouthful of these will make for a most unpleasant few days! The glochids can be removed by scouring with steel wool and wire or by roasting the fruit over a fire. Always wear thick leather gloves when harvesting prickly pear. The prickly pear’s flower petals are sweet and make a fantastic snack.

Found on the Mexican Flag, the prickly pear’s history is deeply entangled with the formation of this nation. The coat of arms of Mexico depicts a Mexican golden eagle, perched upon a prickly pear, holding a rattlesnake. According to the official history of Mexico, the coat of arms is inspired by an Aztec legend regarding the founding of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs, then a nomadic tribe, were wandering throughout Mexico in search of a divine sign to indicate the precise spot upon which they were to build their capital. Their god Huitzilopochtli had commanded them to find an eagle devouring a snake, perched atop a cactus that grew on a rock submerged in a lake. After 200 years of wandering, they found the promised sign on a small island in the swampy Lake Texcoco. There they founded their new capital, Tenochtitlan. The prickly pear cactus full of fruits, is the symbol for the island of Tenochtitlan, and now the nation of Mexico

The prickly pear is also host to dactylopius coccus, a scale insect from which cochineal dye is derived. This insect, a primarily sessile parasite, lives on the cacti feeding on moisture and nutrients in the cactus sap. The insect produces carminic acid, which deters predation by other insects. The carminic acid can be extracted from the insect’s body and eggs to make the red dye. Cochineal is used primarily as a red food coloring and for cosmetics. The cochineal dye was used by the Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America. Produced almost exclusively in Oaxaca, Mexico, by indigenous producers, cochineal became Mexico’s second-most valued export after silver. Every time you eat or drink something that has a red color it is likely that you are consuming bugs; carmine, the dye produced from cochineal is found in almost every red colored food and beverage. Pitzer’s campus is covered with prickly pear – what would it take to create new dye industry? Could art classes become focused around the production and use of this dye? Click here for recipe.


Purslane is an annual with smooth, horizontally spreading oval shaped leaves. Its think, creeping, reddish stems carry succulent, toothless, paddle shaped leaves that grow from ½ to 2 inches long, spreading in a matt across the ground. Do not confuse purslane with spurge, a poisonous plant with milky-white sap and thin stringy leaves. Purslane has been harvested for thousands of years and, interestingly, has found a unique ecological niche in the assemblage of cars and roads. Far from being neutral tools, cars determine the configuration of social space and have profound effects on the local ecology. Vehicles knit distant places together, changing the speed at which we encounter the world as well as our expectations for how the world should appear. Automobiles are an extension of the petrochemical industry, and their existence is currently dependent upon the consumption of vast reserves of carbon. Not only are automobiles dependent upon the deep time processes of prehistory, they are also producing a future world for humans and non-humans alike. The fossil fuels burned by cars account for 33% of carbon dioxide production in the United States and contribute significantly to the phenomena of global warming. Cars spread their habitat with themselves, colonizing chaparral and mountain with fields of asphalt. Some species see this as an opportunity; purslane a delicious sprawling succulent, finds its habitat in the cracks of worn pavement. Its tiny five-petalled yellow flowers hide between reddish stems and oval green leaves. Purslane has more omega 3 fatty acids than any other plants and taste great raw or boiled as a soup vegetable. Due to its deep roots, pulling up purslane only serves to help spread it further. In addition to their contributions to global ecology, cars fulfill an important niche in the local urban ecosystem, becoming the primary hunter of the rabbits, squirrels and deer that were once kept in check by large predators. The highly resilient forager known as the coyote has adapted to the bounty provided by cars, and its resurgence in urban areas is a testament to the complex ecological entanglements that are emerging. How could one learn to forage in cahoots with the automobile predator? What can you learn from the coyote? Click here for recipe.

Sage, Black

Salvia mellifera, Family: Lamiaceae

Description: Black sage is a native, semi deciduous, soft-leaved subshrub that grows between 3–6 feet tall. The aromatic leaves are wrinkled and dark green above with lighter-colored undersides. Flowers are pale blue or white, and arranged in compact whorls spaced at intervals along the flowering stalk. Blooms from March to June.

Uses: Native Americans have used black sage for culinary purposes. Seeds were parched and ground into a meal used in baking. Crushed leaves and stems were used as a mint-flavored condiment. (AB) Click here for recipe.

Sagebrush, California

Artemisia californica, Family: Asteraceae

Description: The California Sagebrush shrub has thread-like leaves that have a strong sage smell when crushed. The foliage is silver colored and is evergreen.

Uses: Local Native American tribes considered a tea made from the leaves of this plant essential for proper maturation of girls into womanhood. Dropping several leaves in a cup of boiling water makes a pleasant herbal tea. Add lemon and honey to taste. (AB) Click here for recipe.

Sorrel, Wood

It is really everywhere. Look closely in the grass on the mounds. It looks similar to clover by has heart shaped leaves. Excellent in salads and anywhere you need a lemon type sour flavor. A great place to begin foraging (looking closely at what seems to just be grass – and discovering a huge array of species). Click here for recipe.

Stinging Nettle

Other common Names: Nettle

Urtica dioica, Family: Urticaceae.

Description: A deciduous herbaceous perennial plant with many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on its leaves.

Uses: Stinging nettle has a flavor similar to spinach and cucumber when cooked, and is rich in vitamins. Soaking nettles in water or cooking will remove the stinging chemicals from the plant, which allows them to be handled and eaten safely. Nettles can be used in a variety of recipes, such as polenta, pesto, and purée. Nettle soup and nettle tea are common uses of the plant. To make tea, steep the nettle leaves in a solution of sugar and lemon juice. (AB) Click here for recipe.

Yerba Santa

Other common names: Mountain Balm

Eriodictyon californicum, Family: Hydrophyllaceae

Description: Aromatic shrub, evergreen, with shredding bark and weedy growth. Leaves are sticky above and light colored below, somewhat leathery and often toothed. Blooms May to July.

Uses: Indians and early settlers used Yerba Santa leaves as a remedy for colds, flu, and asthma. It was either smoked or made into a tea by the Miwok, Pomo, and Yuki of Central and Northern California. At times, both leaves and flowers were steeped for tea and drunk for the above ailments as well as stomachache and rheumatism. They were also warmed and used as a poultice on aching or sore areas. Mashed leaves were applied to cuts, wounds, abrasions, and fractured bones to keep swelling down and aid in mending as well as relieve pain. To make tea, tear up 2–3 fresh or dried leaves, and pour boiling water over them. Cover and let steep, add lemon and honey to taste. Some people enjoy chewing on the leaves for a refreshing taste. (AB) Click here for recipe.


Other common names: Spanish Bayonet

Hesperoyucca whipplei, Family: Agavaceae

Description: A perennial shrublike plant with a single or few short stems surrounded by narrow stiff leaves at the expanded base. Flowers are on a central stalk petals and are cream-colored with red-purple tinges. The fruit, which follows flowering, is approximately 17 cm long, fleshy, and resembles a short banana in shape. Blooms May-June.

Uses: Native Americans ate the ripened fruit raw or roasted, usually with the bitter outer skin removed. It was sometimes worked into cakes and dried for future use. Cooked Yucca flower petals make a delicious addition to salads, try them tossed in omelets, add them to tomato or onion soup, or deep fried like squash blossoms. The young short flower stalks can be harvested, cooked and eaten before they blossom. Roots of yucca are high in saponins and are used as a shampoo in Native American rituals as well as a toxin that can stun fish making them easier to gather. Dried yucca leaves and trunk fibers have the lowest ignition temperature of any plant, making it useful in starting fires via friction. The leaves can be made into extremely strong cordage and the sharp tips used as needles. Yucca cordage can be used to make belts, rope, mats, clothing, baskets, fishnets and sandals. Yucca’s strong fibers make it one of the best plants for papermaking.

Yuccas are an excellent example of multi-species collaboration. Over 40 million years, yucca moths have co-evolved into a mutualistic pollinator, transferring pollen from one plant to another while laying their eggs in the yucca flower. The moth larva feeds on the yucca seeds, always leaving enough to continue the species and neither moth nor yucca can survive without one another. What we call nature is in fact made up of these complex alliances and evolution is far more dependent upon collaboration than competition. Learn from this. Click here for recipe.



In NY State there is now more bio-diversity of species to be found in the urban areas than in the forests. This should come as no surprise: suburbs, exurbs, and towns are very complex and compelling ecosystems, full of protected islands and patches made by freeways, setbacks, left over segments of land, tall fences, garden features, railway easements and more. Most of the forests in New York are themselves quite young, coming into being as farmland became less needed over the last 150 years. There has been nothing like what could be called a primeval forest on the east coast for thousands of years – the forests that greeted the first European colonists was a forest ecosystem that had been co-shaped by Lenni-Lenape, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Peoples) and others for thousands of years. The European ideal of “wilderness” or “virgin nature” fueled by a dichotomy of nature vs culture and an unconscious framework of returning to an ideal primeval state (the garden of eden) met something it simply could not recognize: a co-shaped, co-evolved environment (and it is one we still miss if we continue to date ecological change to after 1491).

This brings us to deer – one of our colleagues in the shaping of our current urban landscapes. Deer need to be considered our equal in the making of suburbia – people have moved out of cities and they meet the deer who have moved out of forests – both looking for a similar easy lifestyle. Sadly our vision of suburbia and the deer’s have never come to any sensible shared awareness.

One of the major predators in our modern entangled ecosystems is the automobile. Their hunting practices provide an easy way to track what other species are living with us. It is worth taking careful note of what is to be found at the edges of our roads – this gives us an invaluable glimpse into our ecosystem. Walk or bike these edges of your area every month or so and make notes. Come fall when the weather cools and hovers just above freezing it is time to get some roadkill. Deer is one of the finest of meats and in ready abundance. Keep an eye out when commuting, fresh is best. But it is not a big deal if it is a day or so old. If it looks really bad (smell), just keep looking.

Cars are certainly one of the most pervasive of modern predators in our urban ecosystems and it is a profound tragedy that these carcasses do not make their way into our diets. That said, don’t assume that all these creatures are “wasted”, they are providing much sustenance to other critters from microbes to coyotes, so please be a show good multi-species manners by not taking every fresh squirrel, snake, possum, raccoon or deer (we tend to butcher the deer on the spot and only take what we need – most often the back legs). The worst absurdity is when these are cleared away by municipalities and incinerated or some such similar practice. For the squeamish, just remember the poncy butchers label with the matching price tag: good organic wild local deer does not even exist as you can only buy farmed deer. Enough said.

Harvesting Deer

Getting a deer is a big undertaking from start to finish, so enlist some friends and make a beautiful day of it. This is best done in the cool days at the end of fall when the temperatures will be your friend – cold but not freezing (spring is ok, but the deer with be gaunt from surviving the winter). Decide in advance where you are going to hang it, and butcher it. Prepare this space. Basically a back porch, balcony, fire escape or doorway will work to hang it, and then a good sized table, or driveway to do the butchering, but the kitchen floor will do just fine. The floor is in many ways the best, years ago when we were up on Baffin Island, this is where everything got done from butchering to eating). You’ll need a good sized tarp to keep your car clean. The best is to gut, and drain in the field. If this is not convenient (and most often it is not – it feels a it embarrassing to be cutting up a deer at the side of the road). Once home you are going to need to gut, drain, and skin the deer. Skinning can be tough if the deer stiffens up – which happens after a few hours, best to bring it home and wait a day – the rigor mortis will pass (leave it in the car wrapped up over night). Keep the the heart, liver and kidneys – hell you can keep everything (fur, bones, tendons, intestines, lungs…) these will have many many astonishing possibilities. To drain blood drape the tarp over a door and jerry-rig something to hang the deer over a bucket with the head down – leave for a good few hours. Note: this is all going to depend on where it was hit and killed. Often the blood has already drained into the body cavity and there is no real point in hanging it. Now it is time to butcher, If your dining room table is too nice for this put a tarp or a sheet of plywood on top. Butcher similar to a cow (you can find a nice diagram if you need online, but there is no critical need for this, pay attention to the body, where the muscles lie and bones meet, and divide in a way that makes sense to you). Once butchered, place covered in cheese cloth in fridge to age of at least 10 days (you can skip the cheese cloth. Three weeks is perfect. Note: only age the larger cuts of meat, the ribs and the smaller pieces or thinner pieces should not be aged as they will just dry up or rot.Note: this is going smell less that ideal. It is best to do in a secondary fridge… Oddly a lot of hunters we have talked to on the east coast do not age their deer, and often just get it butchered for them by a service (their meat comes back to them in little neatly labeled freezer bags). This is a great tragedy, don’t believe the stories of deer being too lean to age or some such thing – meat becomes meat via aging. Microbes are breaking things down gently. All cooking is a meeting of species. Our practices of hygiene and product based cooking strive to make this invisible, find your own way out of this stupidity. Let this transformation happen. You will wonder why you ever ate meat any other way. After this you can eat, dry, smoke, ferment, freeze, make sausage… If you have the space, getting a few deer in fall in this manner will keep you in meat through spring or longer. An old fridge will help.

We imagine a year could look like: Mid-November: a deer; early January a deer, the beginning of March a deer. The rest of the year is a good time to get squirrels, canada geese, the odd pigeon, and fish when possible… The ideal would be to eat less meat but far better meat, all wild meat, and all foraged, bartered or gleaned. It does not seem that far fetched. Why not try? Click here for recipe.


Squirrels are a great treat, not much meat, lean like rabbit, plentiful in urban ecosystems and not that hard to catch. You can use a live trap, (that way you can carefully decide what you are going to do with what you trap. It is best not to use snares – as you have not real control over what you will have killed until it is too late (you know where this story will end). The trap feels best. The live trap method: If you get something that you like for eating purposes, then open the trap into a sturdy canvas bag and give it a very good hit with a stick. Please don’t get squeamish at this point. It is important to let things have a good life and a very quick death. If you need help on how to skin squirrels – it is worth a trip to the wonderful world of youtube videos – many an hour can be lost watching various characters teaching one the finer points of skinning a squirrel. One of the many worth catching is: Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall preparing a Squirrel. He gets a wonderful ethical monologue (aka rant) going as he roasts a squirrel . Click here for recipe.

Rabbits, Cooper’s Hawks, Barn Owls

On the border of Harvey Mudd and Pitzer, from the Grove house to the Tongva gardens and on towards the athletic fields an amazing assemblage of animals, humans and plants has come into being. This emergent ecosystem involves several cotton-tail rabbit warrens, cooper’s hawks, barn owls, humans and many plant species. Besides grazing on the grass around the fields, the rabbits have learned to pull vegetables from the compost heap outside of the Grove house. This growing colony of rabbits has not gone un-noticed by other predators, note the hawks and owls roosting in the trees overlooking this area and learn to sense when they hunt. Due to human colonization of the habitats the foxes, mountain lions, wolves, hawks, eagles and owls that once kept rabbits in check have dwindled. The resultant overpopulation of prey species has dramatically transformed ecosystems across the Americas. More than half the world’s rabbit population now resides in North America. Rabbit meat is a source of high quality protein and can be used in most ways chicken meat is used. What does it mean to hunt and eat the meat of an animal you kill? One type of ethics would insist that to kill an animal is to introduce more suffering into the world and, therefore, we should subsist on plants. While we deeply respect this position, we believe that it is only the start of engaging the ethics of eating. It is a mistake to think that consuming plants alone distances one from industrial agri-business. The confluence of capitalism and industrial agriculture, with its focus on corporate profits, involves violence against all nonhuman life forms, whether vegetable or animal. This violence manifests as both an embodied physical act and type of attitude or belief, reducing everything to a utilitarian product stripped of its relations and beauty. We believe there is an immediate and pressing need to rethink how we eat from where we are in such a way that we become of a place, sensing its limits and caring for its futures. How best to do this then enter into communion with all of the species? Hunting and eating rabbit would mean coming to care for the future of the warrens on campus, it would mean negotiating with hawks and owls. This should not be done lightly and will require the utmost in respect and circumspection.

But on the Pitzer Campus and surrounding urban green spaces there are quite a few rabbits. You can see the birds of prey – especially the owls circling overhead looking for a tasty rabbit for dinner. One of the best ways to catch them is with a small live trap (those metal cage traps). Best to be quiet about it as your human neighbors might get squeamish and your non-human neighbors might get jealous. The live trap is important, as snares might catch a cat or any other creature that you are not interested in killing. Have a sturdy bag with you to empty the trap into. Then you need to club the rabbit. Be ready to follow through on this if you are going down this path. An alternative is to raise rabbits. Many city folks the world over do this as it is quite easy. What are the ethics of this? We discuss this on a number of places on this site. Here are two excellent places to start: or: Click here for recipe.


There are a number of mushrooms on campus. Keep you eye out for these and really carefully identify with a good guide book. But you do not have to go far to “find” fungi, they are part of each of us, and surround us (the air around us is a fungal ecosystem). This is not something to get all squeamish about. All life is entangled with fungi, we are only alive because of our symbiotic arrangements with them – they are us. An ideal way to experience our entanglements with fungi is via fermentation. Pretty much any sweet juice left out will spontaneously ferment as it is colonized by airborne fungi. The stomping of grapes with bare feet inoculated grapes to make wine. We offer a few fermentation recipes to take these investigations further. Click here for recipe.