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California Foraging: 3 species you didn’t know were edible

by Timber Press on October 2, 2014

in Food

Black nightshade, madrone, and California bay laurel. Three common species most people don't know are edible.

Black nightshade, madrone, and California bay laurel. Three common species most people don’t know are edible.

Rediscover these common plants with help from California Foraging author Judith Larner Lowry.

One foggy summer day near the coast, I discovered an unexpected treasure trove of California hazelnut bushes. They were loaded with sweet, mild nuts that were ripe and ready to eat. I found a comfortable place to sit, a rock to crack the shells, and settled in for a session of hazelnut appreciation. To other hikers on the trail, I was hidden from view by the hazel’s leafy branches. Soon, I heard two parents cajoling their children onward up the trail. The children sounded tired and complained about being hungry and bored. I thought momentarily of having them join me in my cozy fort under the hazel and sharing the bounty.

While I considered it, they disappeared up the path. Maybe I should have called out to them: There is delicious food here. Come join me.

I didn’t then, but I am calling out to you now. There is delicious food all around us.

Bay-Laurel-01California bay laurel
Umbellularia californica

The leaves of this native tree are frequently used as seasoning, but the nuts are less well-known, a unique ingredient awaiting discovery by modern cooks.

Both Californians and Oregonians are proprietary about this widespread tree of many uses and legendary beauty. Its mossy trunks give a fairytale aspect to deep woods, and the objects made from its lumber are many and highly esteemed. The wood is still gaining in popularity, being increasingly used for flooring (the steps of my study) and for the sides and backs of acoustic guitars. The intoxicating aroma of California bay laurel’s dark green leaves may be familiar to most, because its leaves are sometimes sold interchangeably with those of the European bay laurel (Laurus nobilis).

How to identify

California bay laurel is a handsome evergreen tree with shiny, green, lance-shaped leaves about 3 inches long, each with a very short leaf stem (petiole). The plant assumes different shapes depending on where it grows, from a neatly pruned, almost topiary look where coastal winds sculpt it, to a tree almost as broad as tall in the deep woods. When aging, it sports venerable pendulous branches, with mosses finding a hospitable niche on its scaly bark.

The heady, pungent fragrance of the leaves—somewhat resembling eucalyptus though sweeter—is an unmistakable tipoff to the tree’s presence. The bark is usually reddish brown. The flowers appear as tiny clusters of greenish white, snugged up against the upper leaf axils (junctions of leaf and stem). The fruit somewhat resembles a greenish olive, the fleshy outer covering turning purple and softening as it matures. The tan kernel inside is the edible part.

Where and when to gather

California bay laurel is a common tree found growing in canyons, valleys, and chaparral in the Coast Ranges of California, and from Oregon to Baja, and also on the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada below 4,000 feet. The buds appear in winter, in the leaf axils, and can be gathered in early spring, appearing as tiny umbels of greenish white blooms. The nuts ripen in October and November. The leaves can be gathered year-round.

How to gather

Bay nuts can be picked directly from the tree when the husk is soft, or gathered from the ground when they have fallen. Unlike acorns, they are usually not susceptible to insect invasion, so gathering them from the ground is not a problem. Bay leaves, when dried to a pale gold, either still on the tree or on the ground, have a mellower flavor than the dark green leaves and are preferred by some.

How to use

Remove and discard the fleshy husk that surrounds the bay nut. Roast the nuts in the shell in the oven at 350ºF for about forty-five minutes, stirring them occasionally to make sure they don’t burn. Once they are cooled, crack the shells, releasing the nuts. Eat the nuts whole or grind them in a grinder. Grinding them releases enough oils that the meal can be formed into small balls about the size of a walnut. To make the classic Pomo dish behechune, wrap native clover around these nut balls. Adding sweetener to the bay nut meal brings out a flavor that resembles chocolate. With maple syrup, they make an intriguing shortbread.

Add bay leaves to stews, soups, and roasts, to contribute a rich flavor to a dish. Almost twice as strong as the European bay leaf, California bay laurel leaves require fewer to make an impact. Remove from the dish before serving. The buds can also be used for a more delicate seasoning.

Black-Nightshade-01Black nightshade
Solanum americanum

For many years, the innocent and edible black nightshade, probably from South America, has been confused with a toxic plant called deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, which has distinctly different leaves, flowers, and fruit.

Black nightshade leaves are widely eaten greens through many parts of the world. And the ripe berries, with a taste somewhere between blueberry and tomato, make a unique and well-loved sauce, pie, or salsa. On the north and central coasts, where cool, foggy summers can make it hard to grow tomatoes, black nightshade is a find. Why has black nightshade been falsely accused? It’s a familiar story of the repetition of undocumented, untested information. The differences in appearance between the two species are clear, the most obvious being that black nightshade has tiny white flowers, whereas deadly nightshade has larger tubular purple flowers.

How to identify

Black nightshade is an annual that can act like a biennial or a perennial, depending on when it germinated and the temperature and rainfall occurring during its lifetime. It grows about 2 feet high and 3 feet wide, and is usually wider than it is tall. The alternate leaves are medium green when young, dark green when older, and ovate with toothed margins. Small, white, five-petaled flowers are surrounded by a calyx (united sepals, or the leaflike structures cupping the flower) that is not attached to the fruit. The berries that follow grow in bunches and are shiny and smooth, first green, then deep black and glossy when ripe. They are about the size of an English pea, about 1/4 inch in diameter.

Where and when to gather

Black nightshade grows throughout the California Floristic Province. The berries ripen in July and August. Gather only completely ripe berries, black with no green lines remaining. In November and December, black nightshade germinates, appearing almost overnight. Young leaves, identified by their lighter green color, can be harvested for greens until the plant flowers. Greens from plants growing from the previous summer may be bitter. On the coast, where fog supplies the moisture for seed germination, new young plants continue to appear in August, ripening berries in September and October.

How to gather

Berries are picked by hand individually. It is not uncommon to find flowers, unripe fruit, and ripe fruit on the plant at the same time. Collect only the completely black fruit. Young leaves are snipped or plucked from the plant.

How to use

Eat ripe, cooked berries in jams, pies, sauces, applesauce, salsas, and chutneys. Or eat them raw in salads. Add to garnish roasted vegetables just at the end of cooking. The taste and texture are like very small cherry tomatoes, with an extra-rich, deep, tart but slightly sweet flavor all their own. Boil young leaves for 15 minutes.


Initially, eat leaves and berries well cooked and in small quantities, to ensure that you have no allergic reaction to them. Only eat young leaves and fully ripe berries. The black, round fruits of the true deadly nightshade could conceivably be mistaken for the fruit of black nightshade, but the flowers, never. So identify the plant by the flowers, not solely by the berries.


Arbutus menziesii

Made into a tea, the curling red bark of madrone has an indescribable many-layered taste, with woodsy overtones of fruit and cinnamon.

One of the most striking trees on the West Coast, madrone is hard to miss, with its large, thick, tropical-looking leaves, delicate but showy white flowers, red berries, and fascinating reddish orange bark that sheds in pieces. Though madrone has delicious-looking red-orange berries, they are not compelling in their taste. The unique bark, made into tea or stock, may contribute the most to our culinary possibilities. It calls to the creative cook: “Use me.”

How to identify

Madrone is a sun-loving tree that sends its trunk and limbs in search of the sky. The white urn-shaped flowers in spring, on tiny stalks attached to spikelets, are followed by scarlet-sienna berries. The most compelling identifying feature is the bark, with its dark gray, rough, checkered outer bark that peels off to reveal, on older trunks, rich dark red, smooth inner skin, and on younger trees, a lighter bark that is orange or light green. The evergreen leaves are 3 to 5 inches long, and 3 inches wide, with an upper surface that is bright green and glossy, and a whitish, leathery underside. Madrones can grow to 40 feet in height and 2 feet in diameter.

Where and when to gather

You will find madrone trees growing with Douglas fir, tanoak, and other oak trees, in a forested belt east of the redwoods, up to 3,000 feet. They grow in both the inner and outer Coast Ranges from northern to southern California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and in the Transverse Ranges. In June, July, and August, harvest the red bark as it dries and peels off in long, shaggy curls.

How to gather

The bumpy-skinned berries, which look like globular carnelians, are fairly bland. The beautiful flowers, though edible, are best left on the tree. Instead, harvest the red bark as it peels off. The bark can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to a year.

How to use

Make a tea with the bark by pouring boiling water over the dry curls and simmering until the water is dark red. Use the infusion in cooking grains and as a flavoring in making custards, ice cream, stews, or in any situation where a flavorful, colorful broth is needed.


Lowry_auphoto-WEBJudith Larner Lowry has been the proprietor of Larner Seeds, specialists in California native plants and seeds, for the last 35 years. Lowry is a longtime contributor to Orion magazine, BayNature magazine, and numerous other journals.


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The diversity of California’s terrain and climate are a forager’s dream.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Craig June 11, 2015 at 7:04 pm

I tried nightshade berries when I was in Texas a couple of years ago. I live in Orange County. Can you tell me specifically where nightshade grows in my area?

My number is 949 467-0025

Thank you!

2 Craig June 11, 2015 at 7:05 pm

I tried the nightshade berries in Texas a few years ago. Can you tell me, specifically, where I can find them in Orange County, CA?


3 Brian Ridder June 15, 2015 at 2:05 pm

Hi Craig. 1st: Don’t mistake black nightshade (Solanum americanum) for deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). Black nightshade has tiny white flowers, deadly nightshade has larger tubular purple flowers. 2nd: Start your search at the edge of woodland or chaparral where black nightshade gets a bit of shade. Not likely to find this species in the middle of a greassy field or deep woods. 3rd: Enjoy the hunt. Good luck!

4 Michael sears March 31, 2018 at 3:22 pm

“Black nightshade is highly variable, and poisonous plant experts advise to avoid eating the berries unless they are a known edible strain.” From Wikipedia

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