If, like me, you enjoy taking walks around campus, you will notice berries, fruit trees, mushrooms and general foraging potential. Foraging on campus has its downsides and dangers: many plants are consciously planted and decorative. However, you can still fulfill some forest-dwelling fantasies. Here are a few major plants that, if you can identify them, are safe to eat.
Oregon grapes, the state flower, are everywhere around campus, and around Oregon as a whole. They can be identified by their blue berries, serrated leaves and red stem.
“They have these shiny, hard leaves that are kind of spiny,” Julia Litz ’22, an assistant leader for College Outdoors, said. “Many don’t like them, but some people find them interesting.”
My personal review: they are great if you like sour candies.
Salal is another native plant, which will be back in season mid-spring. They have definitive leathery leaves, and the berries are blue-black when ripe. A few salal shrubs can be found around Forest Hall.
“Salal has berries I really like, they’re very bitter as well,” Benji Bromberg ’22, an assistant leader for College Outdoors, said.
There is a variety of fruit trees on the graduate campus, and it is worth the walk to go and investigate. One large apple tree bears good fruit, and there are also fig trees, among others.
“The grad campus has blackberries, which are a non-native plant, but it’s more commonly known,” Litz said. “People can identify them easily because there isn’t really anything else that looks like blackberries.”
If you have noticed those strange looking fruits on the trees outside J.R. Howard Hall, they can be identified as Cornus capitata, a non-native plant with the common name Betham’s Cornel, and they are edible. Using an app called “iNaturalist,” which connects users to a community of naturalists that can help identify plants and animals, Litz classified them as such. After washing a few ripe ones (which you should always do, especially because of pesticide use), I tested them out: the skin is tough and bitter, but the inside is decidedly sweeter, almost like an overripe banana.
Foraging possibilities extend beyond just fruits.
“The Douglas fir, which is the state tree of Oregon, has needles with very high citrus content, and you can make tea out of them,” Litz said. “You can also bite or suck on the needles for the same flavor.”
Tea from the needles gives a distinct citrus pine taste. The same can be done with Ponderosa pine needles, but they are tougher to eat and generally less enjoyable to chew on.
Other edible plants include dandelions, miner’s lettuce and licorice fern.
“The roots of the licorice fern, called the rhizomes, you can dig up,” Bromberg said. “Chewing on them gives a licorice taste. People like to use them in teas.”
We also have a lot of mushrooms growing around campus, but be advised: never eat a mushroom you are not absolutely certain of, and never eat mushrooms raw. College Outdoors offers mushroom clinic day trips that teach safe identification and mushroom collection.
In general, bearing in mind the nativity of plants when foraging helps one appreciate how indigenous cultures have used them.
“There are super complex backstories for pretty much every plant on campus that’s native, in terms of what native people that lived here would use them for,” Bromberg said. “But since we are a college, we also plant stuff for decoration, so there are non-native plants here.”
Not every plant is safe: keep an eye out for snowberries, also known as gooseberries, that grow in clusters of white berries. These are poisonous to humans. In general, be wary of what you eat: safe foraging requires confident identification.
For plants you have identified and want to eat, wash them thoroughly before you eat or prepare them, keeping in mind insecticide use and general dirt and bugs.
“Know what you’re eating and wash what you’re eating,” Bromberg said. “But besides that, go at it!”