California is abundant with wild edible plants. Indigenous people and early settlers of California used wild plants not only for medicinal properties but also for food. However, some wild plants are poisonous when ingested. Before adding one to your dinner salad, confirm that you have identified it correctly. Carry a reputable field guide when scouting, one that includes images or sketches. Avoid wild plants near roadsides as they may have been sprayed with pesticides.
Miner's Lettuce, an edible plant native to California, derived its name from the miners of the Gold Rush who ate the leaves to prevent scurvy. The smallish leaves are circular or kidney-shaped with tiny white flowers at the leaf's center. "Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide" describes the young upper leaves and stems as "excellent as picked or in salads." Leaves can also be steamed to replace spinach or kale. This spring plant often grows in clusters in and around forested areas, commonly under eucalyptus trees. You can also find it in California's southern and central oak woodland.
Lemon Balm is a perennial herb with a bushy appearance. Related to the mint family, it has pale, green leaves that are fleshy and deeply veined. Though it's known more commonly as a medicinal herb, you can substitute it for fresh lemon grass when cooking. The Herb Society of America describes lemon balm as a versatile herb that can flavor foods from beverages and appetizers to main courses and desserts. Lemon balm is found in sandy and coastal scrub areas.
Wild hyacinth has grass-like leaves surrounding a blossom stalk. The shoot is topped by lavender-to-blue-colored flowers that have undulating petals. Only the bulbs of the wild hyacinth (not to be mistaken for the common hyacinth, which is toxic) are edible. Charlotte Bringle Clarke, author of "Edible and Useful Plants of California," notes that you should take extreme care to make sure the flower is attached to the bulb. Otherwise, you may mistake it for the toxic death-camas, which has white or cream-colored flowers and may grow alongside wild hyacinth. You can eat wild hyacinth bulbs raw or cooked like potatoes with a sweet, nutlike flavor. Wild hyacinth is found in grassy and open desert areas or in pine forests such as the Yellow Pine Forest.
The wood rose is a perennial native to California. It is a bristly shrub with fragrant deep pink flowers whose petals and hips are edible (rose hips are the fruit that follow the blossoms). "The Joy of Cooking" suggests the petals and hips can be steeped in hot water for tea, or made into jelly or soup. Dried rose hips may be eaten raw and are a rich source of vitamin C. The wild wood rose is found on moist wooded slopes or along shaded stream banks. Look for it in the Yellow Pine Forest, coastal scrub and California chaparral grassland areas.