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Pulling up the roots on foraging

 May 14, 2024 at 5:22 PM PDT

S1: Welcome in San Diego , it's Jade Hindman. On today's show , we're talking about foraging , the act of searching the land for sources of food. And we'll talk about the history and the culture behind it. This is midday Edition , connecting our communities through conversation. In an age of supermarkets and takeout , it might seem unusual to go out in nature and pick food , but the act of foraging is actually becoming more popular. That's the practice of gathering plants , fruits and fungi , and you can forage for many things beyond just edible food. We want to pull up the roots on foraging. Talk about where it started and what it is and why. It's a great way to reconnect with nature. I'm joined now by Pascal Ganiyu. He's an evolutionary biologist and a professor at UCSD. And professor , welcome.

S2: Oh , it's a pleasure to be here.

S1: So glad to have you here. I hear your interest in foraging started in childhood. Tell me about that. Yes.

S2: I grew up as a city kid. I was lucky to have a grandmother who lived in the mountains and knew a lot about wild edibles. She was also a gardener. But every summer I would go and visit her for six weeks at a time and we'd harvest dandelions and stinging nettles and chanterelles and chestnuts and all kinds of things. Wow.

S1: Wow. I mean , it can be seen as a as kind of a novelty , but it's actually a thousand years old. This practices. Um , tell me about that.

S2: So my interest is in human origins. So obviously it's not lost on me that humans as a species have been around for about 300,000 years and farming is younger than 10,000 years. So that means for the vast majority of all our ancestors existence , they got they started every day asking themselves , what will I find today that I can eat ? And in a way , there is some resonance in that that even though I shop at various supermarkets , most of my food I do garden. But that's just for fun. There is a special joy in finding things that you can eat that seems safe away from dogs and pollution and pesticides and so forth. And so you have to be you have to think about where you pick things and know where not to pick things. But so far , it's mostly been very pleasurable. And as a teacher , of course , it's a it's a fantastic opportunity to convey all kinds of concepts to my undergrad and graduate students alike.

S1: For yourself , when learning what to eat and what not to eat.

S2: I do. What humans do best is we share brains , right ? We can. We have language. Unlike our our ape cousins , they have communications , but they can't really tell stories. So my grandmother could show me and explain to me in words how to pick a a stinging nettle without being stung. A chimpanzee would have to do trial and error because chimpanzees don't teach. So a lot of what I've learned studying botany , and I'm a biologist by trade as a zoologist , but I consider animals highly concentrated plant matter because all animals eventually rely either on another animal that ate plants or they directly eat plants. So I've learned a lot , both in my studies and through friends and family , about what is edible and what not. And then when you have a certain sense of botany , you also start recognizing families like the splurges that are , you know , almost everything in the spurge family is highly poisonous. So then you , you know , you're a bit more careful and you read up. If you don't know the plant , you ask your friends who are botanists or horticulturalists or farmers. And these days , with Google and Wikipedia you can do quite a lot of checking. So yes.

S1: This is true. It's a lot. Yeah , yeah. All the answers that you need are right at your fingertips. It seems you've actually bought a couple of things that you foraged here just this morning. What do you have. It's a big basket that you've got. And I see all sorts of colors and it's pretty fragrant too.

S2: So your team reached out to me and asked , how is it possible that you could bring something ? And I actually , I got that email yesterday , but I only paid attention to it this morning. So , okay , let me jump on my bicycle. And then I put a bass , a pannier in the back of my bicycles to to collect things. And I started one block at a time from my home. And the first thing I collected were a couple of a , um , these , these bean like things that are now they're not completely mature , but they are called carob , carob trees. They are from the Mediterranean. And they're really interesting because you can make a type of fake chocolate from carob powder. And so they're actually really nutritious pods that have little seeds. And the seeds are themselves very interesting because the word carrot comes from the carob seed. The species name is serotonin or serotonin silica.

S1: And it goes on , it.

S2: Grows all along the the roads of LA and and San Diego. It's a very interesting tree that has made. Trees and female tree that's relatively rare. And the the flowers are pollinated by flies , which is why it makes a scent that is not very pleasant and that I cannot describe on the radio for fear of. Oh.

S3: Oh. Okay.

S1: Okay.

S2: So if you everybody has noticed these trees when they blow.

S1: Sewage kind of scent.

S2: Um , let me put it this way. One of the components the flowers produce is called spur mydin.

S3: All right. We can leave it at that. All right , well , uh.

S1: But it does make a chocolate substitute.

S2: I'm a Swiss chocolate snob , so I would say , no , it's not chocolate , but it's very tasty and it's nutritious. It turns out there is a polysaccharide in this pod that has been almost depleted by the fracking industry because when they frack for gas , they have to inject a fluid that holds the pressure in the rock that they crack. And so they extract a polysaccharide that makes an emulsion a very thick goop. So they've actually used a product from this pod to extract gas. And they still are using it , which is remarkable. Wow.

S1: Wow. Very interesting. I mean , it seems like there are just so many purposes for forging. You can even make things right. Like.

S2: Yes. I brought a couple of ropes. So , so cordage , which is making rope with plant fiber is fascinating because it's a very old technology that of course , we have no idea how old it is because it doesn't fossilize. So if you think back , you know , in the last 2 million years , our ancestors miniaturized their body hair. All of us still have hair follicles all over our bodies. But compared to a chimpanzee or another great ape , we don't have enough hair for infants to hold on to moms. So I would argue the most important tool in human evolution was the baby sling , which you could make with an animal skin. Or if you don't have an animal skin , you make fiber and then you macrame something like a bag or a little hammock. And now you can carry your infant , which people all around the world used to do until very , very recently. These days , we rediscovering the advantages of carrying your infant around , both for dad and mom. Of course , that cannot breastfeed.

S1: Well , you teach a course at UCSD about , you know , the evolution of the human diet.

S2: You know , I had a professor in Switzerland who talked about the fact that love goes through the stomach. There's very few people you cannot reach via food. And humans are they ? We stand out because we have become addicted to cooking. All human societies cook their food. Even people in the high Arctic who have no fuel , they have a little bit of driftwood , but they actually use animal fat to make a flame , and then they cook their food over that. And so the idea that humans use a cultural invention , cooking that is now become a biological necessity is incredible. So food is it puts biology and genetic evolution and cultural evolution together , you know , in a very , very intuitive way.

S1: All about the evolution that's so fascinating and fascinating that you're able to sort of to tie culture and human evolution in with foraging. I mean , that's a that's an interesting lens to look , look at it through. That's. Yes.

S2: Yes. And that's the starting point , of course , where I aim to go is to talk about all the things that are wrong with food. Now , the fact that , you know , the US went from 30% obesity to 42% obesity in ten years. It's the first time in the history of our species that we can eat all the time , and we're told what to eat all the time. And , you know , PR works and something like a potato chip. It just hacks your brain. There is no way I can put down a bag with a potato chip. And if I'm watching TV and eating it , yeah , by the time I'm done , I don't realize I inhaled my whole package. Right ? Because it's the the tooth feel is fantastic. The fat is there , the salt is there , the yummy flavor is there. So it's a huge problem. We have to eat. You know , it's not like tobacco , right ? You can you can live without tobacco , but you cannot live without food. But now we all swim in it and we have to reconsider our relationship with food. So obviously a big part of that class is how can we help each other find a reasonable way of , you know , eating socially , sharing meals , spending a lot of time thinking about what we prepare , preparing it together. Using ingredients that are healthy rather than just , you know , stopping at in and out or another fast food and inhaling a burger , going 65 miles an hour on the highway.

S3: Well , let's let's.

S1: Get into that more because I'm sure there's the availability of food. That's that's one issue. But the other issue is how our bodies are metabolizing and processing the food that's on the store shelf or in a fast food , um , joint. It's , it's there's a lot of additives. There are a lot of chemicals. And can you call it food ? And and how does the body react to that. No.

S3: No.

S2: That's a it's a really important question on the topic of chemicals. You know , every food by definition is chemical because all these plants are made up of molecules. And so , so chemicals are not bad as such because you need to eat all the chemicals that you find in healthy natural food. When you you mentioned chemicals , you probably mean things like preservatives and things that are not really foods , but they're added to these highly processed foods , for example , to make them easier to pump and and and fill into your little portions.

S3: So high fructose. Corn.

S1: Corn. Syrup.

S3: Syrup.

S2: Uh , yeah. Absolutely. Which allowed the US to free itself from from sugar , sugar cane sugar using the excess corn. So what you say is , is , is a huge issue in terms of is the food that our kids and we eat. Now , how is that even like the food that our great grandparents were eating. And there's probably a safe argument to be made that eating more like your great grandparents is likely to be healthier than to consume all your food from ultra processed , packaged stuff that you have a minimum connection to. You don't know where it comes from. You spend zero time preparing it. You just pop it in the microwave or , you know , take have a take out or something like that. So I'm a big advocate for don't eat foods that have more than ten ingredients and cook foods that you put at least ten different things in , because then it won't be just the same stuff.

S3: What do you hear from.


S2: The foraging is really for fun for the , you know , the the thrill of discovering something cool. I prepare most our our meals at home for my family from scratch. I don't like to use mixes , and in fact , I have a meal that is on my kitchen island where we I grind my own grain. Not because I think it's necessarily healthier , but it makes really tasty bread. If you take rye and emmer and different grains and use some of the grain in the bread freshly ground , it just tastes wonderful. Uh , but what ? Back to the students. What I have heard from several students , especially after Covid , because I've been teaching this class for eight years now , is several students have contacted me and said , oh , Pascal , you know , you really saved me because I started cooking after I took your class and that saved me during the Covid. So that that warms my heart.

S1: Oh that's excellent. Well , I mean , say someone is interested in foraging , what advice do you have for them ? Like , you know , are there certain plants they should avoid , certain areas they should avoid or.

S2: Almost certainly , yes. And the first thing to avoid is if you know that people walk their dogs there , it's probably better not to collect anything that is from a height lower than a dog.

S3: Can lift their leg. Um.

S2: And another place to avoid is probably along really busy , um , freeways just because of all the pollution from the from traffic. Another problematic area is in in wetlands , if you had floods and sewage spills , that would be extremely dangerous to collect things that you then eat raw. So you're safer with things that are higher up. Uh , trees , fruit. Um , but there are plenty of , of like green , leafy things that are higher , like , like this Brussels sprout I found in La Hoya this morning. There's enough leaves there. You can , you know , you make a beautiful meal of chop , you know , like collard greens or something like that. You saute that in a walk with some mushrooms or some tofu or some meat if you'd like. Um , so there are just so many plants. My , my goal was to , you know , collect at least 100 different edible plants between my home in North PB and UC San Diego , and so on my web page , I have a collection. I just reordered them. I put the the native plants first. And so I have something like 15 native plants , and then the other 85 are from all over the world. They're from places that have cold oceans and a hot inland like southern South America , Western Australia and South Africa. And , uh , there's so many of them.

S1: I've been speaking with Pascal Ganiyu. He's an anthropology professor at UCSD. Pascal , thank you so much.

S2: Thank you so much today.

S1: And if you want to find out more about all the things you can forage , go to K. Coming up , more on the cultural practice of foraging.

S4: How I view foraging is being present with the plant relatives , all the plant trees , the fungi kingdom and the spirit world at the same time.

S1: Midday edition is back after the break. You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition , I'm Jade Hindman. The act of foraging might be gaining some steam in the mainstream , but the Kumeyaay people have been doing it for thousands of years. Paul Cannon joins me now. He's a medicine maker and member of the San Pasqual Reservation. He's forged for many years. Paul , it's great to have you here. Welcome.

S5: Welcome.

S4: Thanks for having me.

S1: So glad you're here. So I mentioned you're a medicine maker. Tell us what that means and how forging complements that.

S4: You know , when you're a part of a tribe , a people , a village , a circle , everyone kind of has the role for me. Medicine , um , through my music , through using sage , making tinctures , topical balms , using native plants , uh , using plants to heal my babies , to heal other babies. Someone that's just kind of intuitive. I'm intuitive with the spirit world , with the plant world , and how to bring the spirit world to this physical medium.

S1: It's great. I mean , forging is a long time tradition for the Kumeyaay people.

S4: That's just what we had around. You used what you got. You got plants , you got trees. For every illness , there's a plant that can cure it. So in this immediate region that we inhabited , that's just the natural progression. We would , um , use , use the oak to build use it for food , use it for shelter. Um , so foraging is like one part of a greater picture of just embodiment with nature. So how I view foraging is being present with the plant relatives , all the plant trees , the fungi kingdom and the spirit world at the same time. So what that looks like in specific terms today is identifying the plants off the freeway. I could tell you which plants are native and not native , um , native plants , meaning they use less resources , less water. They work in union. Um , so those ones , they also have benefits. Every time there's a colored flower , that means there's some part that you need that flower , and it's going to activate a certain part of your body that you might need. So , uh , the flowers speak to us , but if they're native , they'll speak to us at the right time when we need something for our body.

S3: Yeah , well.

S1: Walk us through a typical day of foraging.

S4: It depends where I'm at. I was in Manhattan doing an art demonstration with the Guggenheim. I can find stuff just growing on people's balconies. Uh , when I'm in my foothills , on my reservation , it's mostly native plants. There's some naturalized plants , but what it looks like is a divine communion. So recognizing all the properties and the principles and the complicated details that are there that I don't understand allows me to hold like this superior reverence for everything that's greater than me , that I don't control , which is pretty much everything I don't control much. So foraging looks like not. Am I only going to pick berries in the right time and season ? Not only am I going to Palomar Mountain to get the best acorns that are the biggest in the largest have the most fat , it's a relationship. It's a journey. Like every footstep I take there , I'm walking deeper into a connection. It's like going to my grandma's house. And so it'd be like saying , I just go to my grandma's house and I take a cookie. It's way deeper for indigenous peoples of recognizing that , like it's it's it's a connection. And so you go to refill not only your basket , um , your physical basket , but your emotional cup , your physical cup and your mental cups as well by being in relationship. So for me , it's seasonal right now. Um , you know , I grow sage in mugwort year round. I'll use sage if I get sick , if I get congested. So I will just go and pick sage , the unsafe harvesting areas that are reservations planted or in my in my garden where I grow it. So foraging is also like , oh , I need this. So it's kind of like shopping , but it's a more conscious way of doing it. Yeah.

S3: Yeah.

S1: I mean , you know , a lot of the plants that you're harvesting or foraging are for healing. You mentioned sage and mugwort. Anything else that you that you forage for those purposes.

S4: You know , a nice one is a elderberry. You can use it in so many ways. So say , um , you know , my child's sick elderberry syrup , so I want to make some pancakes. I can use that syrup on there. It has antioxidants. Uh , I forget the other terms or the other things in it. I'm not a scientist , but what I do know is that this tree is the tree of music as well. So the branches are hollow. Cocoa Pele would use that tree and make flutes out of it. So you can make a flute while you're getting some berries. And the flowers. If you make a tea , there's just so many things you can do with it. Um , menstrual cramps , um , emotional fatigue , just boosting your immune system. So that one's really fun. There's a lot of versatile plants. You're like , oh , I didn't know you could use this.

S1: How do you use sage for for colds.

S4: So with black you want to use black button sage. And as a disclaimer , sage in the state of California , you're not really. It's like an endangered species. You're not really supposed to be out there publicly foraging for it. It's illegal in the eyes of the state. So I'm speaking as an indigenous persons that we do have our own nation , we do have our own governance , and we do our best to be good relatives and allies. So what I do with the sage , the black button sage , is you want to steep a couple leaves with most medicinal plants. If you take a couple leaves and you steep them for a few minutes , you drink a cup of tea 2 to 3 times a day for two weeks. You can clear up so much stuff in your body. It's a diuretic. It's a antifungal and antibacterial. So if you're struggling with infection , bacteria , you know what's happening in Western society is that the food we're eating is dead. So we end up becoming dead and taking active plants , drinking a nice native tea allows us to come back to life.

S3: Uh , do.


S4: Yes. Most definitely it is. You know , things that are sacred and unique to specific cultures , like my culture , Kumeyaay culture. They're prized and they're kept in the in the family , in the circles. So there is a lack of understanding and education. So that may turn into what could look like abuse or misuse or appropriation. Um , but I wouldn't go as far to say that people have an ill intention by utilizing a sage bundle , by using an abalone shell or foraging for native plants. I think no man owns the earth. We're all a part of it. We're all here together. And if somebody wants to learn and improve or heal , I think it's our duty to educate , inspire and connect. Yeah.

S3: Yeah. Well , I'm curious.


S4: Like I just said about stages is it's interesting , especially in San Diego , it can feel like where can I go to be free on the land ? I don't know , I know from my personal experience , if I want to just go freely , walk on some property , I have to go to a park that's organized by the state , by the federal government. But like. All these things. There's so much red tape and for good reason. There's we have a lot of people in this city. And so and that's that is colonization. When you remove the connection to the land , when you separate the grandchildren from the grandparents , when you separate the people from their resources , what we call resources today , then people become dependent on a system , on a Western system that's designed to keep you dependent and addicted. So the options to go forward freely are extremely limited. But if you're wild , like me and a rebel , hey man , we live once. Like no one's going to catch you if you're respectful and use some plants. And the most responsible way now is to grow your own , just like cannabis. Another thing people don't recognize is if you stop off the side of the road to go forage , you might be getting a ton of pesticides from the city because they just drive and spray the whole side of the road , so you never want to do that. Um , so I would say colonization is has just limited it. It limits access today and drastically.

S1: And so now you've actually thought about teaching others about foraging in particular edible foods.

S4: I love other people. I love that people have a desire to learn. So do I on both sides of the fence. So , you know , I'm native and I'm American and , um , I have a lot of relatives and family that are not native. And , you know , I don't want to shun people. I don't like it when people kick me out of things or make me feel excluded , which they don't make me , but I can feel excluded. So it's just a part of my heart. It's part of my , um , just me. I want to give. I want to educate. I want to expand people's consciousness , awareness so that they avoid more suffering. I think we all would like that. Yeah.

S3: Yeah.


S4: You know , it's wonderful to be curious. And if you come with an open heart that people will , they'll they'll educate , they'll love on you , they'll send you in the right direction. And I would highly encourage people to get closer to the plant kingdom and to the other kingdoms of this world that maybe we ignore or were too distracted. And I think the greater like the gateway to that , the gatekeeper is the plants. It's everything that's around us. They're everywhere. And once we learn the difference between natives , non-native plants like , why are they called that ? Um , the benefits of native fruits , um , different root vegetables that grow wild , different grapes. We have tons of native grapes around here. If you just start tripping out , you start going in a different direction. It's really good for the brain to have both sides , to get closer to nature in a respectful , honorable way and still do the 9 to 5 grind or whatever it is we do. So I would say just add it in great advice.

S1: I've been speaking with Paul Cannon , medicine maker and forager and member of the San Pascal Reservation. Paul , thank you very much for joining us.

S4: Thank you so much for having me. And if people want to get Ahold of me , they can go to Paul Sage and they can find more about me , my mission and my music.

S1: That's our show for today. I'm your host , Jade Hindman. Thanks for tuning in to Midday Edition. Be sure to have a great day on purpose , everyone.

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A spread of plants, fruits and flower sit in the Midday Edition studio, May 13, 2024.
Julianna Domingo
A spread of plants, fruits and flower sit in the Midday Edition studio, May 13, 2024.
UCSD professor Pascal Gagneux stands in the Midday Edition studio, May 13, 2024.
Julianna Domingo
UCSD professor Pascal Gagneux stands in the Midday Edition studio, May 13, 2024.

In an age of supermarkets, take-out and food delivery, it might seem unusual to go out in nature and pick food. But foraging, the age-old practice of gathering plants, fruits, and fungi, is becoming popular.

On this Midday Edition episode, we pulled up the roots of foraging, discussed what it is, and explained why it’s a great way to reconnect with nature.

Plus, Kumeyaay people have foraged for thousands of years. We talk about foraging as a cultural, healing and spiritual practice.

(You can find UC San Diego professor Pascal Gagneux's resource for local foraging here.)


  • Pascal Gagneux, evolutionary biologist and professor of anthropology at UC San Diego
  • Paul Sage Cannon, medicine maker and member of the San Pasqual reservation