wild figs 

The streets of Los Angeles may look grimy, cracked and dotted with cramped murals from block to block, but for the hungry Angelino looking a bit deeper, there is food to be found on these streets. Wholesome, delicious, untamed food. As a novice city forager-in-training, I’ve recently gotten turned on in a big way to the hidden bounty of fruits, herbs and greens growing everywhere in this crowded city. Hiding right in front of our eyes, we are surrounded by wild foods… just waiting to be eaten. Want a bite?

It’s early fall, and while the sun is bright and hot as ever in Los Angeles, our farmers market selections are slowly turning autumnal: Squashes, roots and game meats are making their first appearances. Similarly, on the streets and in the yards of our neighborhoods, there’s an abundance of wild green figs, persimmons and hardy herbs making their premier showing of the season.

I live on the east side of town in uber-trendy Silverlake, where our local farmers market bursts with hipsters, school teachers, farmers, chefs and families alike each Saturday morning on Sunset Boulevard. I wonder how many of these food mongers are aware that you need not pay $5 a box to get your sweet, succulent fig fix, or that you can grab a few sprigs of intensely aromatic, woody rosemary from virtually any street corner in our ‘hood. Maybe they know, but they’re afraid to take the food.

I’m not.

In my unassuming eight-unit apartment complex, our patio sidewalks are lined with overgrown native bushes, trees and palms. Amid the confusing array of greenery are a few pairs of fig trees, which must have been producing fruits last fall (when I moved into this place), but I hadn’t been open-eyed enough to catch notice. And directly in front of my unit stands a tall, robust tree, providing lovely shade and a cooling effect on my unit… and also a terribly dreadful smell, reminiscent of rotting compost and a broken sewer pump. It’s taken me almost a full year of living here to realize that the constant, low-lying smell permeating around my unit was, in fact, coming directly from this tree—a persimmon tree. At least now I can eat the fruits the tree is producing as some form of personal retribution.

For lunch yesterday, a lentil and green fig pilaf with local (i.e. neighborhood-found) lemons and rosemary. Later tonight, I’ll try something new with a persimmon from my smelly ol’ patio tree.

Angelinos, and other urban dwellers lucky enough to live where wild fruits secretly thrive, don’t be afraid to break off a leaf and have a taste if the plant smells like lemon verbena; it probably is. Or if you walk upon a freshly fallen citrus fruit, it’s okay, pick it up and bring it home (abiding local laws regarding trespassing, of course). You may not find enough food to make an entire grocery’s list out of, but you’ll certainly have found something worth more than a few bucks’ savings: Delicious secrets of a local garden.

Image: Kimberley Stakal

Author’s note: It’s my understanding that foraging for wild food in Los Angeles is legal, provided the fruit is coming from a tree that is either on public property or hangs over public property. I’m no expert; consult the authorities for exacts. If in doubt, always check your local laws to see what’s allowed in your neighborhood.