Alicia Funk, author of "Living Wild: Gardening, Cooking and Healing… (Alicia Funke )
Visitors to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden on Saturday will be treated to oak nut marzipan, manzanita berry cider and other hors d'oeuvres crafted from plants common to California. It's all part of the "Cooking With Native Plants" lecture by Alicia Funk, an herbalist and author who not only cooks with plants found in the wild but also uses them to make medicine.
I caught up with Funk, author of "Living Wild: Gardening, Cooking and Healing With Native Plants of the Sierra Nevada," to talk about the Saturday event:
Question: What are the advantages to "living wild," as you call it?
Answer: Besides the fun of being outdoors, it moves us closer to an independent, carbon-free lifestyle. Eating local produce and growing your own garden are positive steps, but it's a lot of work. Native foods eliminate shipping and are a lot easier to grow. An oak tree, for example, can grow on a hillside without irrigation and produce up to 2,000 pounds of acorns per tree, per year. Secondly, native plants provide a 100% local source of nutrition and medicine. This is food that sustained the people that lived in California for thousands of years. We've just forgotten how to do it. It doesn't mean it isn't viable.
You live in Northern California, in the Sierra Nevada. What are you currently finding right outside your door?
Right now, what's happening is acorns, so I'm keeping an eye on different oak trees. I'm learning from the indigenous people of our culture up here, the Maidu. They have a lot of information that's still very relevant in terms of timing when to collect them.
I think a lot of people would be surprised that acorns are edible.
The good news about acorns and using them as food is that even if you don't know what species of oak tree you have growing outside your door, all species have edible acorns. That makes it really easy as far as getting started, but you do have to learn to leach them to remove the tannic acid.
What do you make with acorns?
I call acorns oak nuts because they are the nut of the oak tree. If you say acorn, people tend to think of squirrels. An oak nut bliss bar is one of my daughter's favorite recipes. I make acorn flour and use it with organic dark chocolate and coconut. I also enjoy using them for crackers and bread recipes.
What is the nutritional value of oak nuts and some of the other plants you like to cook with?
I've lab-tested several local berries native to California. I've tested manzanita, elderberry and madrona berries and compared them to commercially popular antioxidant fruits, such as blueberries and pomegranates, and they were three times higher in antioxidants. With the acorns, they have more omega 6s and vitamin A and folate and potassium than whole grain wheat flour without the gluten or GMOs.
Where do you find these berries and trees? Do you suggest people forage or do you think it's better to cultivate them in home gardens?
Never collect anything unless you're 100% sure of what it is. A good way to be absolutely certain is to plant the plant in your backyard, so if you have it growing and you purchased it from a nursery, you know that's the plant.
Who is living wild? Is it gardeners? Foodies?
There are foodies that are looking for an exotic taste adventure or the ultimate local food. Then there are gardeners looking for a beautiful drought-tolerant plant to add to their backyards. The fact that they can use a plant not just for landscaping but as a viable source of food gives people another reason to plant native. The [Santa Barbara] botanical garden is having a fall plant sale right now, and they'll have many of the plants I'm talking about for sale.
How did you first become interested in making foods and medicine with wild plants?
I first learned plant-based medicine about 20 years after I graduated from college and went to South America. I lived with an indigenous grandmother and, following her through the rain forest, I quickly discovered that to me what looked like a sea of green was really her source of food and everyday medicine. When I visited other countries in South America, the people who knew how to live close to the land were dying off without any students to pass on the knowledge, so when I got back to the U.S., I went to school at the Santa Cruz American School of Herbalism. Now I'm really interested in what grows right around us.
How often area you eating wild?
My challenge for this next year is to eat something wild every day. I did pretty good this year. I'm keeping a log on my website where I write down exactly what I ate, so hopefully next year at this time I'll have a full year of recipes.
SANTA BARBARA LECTURE
What: "Cooking With Native Plants"
When: 4:30 p.m. Oct. 6
Where: Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara
Cost: $20 for garden members, $25 for nonmembers; reservations required
Information: (805) 682-4726 Ext. 102, www.sbbg.org