Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Urban fruit foraging, Los Angeles

Since defending my dissertation a month ago (!!), I've been living in Los Angeles temporarily (and bouncing back and forth to San Francisco every few weeks), working on a collaborative research project that started back in April, before my next position (! more on that in future posts) starts in January. It's been a bit tedious being away from home for so long. For one, I desperately miss my kitchen. In fact, I miss cooking and baking altogether, since I'm living in a sublet with um... a microwave. Yeah.... (Thank god for Trader Joe's.)

At the same time, though, there are days like today, when it was mild and 80 degrees F outside--in the middle of December, no less!--, and the air smelled of sweet honeysuckle. And, I get to work with and hang out with some awesome colleagues here, so really, I will gladly forgo (temporarily) my kitchen privileges for this opportunity.

One of my favorite parts of academia (you know, besides the part where I get to spend my days in the pursuit of knowledge) is the people. I find that, given the nature of the field, academia tends to attract curious minds, which in turns leads to a host of people with eclectic and fascinating hobbies. Like my collaborator--Kie--here in LA, who eats things off of trees. Or, to put it fancily, Kie is an urban fruit forager. (She's pictured below, escaping from the frame of a photo of a strawberry guava tree.)

[top: strawberry guava tree; bottom: Natal plum blossom]

When I first met Kie a few years ago, this behavior of eating the random fruits of plants we happened to stroll by alarmed me greatly. (Actually, I find that many academics seem to harbor a secret death wish, like the professor at my home university who likes to speed around on his motorized bicycle without a helmet and tauntingly race 20-something-year-olds on road bikes....) But it turns out that she knows what she's doing, so I asked her to take me on a tour of West LA's urban offerings during my visit this time around.

[above: pygmy date palm fruit]

The tour was so eye-opening because it's amazing how many plants have edible fruits that you wouldn't even think of! I've walked by so many of these trees and bushes every day, writing them off as background scenery on my way to get somewhere else, and yet, here they are, laden with interesting treats to experience. Instead of stopping to smell the roses, it's like stopping to munch on the roses... or, the rose hips, as it were (pictured below), which are sweet and crunchy--like apples, but more floral and less tart.

[top: rosehips, bottom: kumquats]

Of course, there were familiar offerings, like hanging rosemary, or the kumquat tree, which was just coming into season and barely ripe. (We even saw a banana tree!) But most of the fruits and plants that Kie introducted me to were more unfamiliar. On campus, there was this African berry plant (below), which I conveniently forgot to write down the name of. The berries reminded me of such a familiar flavor, almost like a grape juicebox. It's a funny association because Kie pointed out that "monkeys and kids" snack on these berries in Africa. There were also natal plums, which have these amazingly fragrant white blossoms (though I don't think the blossoms are edible). The plums themselves are soft and candy-sweet and bright red. And the California pepper tree--not actually related to real pepper--produces these pink peppercorn-like pods that Kie mentioned were really good in salads.

[top: African berry plant; bottom: California pepper tree]

My favorite find of the day, however, were the Lilli Pillis (below). When Kie first handed me one to eat, I got so excited, because as it turns out, these tiny little fruits are related to Malay rose apples, which were a favorite childhood fruit of mine when I spent summers visiting family in Asia. Even though many tropical fruits are now available in the States (e.g., passionfruit, lychee, guavas, etc), Malay apples have for whatever reason never made it onto the import lists, and I've never been able to find them here. So imagine my surprise and delight to learn that there were miniature versions of these fruits growing in plentiful clumps that I walk by all the time! Eureka!

[above: lilli pillis]

So I'll be able to enjoy these fruits for a couple weeks longer before it's time for me to head back home to the Bay. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas! I will be celebrating it a bit late, once my kitchen and I are at long last reunited. :)

[above: a collection of arbutus fruit, lilli pillis, strawberry guava, natal plums, 
California pepper, and flowering rosemary]

(PSA: Please if you do go foraging, do so with someone who knows what they're doing as your guide. Not everything red is delicious and benign!)


  1. When I lived in So Cal, I used to see loquat trees and fruits everywhere and no one seemed to notice them; here in Lebanon they are a popular fruit; I thought some of the images you posted where about hawthorn berries which are also popular here and supposedly good for the heart. This urban fruit foraging is fun, thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes, and lots of guava too! I remember seeing a map of where to forage for fruit on public grounds a while ago. I might have to track it down again and go on my own trip!

  3. Beautiful and so colorful. Glad you had luck foraging. Enjoy the holiday and Happy 2014!


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