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Originally published Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Life

Seattle forager Arthur Lee Jacobson shows us how to find wild edibles

In the second edition of his book, "Wild Plants of Greater Seattle: A Field Guide to Native and Naturalized Plants of the Seattle Area," expert forager Arthur Lee Jacobson shows us what to find and how.

A few favorites

Arthur Lee Jacobson loves these wild edibles:

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea sativa). Cute little yellow flowers, with a sour, lemony taste. Cultivated as a vegetable in many areas of the world.

Chickweed (Stellaria media). Available in plentiful supply year-round; mild and succulent enough to substitute for lettuce in salads.

Cat's ear (Hypocheris radicata). Jacobson likes this sunflower relative better than its cousin the dandelion. It's fuzzier, less bitter and has a satisfying crunch.

Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus). Jacobson declares dandelions to be overrated; he enjoys this dandelion cousin for its slight bitterness and abundant nutrition. Blanching or cooking reduces the bitterness, so this is a good candidate for stir-fries.

Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute). This all-too-familiar weed, also called shotweed, is best in spring when it's young and tender. It tastes peppery like watercress.

Wild plant aficionado Arthur Lee Jacobson tosses his dinner salad with dozens of different greens, none of them from the grocery store or the garden. Well, not from anything purposely planted in the garden anyway. Jacobson finds flavor and nutrition in weeds that sprout along the margins of the garden and from cracks in the sidewalk.

On a recent sunny morning, Jacobson and I wandered through the Interbay P-Patch, seeking out volunteer edibles. Only his munching on some purslane that was sprouting in a path convinced a lecturing P-Patch monitor that we weren't raiding vegetables from other people's gardens. What we were seeking were the plants everyone else ignores or pulls and tosses away.

Jacobson swooped down on a scrap of sow thistle, gleefully popping it in his mouth as if he'd found a Fran's sea salt chocolate there in the path. Everything I sampled, from mustard greens to the little black candy-like seeds inside a nigella pod, was surprisingly tasty, or at least palatable. Field mustard was my favorite because both its leaves and yellow flowers had a biting, radish-like taste with a hot after-kick. We even found a perennial arugula (Diplotaxis tennifolia) with yellow flowers rather than white like the cultivated kind, but with a similar distinctive taste.

"I never buy lettuce," declares Jacobson. "It's for people without imagination," which he later amends to "people without knowledge." Jacobson forages for his favorite sow thistle, nettles, lamb's quarters and wild garlic in the alleys and parking strips minutes from his home in Montlake. "Every neighborhood has weeds," he points out. "Just look around where you live — you don't need to go far." He mixes together as many plant families as possible in his salads, for "maximum diversity of phyto-chemicals, not to mention flavor." A good forage turns up purslane for crunch, oxalis for sour, wild garlic for pungency and sow thistle for a hit of bitter.

But surely we must be cautious foragers? "There are only two deadly weeds that grow in any abundance around here. They'd be the last thing you eat if you try them," says Jacobson. These are foxglove, which can be mistaken for comfrey in its young rosette stage, and Socrates' death drink, poison hemlock, which looks somewhat like parsley. Jacobson explains that what we know as deadly nightshade is really a benign black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). Its leaves are edible, as are the red berries when they are ripe. The real deadly nightshade (Atropa Bella-donna) with shiny black poisonous berries, is extremely rare here. Jacobson finds a black nightshade, but that's one snack I decline.

The second, expanded edition of Jacobson's book, "Wild Plants of Greater Seattle: A Field Guide to Native and Naturalized Plants of the Seattle Area," is just out. It's available for $24.95 at local bookstores and Jacobson's Web page at www.arthurleej.com.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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