by Morgan Hancock
Edible and medicinal plants grow in every corner of campus. Students can learn to forage for them in Campus Center for Appropriate Technology’s new Foraging class. Josefina Barrantes and Sandra Zepeda are the student instructors of ENST 123. The course expands on their research of ethnobotany on the Cal Poly Humboldt campus.
Ethnobotany is the study of plants and how people use them. Zepeda and Barrantes spent the last year mapping and researching edible plants on campus. Their map shares a location, name, and photos of plants with ethnobotanical purposes. Students will use the map along with information taught in the class to forage on campus sustainably. The map includes native plants that grow in the area and non-native plants used in landscaping.
“It’s comparable to urban foraging because we’re not actually nature, we’re on a university campus,” Zepeda said. “A lot of the edible plants on campus are not native, they’re just for decorative purposes.”
The course will highlight how plants like mountain pepper (Tasmannia lanceolata) can serve as a seasoning alternative and also have medicinal uses.
“This plant was significant to aboriginal people, they used it to make medicines and tinctures,” Zepeda said, between nibbles of a leaf. Indigenous groups used the mountain pepper to treat stomach aches, colic skin disorders, and toothaches.
As its name suggests, the mountain pepper is spicy, but it is not quite a pepper. Instead, it is a shrub that uses a tricky chemical reaction to taste spicy, rather than capsaicin like many spicy plants. The pepper taste comes from the compound polygodial, a C15 sesquiterpene.
According to a study published by The Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology titled “Native Australian fruits — a novel source of antioxidants for food,” the mountain pepper had more than three times the antioxidant levels of blueberries.
The instructors shared some of their favorite foragable plants on campus. The Dog Rose (Rosa canina) provides bright red hips packed with vitamins and has many common health benefits.
Some campus plants have simple uses, like in-between-class snacks. Bolivian fuchsia (Fuchsia boliviana) offers bright flowers and juicy berries. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) also has round edible fruits.
The ENST 123 course is the result of several attempts to bring sustainable foraging on campus. Barrantes and Zepeda are enabling students to rethink food sustainability.
“We started this project so that we could add more edible landscape,” Barrantes said. “To show this is what we have and we could do more, and also supports the desire for more sustainable food projects, like the food sovereignty lab or starting an off-campus farm.”