Students forage for food

Campus offers edible delights

In the midst of candy highs, crazy costumes and haunted houses, 10 Portland State students toured campus to learn about the array of free, nutritious food literally within reach.

Campus offers edible delights

In the midst of candy highs, crazy costumes and haunted houses, 10 Portland State students toured campus to learn about the array of free, nutritious food literally within reach.


Marisha Auerbach, an expert on edible wildlife, explains uses for plants found on campus to student Scott Clapson. Some of the food items grow right outside classroom halls.

On Wednesday, Marisha Auerbach, a community member and expert on edible wildlife, led the group through the Park Blocks and to the Native American Student and Community Center’s rooftop and backyard gardens to point out the abundance of edible plants available.

The event was organized by PSU’s Food Action Collective in line with FAC’s mission statement, said Ashley Hibler, a social science junior and a cochair of FAC.

“The [FAC] is about educating and inspiring people to learn about their food systems—what’s around them and where it comes from,” she said.

In each of the areas, Auerbach pointed out native and beneficial plants students can eat and shared their uses.

Outside of Cramer Hall in the Park Blocks

Wild ginger can be found in deep shade near the building, often under shrubs, and can be used in tea or for nibbling. Ginger is easy to identify by its smell, Auerbach said.

Nettles, also found near the building, can be used in a number of ways. They can be lightly steamed and enjoyed like kale or chard and are also good in tea, as they help allergies and strengthen the immune system, she said.

Auerbach pointed out that nettles can only be eaten before they reach knee height. Once the plant gets that tall, it will contain compounds that can be harmful to humans.

Hawthorn is also common. Auerbach said its leaves and berries can go into tea and are great for the heart. To identify hawthorn, look for spiky thorns and leaves that alternate
on the stems.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, it’s likely that PSU students have come across huckleberries. Evergreen huckleberries can be found right outside of Cramer Hall, with tasty berries that turn black when they are ready to eat.

Auerbach said that if someone were to go up to the mountains and forage for huckleberries, they could easily find enough to make a pie or even to sell to a local restaurant and possibly make a little cash.


Look closer: These tasty black evergreen berries can be found outside Cramer Hall.

Willow trees are another common sight, and most people are unaware of their benefits. Auerbach described it as natural aspirin, not only for people, but for other plants as well.

When planting a garden, making a tea out of willow leaves and pouring it on the soil where plants are to go can help with growth.

Outside of Smith Memorial Student Union

Between SMSU and Neuberger Hall is a little garden grown by the PSU Environmental Club.

The garden has an abundance of edible weeds and plants. Auerbach pointed out chickweed, her favorite for salads, as well as parsley, lemonbalm, mint and various other salad weeds.

Also in this area is elderberry. There are two types of elderberry: one with red berries and one with blue. Auerbach doesn’t suggest eating the red ones because they are not as tasty.

The Native American Student and Community Center

The NASCC has two areas containing a wide selection of edible plants. On the rooftop, students can find yarrow, Oregon grape and elderberry, as well as other plants that are not edible but are still beautiful.

Auerbach pointed out many plants that suggest the rooftop has a large amount of water in the soil.

“As you learn to identify plants, you can learn to know what kind of conditions are there,” Auerbach said. This is beneficial to knowing what, and even if, there will be food available to you in any given location.

In the garden behind the NASCC, three types of ferns grow: lady fern, sword fern and maidenhair. Though ferns are only edible before they unfurl early in the spring, they can have other uses as well.

The maidenhair fern can be infused into water and used to make hair shiny, hence its name. Sword ferns are used by Native Americans to create underground ovens to cook and store food.

Also in this garden was snowberry, which cannot be eaten. Auerbach said it’s a good general rule to stay away from berries because they are often poisonous. This is evidenced by the fact that many snowberries will last all through winter—meaning birds and other creatures avoid eating them.

In almost every area the group walked past, Auerbach pointed out rose hip. She said that it is one of her favorite things to forage. The bright red ones are the best to get, and if split open, deseeded and dried out, rose hip can be used in cereal, oatmeal or tea.

Auerbach placed great emphasis on the importance of eating only the things that can be correctly identified. She suggested the book Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon to help with identification.

Another very important thing Auerbach wanted students to remember is to never to harvest more than a third of the plant. Foragers need to be aware of how a plant grows and how to trim it so they can come back later and still have that food available to them.

“I think it’s really interesting learning about all the edible plants there are directly outside the buildings that we’re in every day at school,” said Danielle Thompson, a senior anthropology major and FAC officer.

“It’s really cool learning different things that you can eat on campus and also learning things that you can put into teas that are good for medicinal values and nutrients,” she added.

Though some things can be more bitter or less flavorful than the food people are used to today, Auerbach pointed out that these native plants have been on this planet for many years and have lasted through many disasters.

“With the starvation statistics today, we can’t really afford not to plant edibles,” Auerbach said.