Category: Never Buy Rosemary

Wild Ginger

In June 2011, a group of us went on a weekend camping trip to Kalaloch, on the Washington coast. We camped in a forested campground right on the beach, and edibles were growing everywhere (though unfortunately it was too early in the season to eat most of them, and others I couldn’t identify conclusively while we were there).

Several of these grow in Seattle as well, but you’ll need to find a good forested area, probably a park. The next several posts will focus on plants I saw at Kalaloch.

Wild Ginger

Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) is so named due to its ginger smell when the leaves are crushed. The most interesting thing about wild ginger to me is that each leaf has its own stem, and 2 stems connect to each node. (1) The wild ginger propagates by rhizomes, which are located more or less underground – this quality also makes them easy to divide and propagate in your own yard, if you have a mostly shaded forest-y yard. (1)

Wild ginger has heart-shaped leaves that grow close to the ground. Flowers appear in April (this picture was in June).

You can eat the leaves of wild ginger in salads and stir-fries, but because some studies in rats show that the asarone it contains causes illness or tumors in high doses, it’s recommended that you use it as a garnish, condiment, or minor ingredient. (2) I very much doubt it can really do you any harm, since people tend to like to feed rats insanely high amounts of substances just to see what happens. Nevertheless, this warning appears most places that wild ginger is described as an edible plant, so better safe than sorry.

There are also other species of wild ginger that occur elsewhere in the world. (3)


Fennel grows as a weed in Seattle, though if you’re looking for those luscious giant bulbs you see in the grocery store sometimes, you’re going to be disappointed. Our fennel is almost exclusively Foeniculum vulgare vulgare, which has long deep taproots and nothing bulbous, as I discovered when I eagerly dug up a fennel plant in my yard a few years ago. The bulb fennel is Foeniculum vulgare vulgare, variant azoricum. (1)

According to the American Herb Society, fennel is related to cumin, anise, dill, and caraway. (1) It looks extremely similar to dill, which you may also find growing in gardens around Seattle, so check for the familiar licorice smell before picking any.

The American Herb Society says fennel grows to just under 6 feet; the fennel in my yard has exceeded 8 feet some years.


If you’re looking for the leaves of fennel to use as a garnish, an herb in cooking, or a salad green, you can harvest these as soon as they come up, starting in early-to-mid spring. Avoid leaves (also called fronds) that are turning brown or yellow.

The major produce of non-bulb fennel, however, is seeds. To avoid massive new fennel crops in the next year, you need to harvest the seeds or remove the plants before the seeds fall too profusely.

I use scissors to cut the seed-producing clusters off each fennel stalk into a large bowl. Then I rub the clusters between my hands to agitate the seeds off the stems. I’ve managed to get over a cup of fennel seeds from one year’s harvest of 20-25 fennel stalks, growing in 5 or 6 clusters, more than anyone can use in a year unless they REALLY enjoy making their own body care products, tea, sausage or spaghetti sauce.


I strongly recommend NOT growing your own fennel, as it is adept at spreading itself around your yard and quickly grows deep roots that are extremely difficult to remove in their entirety. They will grow new plants even from just a small root piece.

Look for fennel plants in overgrown areas along roadsides, or in your neighbors’ yards.

More on Fennel

Oregon Grape

DSCN0166I’ve lived at my current house for four years, and it wasn’t until last week that I finally learned what the “holly” in the backyard really was. This “holly” has been growing unfettered for at least four years and had grown horizontally along a 10-foot section of fence. I have cut down about 75% of it, mostly the horizontal parts, but it still stands about four feet wide and 10 feet tall.

An internet search for “holly with yellow flowers” quickly turned up this site, which incidentally looks like a great site to identify native plants by appearance. My holly bush, pictured below, is actually a tall Oregon grape, a native plant that goes by the scientific name Mahonia aquifolium.

Having taken a keen interest in propagating salal lately, I found the presence of a fully grown berry-producing bush in my own yard rather exciting. The Oregon grape produces purple fruits like red wine grapes or Concord grapes. Other foragers of Oregon grapes have told me they have very large seeds, so they aren’t great for snacking; they apparently also lack sweetness. Consequently, they’re probably best used in baking, cooking, making jam, or making wine. The Oregon grape also has medicinal uses.

Oregon grape plants will start forming berries in April, May, or June, depending on the weather. The above photo shows berry development in late May 2011. In March and April, look for yellow flowers on holly-like bushes to identify plants to investigate in late summer for harvesting. Check out the WNPS site on Oregon grape for more pictures.

Harvest location note

Though I don’t know how much they’ll produce, being rather young and small bushes, several Oregon grapes were planted along the Burke-Gilman Trail between Gasworks and I-5 in spring 2011.

(Hard-copy references: I also referred to Doug Benoliel’s Northwest Foraging (2011) while writing this entry.)



Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean, but it does great west of the Cascades (I can’t speak for elsewhere). Rosemary doesn’t like the cold; here in Seattle, I know of a few rosemary bushes that died out or suffered quite a bit as a result of our December 2008 Snowpocalypse. Our rosemary went from a uniform boxy shape to a weird upright cluster and a left-leaning cluster on long woody trunks.

You may see several varieties of rosemary near you, such as the bushy Tuscan blue, with blue/purple flowers, or Severn Sea, which stays low to the ground, with curving branches and dark violet flowers. (1) Though the flowers come out in springtime only, rosemary is a year-round plant, among the hardiest of the herbs, so you can always go out to pick some.

Look for rosemary in your neighbors’ front yards, especially used as hedges or as part of a landscaped edge. The smell is usually unmistakable, but if you have trouble determining if what you have is rosemary, pick a leaf, break it in half, rub the ends on your hand, and smell.

Growing Your Own

If you want to keep your own rosemary plant, you can grow one in your yard or in a large container, and as the title of this blog indicates, you don’t need to buy any; just use a bit of a neighboring bush. Propagate (grow a new start of) rosemary by cutting a 3-6 inch twig, removing the rosemary leaves from the lower half, and placing it into very moist soil. Keep it very well watered for about two weeks so it gets established. Use a length of spring growth, cut between March and June, for best results. (2)


The best place to find rosemary is in your own neighborhood. A walk around the block, to the store, or just about anywhere, tends to lead you past a rosemary bush. Since rosemary has a strong flavor, you normally don’t need more than a 3-6 inch cutting for any cooking or baking use. Don’t go wandering into people’s yards unless you really don’t mind the potential for negative encounters or consequences, but hardly anyone will care if you pull a bit of rosemary off their sidewalk-adjacent bush.

Two locations I know of in Northwest Seattle with a lot of rosemary are near the northeast corner of NW 80th St and 3rd Ave NW (Greenwood Elementary School), and bordering the north side of the Ballard Commons at NW 58th St and 22nd Ave NW.

updated April 12, 2011 and May 22, 2014

Welcome to Never Buy Rosemary

Never Buy Rosemary is a guide to free and public urban foraging sites in Seattle, because free food is the best food and so much goes to waste. (Check out a comprehensive map of Seattle urban forestry and foraging at Falling Fruit, which includes public and private plants and trees and the listings from the old Never Buy Rosemary map.)

Why the title? I’ve lived here almost all my life, and found that there is no excuse for buying this commonly available herb. If you live in a residential area, just take a walk around your block and look for a rosemary bush. Your neighbor will not miss a sprig. If this bothers you, ask, and they probably won’t care either.

Plus, many public parks and landscaping strips are festooned with more rosemary than anyone knows what to do with, and no one will miss one or two sprigs on your account. Hell, no one will miss dozens of people picking sprigs every once in a while. A little rosemary goes a long way.

Other common foraging foods in Seattle include blackberries, tree fruits, dandelion greens, and fennel.

updated May 22, 2014