Free Strawberries!

Primary Source


Beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) on Twin Peaks.

Photo: Margo Bors

Long before the berry pickers described in the following 1907 article, the Yelamu ate the fruits of the beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) as well as those of the wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca), calling the berries maduce (Bocek, 1984). They too knew that the bark of puruuric, or coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), was useful as a laxative and that a tea from its leaves helped soothe poison oak rashes. Indeed, the knowledge that coffeeberry can be used to treat poison oak dermatitis likely stems from Yelamu teachers of early European settlers, an intellectual lineage probably unknown to the author of the following article.

By dint of their intimate knowledge of the local landscape and its plants and animals, the Yelamu had been able to rely on their immediate surroundings for all their food. It wasn't long after the arrival of people of European descent in 1769--probably only a few months!--before those dwelling on the San Francisco peninsula became dependent on food produced elsewhere.

The supply lines have been lengthening ever since, the rise of community gardens being a notable exception. By 1907, when this chronicle of berry picking in the dunes south of Golden Gate Park was written, it had become a grand and nostalgic novelty for San Francisco residents to eat food harvested from wildlands within the city. (It was not at all uncommon at that time, though, for city residents to eat cultivated vegetables and fruits grown in the many commercial and backyard vegetable gardens within city limits.)

The adventure described below likely took place on the slopes of what is now Grandview Park.

—Pete Holloran


Brandegee, Katharine. 1891. Rhamnus californica and its allies. Zoe 1:240-244.


Wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) in Glen Canyon.

Photo: Margo Bors

"Free strawberries for the picking within the city limits" by L.E. Hackett in San Francisco Sunday Call, 28 July 1907

Free strawberries! Sounds rather liberal and a bit reckless, but it is a fact nevertheless. In the heart of San Francisco, speaking geographically, free strawberries have lain waiting for takers during a month or more past.

Red, ripe, and luscious, wild and sweet. Great quantities of them, and they are being carted home daily to be jammed, jellied or eaten in their natural state, with or without cream. Delicious in flavor and appetizing to look upon, they have been eagerly hunted by both young and old, who gather them in buckets, lard cans, basins, tin pans and any and all sorts of vessels that are warranted not to dissolve and lose their precious burdens.

Family parties journey to this free market of nature, picnicking, berrying and adding profit to their pleasure. Many hundred quarts of fruit have already been removed from their hiding places and transferred elsewhere.

There are blackberries, too, the green, red and black kinds; and poison oak and wild flowers and ferns and health, fresh ozone, tan and some freckles, which contribute their part to the full enjoyment of a country life within the city limits.

Leaving the beach car at H Street and Ninth Avenue, you wander southward to the point where Ninth Avenue ceases, then, by diverging slightly westward and continuing in a southerly direction you finally come to a signal post erected by the United States Geodetic Survey planted on the greatest elevation thereabouts.

This is the top of an immense sand dune surrounded by many lesser dunes, whose height diminishes gradually, becoming lower and lower, with intersecting valley here and there, ending eventually at the ocean beach.

The approaches to this hill and its slopes, particularly those to the west, are literally carpeted and festooned with thousands upon thousands of strawberry vines, which during the summer are simply alive with countless numbers of brilliant berries, having a most distinctive and delightful flavor, totally unlike that of its higher cultured relative the market strawberry.

This particular spot, where the vines bear in the greatest profusion and which consists of an area of a dozen or more city blocks in size, has a natural formation resembling hundreds of sand dunes or hillocks, rising one above the other, with convenient paths at the base of each, where the berry hunter may sit comfortably or recline at full length at the foot of a miniature hill and leisurely pick until that special patch is denuded, then move on to another. The growth is wonderfully strong, and though moisture, except during the rainy season, is quite impossible, yet the vines thrive, flower and bear; when one crop is on the way to ripen the second is set and ready to mature its supply for the fall.

One enjoys the sort of sensation in hunting for and finding these palatable morsels that may be experienced by the hunter and finder of golden nuggets. The thrill which accompanies the discovery of unusually fine specimens in their places of concealment under the leaves or among the scrubby brush is fully as keen and for the moment seems equally profitable.

The picture presented by the pickers, all busily engaged, with eyes intently fixed on their own patches, their faces smeared with berry juice caused from a too careless aiming of some extra splendid find at their mouths, is decidedly interesting when one realizes how close, how very, very close they are to the throbbing center of a great twentieth century metropolis.

The view from the crest of this sand mountain well repays one for the effort made in reaching it, even if he be not inspired by prospective loot. It commands a magnificent sweep of the ocean, the Farallones, the steam and sailing craft approaching and leaving port, Point Reyes, Point Bonita, with its lighthouse, the Marin hills with Mount Tamalpais at their back.

As is frequently the case, patches of sea fog drift slowly in and stop for a moment at the mountain top affectionately to embrace it in their snowy folds; then they break apart and drift onward, to be closely followed by other patches, and yet others, which, lingering longer and longer, finally become a dense vapory mass, entirely obliterating the summit of Tamalpais and also that of the neighboring range. Sutro Heights, the entrance to the Gate, Presidio Heights, the Contra Costa hills with Belvedere and Angel Island in the foreground, Pacific Heights, Golden Gate Park in its entirety, with the exception of the panhandle, Lone Mountain with its glimmering cross, Twin Peaks, the Sutro forest, the almshouse in its picturesque and pretty setting, are brought into outline; and to the south a glimpse of San Mateo County, Ingleside, Lake Merced, the gum forest [plantings of blue gum eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus–PH], the beach with its frothy surf visible for many miles, and directly westward at your feet, the Nineteenth Avenue boulevard, alive with darting autos and rigs of various kinds, is seen. Beyond all this is the undulating waste of sand, sand, sand; presenting a very faithful picture of the San Francisco of yesterday, when the entire Western Addition and the central portion of the city, together with a large part of the Mission, was composed of uninviting and uninteresting stretches of dunes. These varied in height from low mounds to fair sized hills, covered in places with wild flowers, ferns, berry brambles and vines, trailing yerba buena (Satureja douglasii), poison oak and its remedy, the scrub oak with its liberal crop of acorns, all inhabited by wild birds, squirrels, garden snakes and sand lizards.

That which is now Duboce Park and vicinity, from Haight Street south and Market Street west, was a few brief years ago a vast playground for young San Francisco. There was an excellent pond for illicit swimming, wild gooseberries, blackberries and strawberries for the picking, song birds for the trapping and abundance of small game for the man with the gun.

The dunes south of the park take the memory of old timers back to a past which has not as yet slipped into oblivion. The same old sand lizards are here. The old, familiar, harmless brown and yellow snakes startle and interest you; the yerba buena vine perfumes the air with its same old aromatic spiciness; the same wild flowers greet you and even the landscape with their brilliancy; the bright red sage; the downy thistle, with its sharp pointed needles furnishing a breath from the far braes o Scotland; the yellow, purple and white lupine; the curious white everlasting flower (pearly everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea); the purple daisy (seaside daisy, Erigeron glaucus), and dozens of others, including jelly flowers of many different forms and colors; also ferns; and the wonderful yarra (yarrow, Achillea millefolium), said to be a marvelous cure for coughs, colds, sore throat, dizziness, pain in the back, brain storm and broken leg; and many other valuable yarbs and roots; the berry brambles and vines; the poison oak; nothing lacking but the dear old scrub oak with its bountiful supply of acorns good to eat, raw or roasted a la peanut [not true! bitter tannins in the acorn require considerable careful preparation–PH].

When one sees this forbidding waste of sand here and remembers the like condition which prevailed in that which is now the most settled and valuable part of San Francisco, he wonders how short a time will elapse before the lizard and its sun loving companions will once more be herded farther out to make way for the busy settlement which is bound to come.

If you are an artist of the black and white variety, take along your pad and pencil; if the colored kind, take your easel, canvas, palette and brushes, and try to catch some of the beautiful sky coloring painted by the sun when sinking from sight at the horizon. We say try because the best artist ever could not hope to reproduce with senseless pigment the gaudy and magnificent effects that sometimes illumine the western sky. If you are a camera lover, take it along. You will find ample subjects to expend a dozen or more fine plates upon. Take Jimmy, with a broad red smear athwart his happy features; take wifey eating lunch in a vine embowered nook; catch sister as she trips and upsets the mornings work, spilling the precious fruit upon the ground at her feet; take yourself—well, take yourself and family and your friend and his family and visit Berryville before the youngsters, during their school vacation, have completely cleared this vast patch.

Take some poison oak home with you if you are fond of it; take lots of it if you wish it can be spared and keep it about yourself as a reminder of the happy time you've had. You might also take home some of the antidote or remedy while you are about it. You'll find it growing more freely, if anything, than the poison oak itself. You know it, of course that shrubby, hard-wooded bush, with the stiffish green leaves, that grows in among or close about every poison oak plant. It is a bush with the small round berries, that are first green, then yellowish, then red, then brown, finally becoming black as the season advances and containing seeds not unlike the coffee bean [coffeeberry (once known as shittim wood because of its laxative properties), Rhamnus californica–PH]. Make a tea by brewing the bark, leaves, and berries in hot water and use the dark liquid produced as a wash or lotion, bathing the poisoned parts frequently until all irritation ceases and the fire is gone. You might also, as a precaution and safe preventive, upon returning home, dissolve some powdered borax or baking soda in water hot or cold; bathe the face, neck, hands, and wrists freely with this and allow it to dry on the skin. Poison oak seldom appears after this treatment [there are now much more effective curative and preventive measures that don't require harvest of native shrubs!–PH]. Strangely enough, however, where the strawberry vines are most productive the poison oak is noticeably absent. Quite the contrary is it with the blackberry. The poison oak and the blackberry seem to have a lasting affinity for each other. They are inseparable companions and their affectionate intertwining is touching to see, but often leaves very unpleasant impressions.

Take advantage of the season and let the children enjoy a dessert of native fruit picked by their own dear little hands, so that they may in future years say that they too have boldly invaded the jungle vastnesses of San Francisco and captured the luscious strawberry in its native wilds.

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