We find ourselves in some very trying and troubling times, my friends. With the rapid onset and spread of the Covid-19 virus, the demand for many consumer goods has suddenly soared, with panic buying emptying store shelves of many essentials, most notably paper goods. Panic buying weeks worth of quarantine supplies put a real spotlight on how quickly the supply chain of goods can be terribly burdened by something which can’t even be seen. Many on the web are sharing info about victory gardening, a practice brought on by food rationing in WWII, and starting community gardens or neighborhood food pantries. All of these acts really expose the gaps we have between the farmers and the consumers, and how global the food industry has really become, and how we are all at risk when the giant machine has a cog come loose.
We wholeheartedly commend these acts of solidarity, and hope to see lifelong friendships blossom and communities come together with stronger ties as a result of facing a common enemy through proactive, grass roots organization. But should all this goodwill not be enough, and you find the dreaded question come up when your cupboard shelves are bare, or just looking to get outdoors for some social distancing in the forest, you might find dinner growing outside. You might discover an activity we call foraging.
Our hunter gatherer ancestors called it surviving, and it is the gathering part of the term hunter gatherer. In most of these early societies, everyone pitched in to communal food. The whole tribe ate what was caught or harvested that day. Eventually we figured out that we could domesticate some of the sources of food by saving seeds and planting them where we traveled, and by penning and feeding certain animals. Over the course of millenia, our species shifted from foraging from farming, and forgotten most of what’s out there that we can and cannot eat. To quote something from the internet “I don’t even know where tacos live.”
The early humans who came to what we know as Florida today, also did not know where wild tacos live. They learned from generational knowledge that was passed down from their elders which plants were good for medicine, which for food, and which to avoid. Most of us don’t have that tribal elder guiding us along on our journey through life, and it shows. What we do have is the internet, with search engines, how to videos, and blogs from foragers. There is a great deal of content, a treasure trove of information at our fingertips.
You have luckily stumbled across just such a page- a quick guide to what might await you if you step into mother nature’s undershopped and ever-shrinking grocery store. Here are twenty six of the items which may or may not be in stock at any given time of the year. One part of foraging is that it sometimes take some effort to gather nature’s bounty, and it usually involves hiking, which doctors generally agree, is good for you. So when you finally get tired of canned pasta and want something fresh, just remember your ABC’s and hit the trails.
- A is for amaranth, a common weed, in fact one of it’s common names is pigweed. The tips and young leaves can be cooked in the same ways as spinach or other greens.
- B is for betony. Satchys floridana is a very common lawn weed and roadside denizen. Their purple flowers give them away, but it is the bumpy, white root you are after. These little tubers can be eaten raw, or in stir fry.
- C is for chickweed, another common weed. Don’t confuse with Florida pusley, as they look very similar, but will make you throw up. Cook as with other greens.
- D is for dandelion, the king of weeds. Every part of this plant is edible, other than the fluffy seed heads. Once you learn all the benefits this plant has, you may never call it a weed again.
- E is for elderberry, or elder flower, depending on when you harvest the blooms or fruit. The flowers can be battered and fried like tempura, or made into wine. The berries can be used in recipes, wine, and is commercially made into Sambuca cordial.
- F is for fern, specifically fiddle heads. Not all ferns are edible, but those that are in Florida include giant leather ferns and golden leather ferns. The round, brown tubers of invasive sword ferns are also reputed to be a food source. Fern consumption exposes you to carcinogens, but conflicting evidence may point to the risk being elevated when they are eaten raw or under cooked. Educate yourself and use caution.
- G is for grapes, of which we have 3 wild types. Muscadine, Florida, and summer grapes all grow here. They have seeds, and are not the sweetest on the planet, but grapes are good. Sea grapes, which are the big bushes growing by the beach, are also edible.
- H is for hickory, also called pig nut. Several species of the pecan relative can be found in the forest understory, but avoid the one that grows near swamps or very near bodies of water, as that species has bitter nut meats. You may also find pecans, or black walnuts in our more northern counties. Fall is when nuts can be harvested.
- I is for ilex, but you might call them hollies. Florida is home to many types of hollies. Their bright red berries that cling on through winter is what gives them away, and not the edible part. It is in fact, the dried leaves of dahoon and yaupon hollies that can be dried and brewed into a drink with more caffeine than coffee. This one you may want to remember when times really get tough!
- J is for joe pye weed. It can be made into a diuretic, medicinal tea. This plant has big, pinky purple flowers on top, like a disc, and is found in wet places.
- K is for kudzu, the weed that ate the south. If you can eat japanese knotweed, you should, if not, kumquats are found in many gardens and that also starts with k.
- L is for lemon bacopa, a wetland herb with fuzzy stems and sporting small, blue flowers. The leaves taste like lime. Can be eaten in salads or with other mixed field greens.
- M is for micromeria, more commonly called Browne’s savory or west indian thyme is actually a mint. It may be found in the same wet areas as lemon bacopa.
- N is for nettles, the stinging kind. But once cooked, the sting is gone, but the vitamins and nutrients remain in droves. Cooked nettles greens are better for you than most farmed greens, and it’s good for the immune system, as well.
- O is for optunia. Optunia’s are prickly pear cactus and their kin. The fruits can be juiced or made into jelly or desserts, and the fleshy pads could even be eaten, spines removed of course.
- P is for palm. Palmettos and cabbage palm both have edible inner cores called hearts of palm. Some palm fruits can be turned into jam or alcohol. P is also for pawpaw, persimmon, and plums, all of which can be found throughout the peninsula.
- Q is for quercus, the oaks. This largely unused food source has not been forgotten by squirrel, hog, and deer, but for us to eat the fall bounty, we must boil the hulled acorns in several changes of water to both sweeten them, and remove the kidney damaging tannic acids.
- R is for rubus– yummy blackberries. They are beginning to ripen now, but by early May the brier patches will be bursting with sweet, black fruits. Mind the painful thorns.
- S is for smilax, the cat brier vine. Another member of the brier bunch. This one has edible tips which can be snapped off and eaten raw, or cooked like asparagus shoots. They are everywhere, because bird eat the berries, then drop them all over the woods and wild wastes.
- T is for typha, which you know as cat tails. If you ever chewed the bottom of a seed stalk of grass, you got the idea. The good stuff is the starchy, white bit near the bottom. Because typha grows in big patches, gathering a pot full should not take much time, then boil the whole batch or use in stir fry.
- U is for ulva lactuca– sea lettuce might sound like a manatee snack, but this large type of sea weed grows in the Banana and Indian rivers. It is the bright green patches that grow on the rocks and is exposed during low tide. This is a source of iodine if no other source was available, and full of other micro nutrients.
- V is for violets, the dainty blue flowers that decorate the forest floor. The leaves are edible, can be made into tea, and the flowers would be a lovely addition but salad.
- W is for wapato, or arrowhead. Wapato is the native name, but another is duck potato, because the tuberous roots that can be freed from the mud, then roasted or boiled.
- X is for xylocarps. No, it is not a word we made up for the article. Coconuts are a form of xylocarp, a fruit within a woody shell, basically, and while coconuts are not Florida natives, you could forage for them along our coast from the thousands of trees people planted in their yards, but in most cases requires asking the tree owner’s permission. Also we needed something for the letter x.
- Y is for yucca, the spanish bayonet. These spiny plants are unmistakable, growing out of the landscape like skyscrapers made of sharp, dagger-shaped leaves. Both the creamy, white flowers, and the tough skinned, tuberous root are the parts humans can eat, if they can get past the sharp spines to get to them.
- Z is for zamila pumila, aka coontie fern, or as early harvesters called it, arrowroot. The only cycad native to Florida, it was harvested to near extinction. It is largely absent from it’s former ranges, but many environmentally minded landscape designers have brought into use in medians, and in beds around new construction, and are bringing their numbers back up. save these threatened plants until the zombies, as they are a protected species.
This is only 26 of the edible plants that surround the fields, forests, and wetlands that many of are surrounded by. We see them filling the wild places we pass by between the developments on our way to the empty stores. We see them on the right of way of the interstates, springing up as weeds in our carefully cut lawns, cursing them as pests, but should the global food system ever let you down, just know that while you may not have a tribal elder to help you learn herb lore, you have resources like sandy sprouts, Green Deane at http://www.eattheweeds.com/, and many other reputable sources. This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive guide, or even a mediocre one.
The purpose for penning this is to inspire you to look beyond the grocer or the superstore, and embrace the idea of seeing the food growing all around us, if we only know what we are looking for. Please share this on social media, let your friends know they need not starve. Nature will provide. Happy foraging!