By Andrea DeLong-Amaya
You may be one of the growing numbers of home gardeners who have put shovel to soil in the effort to nourish themselves and their families with wholesome, organic, fresh, and ultimately local vegetables and fruits. It is empowering to know exactly where your food comes from. And, while gardening is perfect exercise…it can be a lot of work! What if you could grow food plants that all but took care of themselves? Or better yet simply harvest, with caution of course, from the wild.
Native produce? Yes! The plants I’m about to tell you about are all easy to cultivate within their home ranges and, once established, may not require any attention outside of harvest. There are many virtues of raising locally native plants, such as decreased use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and promoting regional identity, and providing for wildlife. But those aren’t my main motivators for sharing these untamed delicacies with you. These foods are often disregarded and overlooked but are, quite frankly, yummy!
The correct way to consume wild edibles: harvest from sizable colonies and always with permission from the landowner. Whether collected from natural areas or from plants in your garden, understand that otherwise safe and nutritious foods may become toxic in large amounts. As with any new food in your diet, add small amounts at a time until you know how your body will handle them. And, most importantly to note: before consuming any wild food, be absolutely certain of its proper identity! Many plants have look-alikes. If there is any doubt, do not partake. You can eat anything at least once, but you want to be around to enjoy the good stuff again!
When harvesting perennials, clip leaves and stems from the plant at or above ground level, leaving the roots undisturbed and allowing the plant to resprout. Cut the tips off of annuals, which will continue growing until they reach the end of their season, or harvest the entire plant.
The following plants are indigenous to most of the U.S., meaning they have evolved over time in a given region without human introduction. There are many non-native and even invasive plants that also make for good eats, but in the interest of space, I’m limiting the list to natives.
Late in the year, many of us can revel in the luscious sweet treats offered by the Eastern persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Trees vary in the quality of their fruit, and common wisdom suggests they are best after a frost. In any case, immature fruit are very astringent and not recommended. Black persimmon (D. texana), a related species occurring in Texas and Mexico, delivers delectable sugary lumps of fruit with a floral hint as early as July. When you eat them, you are in tune with nature.
Members of the genus Vitis, or grapes, are most commonly used for making mouthwatering jelly, juice, and wine that can be enjoyed year-round. But, have you ever tried tangy green grape pie? Wow! In mid-spring when tender grape leaves emerge, you can brine them for making dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. Young leaves wrapped around chicken, then grilled, impart a mild tangy note to the meat and help keep it moist. If the leaves are edging on tough, keep chewing them as a savory and tasty “gum.” You can seemingly chew forever; the wad won’t go away.
Early spring encourages tender new growth on a variety of native plants that are suitable for the table. Native potherbs are generally tastiest during the spring before hot weather turns them bitter.
Potherbs are leaves or stems of herbaceous plants that can be cooked for use as greens or for seasoning. “In vitamins, minerals, and protein, wild foods can match and even surpass the nutritional content of our common foods,” according to Delena Tull in her book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. Try out some of these:
Greenbriar, Cat Briar (Smilax bona-nox) – You may not have thought there was much use for this annoying, thorny vine, but the soft early shoots in spring (and summer when we’ve had rain) are tender, tasty, and nutritious. Pick the asparagus-like tips before the prickles harden, and throw them into salads or nibble them right off the vine.
Pink Evening Primrose, Showy Primrose (Oenothera speciosa) – Beautiful in bloom and abundant throughout much of the country, these greens offer their best flavor when collected before flowering. However, it takes someone who is very familiar with this wildflower to identify it out of bloom. Toss the greens into a salad or add to soups or stir-fries.
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.) – Many species of wood sorrel occur in the U.S., and some are common garden pests. After your next weeding session, add a few leaves, flowers, or green seed pods to a salad or soup as you would French sorrel. The flavor is strong and sour, so add sparingly. Rich in vitamin C, it also contains high amounts of oxalic acid, similar to spinach, which when eaten in large amounts, may tie up calcium.
Spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.) – There are several species of native spiderwort, and many are cultivated. Attractive plants with typically purple, blue, pink, or white flowers have winter foliage resembling daylilies. Above ground parts may be sautéed or eaten raw.
Wild Onion, Wild Garlic (Allium canadensis, A. drummondii.) – There are many bulb forming plants that resemble wild onions, and some are toxic. Only harvest plants with the distinct odor of onions. The chopped green leaves can be used like chives, and the bulbs are cooked as any other onions.
Cheatham, S. and M. C. Johnston. 1995. The Useful Wild Plants of Texas, the Southeastern and Southwestern United States, the Southern Plains, and Northern Mexico. Vol. 1, Abronia-Arundo. Austin: Useful Wild Plants, Inc.
Tull, Delena. 1987. Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 1) Tradescantia gigantea (Michael Dana); 2) Diospyros texana (Andrea DeLong-Amaya); 3) Vitis mustangensis (James Garland Holmes); 4) Smilax bona-nox (Joseph A. Marcus); 5) Oenothera speciosa (W.D. and Dolphia Bransford; Sally and Andy Wasowski); 6) Oxalis drummondii (Mary Kline); 7) Tradescantia gigantea (Stephanie Brundage); 8) Allium canadense var. canadense (Joseph A. Marcus).
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. For more information about native plants, visit www.wildflower.org.