pyracantha coccinea

Pyracantha coccinea berries. Photo by Green Deane

Firethorn: Pyracantha Coccinea, a member of the Rose Family.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that “Ho Ho Ho” bellies and Pyracantha jelly jiggle into the season just before Thanksgiving.

While there is no explaining plump Santa, the Firethorn in Florida, Pyracantha coccinea, (pye-rha-KAN-tha cok-SIN-i-a) puts on its second crop of red berries about the same time the frozen Tom turkeys are being delivered to grocery stores. Firethorn’s two fruitings are thoughtful, feeding beast and man, spring and fall. Incidentally, Pyracantha comes from Greek and means literally “fire thorn.”  Coccinea means scarlet.

A thorny evergreen, the Firethorn has been under Western cultivation since 1629 when it was first introduced into English gardens. Its native range is from southern Europe to the Caucasus Mountains. The Firethorn can make a very showy stand-alone small tree, a stunning hedge, an espalier to crawl along walls, or be potty trained as patio topic of preoccupation. It can also be a natural barrier grown outside windows that few trespassers would cross to get inside. You’ll also probably get a birds for entertainment because the species’ thorns keep predators of birds away.

Decades ago when I first saw the lanky Firethorn I asked about it and was told it was poisonous. “All red berries” the person said, “are poisonous.” That clearly is not true, nor is “all black berries are edible” true.  These sayings are almost always wrong, but one, for practical purposes is close to true: Almost all white berries are toxic. There are a few white berries that are edible but they are so uncommon one might as well think all white berries are poisonous. Just avoid them

pyracantha coccinea

Firethorn blossoms resemble apple blossoms

There are references to Pyracantha as a famine food, and that might be true. However, the seeds, like the apple seeds, should not be eaten in quantity. My mother, who lived to 88, ate every seed of every apple she ever ate. She also ate the core as well: The entire apple was hers. When she is done there was nothing left. So a few apple seeds at a time appears to be fine. I asked her one time why she ate the entire apple. She said that’s what her mother did. Her mother also saved the seeds of virtually every fruit, dried them, cracked them and ate them, a few at a time. Back then they never heard of avocados or loquats, so don’t try it with those. However, loquat seeds, also in the Rose Family, can be used to make a cherry-flavored liquor. For that story, look at the article for Loquat Grappa.

The berries of the Firethorn — high in Vitamin C —  are actually pommes which is a fleshy fruit with seeds at the core, like apples. They are greatly favored by Black Birds and Cedar Waxwings, which have been know to strip a tree of all its berries. To the human pallet, the berries are soft and mealy — like an apple that should have been eaten last week.  They are mild flavor and have several seeds. The seeds are shaped like tiny angular Brazil nuts. Some report the berries are bitter but that has not been my experience. They are, however, sometimes slightly astringent. Like many soft berries they don’t keep well and that’s probably why they service man as jelly.

If you do any research on the internet for Pyracantha jelly you will find the following recipe:

Place 7 cups washed Pyracantha berries in a very large pan with 5 cups of water. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Strain through a cloth. Measure 3 cups berry juice, 1/2 cup lemon juice and 7 cups sugar into a very large pan. Over high heat, bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  Immediately stir in one bottle liquid pectin, bring to a full rolling boil and boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, skim off foam and pour into sterilized glasses. Cover With 1/8 inch melted paraffin. Prepared berry juice may be refrigerated or frozen prior to making jelly.

Firethorns puts on a brilliant dispay of fruit. Photo by Green Deane

While that’s a good starting point I have not found it a satisfactory recipe. It produces an edible but weak-flavored jelly with anemic, runny texture. Here is what I do: I start with two quarts of cleaned and washed berries (no leaves, minimal bugs.) I boil them in six cups of water for at least 30 minutes. Then I mash the berries and cook for five minutes more. Strain.  That gives you six or so cups of infusion. I put that in a new pot and bring to boil. I premix eight cups of sugar with TWO — not one — but  TWO packages of Sure Jell (twice the standard portion in other words) and I add one half teaspoon of citric acid. A half cup of lemon juice also works but I like to thoroughly mix my dry ingredients together ahead of time. It reduces clumping. Once the infusion is boiling, I add the dry mixture and then bring to boil again and boil for two minutes. This will make 12 to 13 cups of jelly. Then I can it the usual way using sterilized jars and paraffin.  I haven’t tried it but I am tempted sometime to add a teaspoon of cinnamon to the infusion because the jelly has a hint of apple flavor. Here’s my video link to making Firethorn sauce:

Of  course, making Firethorn jelly is more than just making jelly. While there have been many changes since the days of our grandparents, or great grandparents, one of them is we have become removed from the dynamic of food. Ask kids where milk comes from and too many will say a bottle. Food is the intimate link between us and the earth and in our preprocessed, prepackaged world we lose a bit of our grounding when everything comes off a shelf, or worse, out the drive-in window. It is surprising how many of us actually don’t eat much food these days but rather preprocessed food substitutes that proudly state what has been removed. When you identify a fruit grown by nature, not man; harvest it, prepare it, and then let it help sustain your life, you realize you are part of this planet and very dependent upon it. I would also add our ancestors got along quite well without nutritionists or botanists. Fortunately, artificial food has been around less than a century.  If the ingredients reads like a chemistry set, you might want to consider not eating it.

One of my grandfathers who lived into his high 80s liked two things and had them nearly every day of his adult life: A pint of cream and a piece of homemade jelly roll. Owning a succession of cows took care of the cream, and my grandmother was constantly making jelly and jam out of most conceivable and inconceivable things:  Hawthorn jelly, Chokecherry jelly, and Gooseberry jam come to mind. I think she even made tomato jelly (and why not? After all, tomatoes are actually fruits, not vegetables.) Besides putting a little nature in one’s life, jellies and jams that you can’t buy can be come seasonal events, family traditions and tastes that last from generation to generation. I can hardly wait until spring to make pindo palm jelly.

Pyracantha Sauce

by Green Deane

3 pints ripe pyracantha pommes

Water to cover

Juice and zest of one lime

One (or more) minced chipotle pepper in adobo sauce

Sugar to taste

Two tablespoons corn starch

Salt optional

Put whole pommes and water in a sauce pan, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and simmer for 30 minutes, mash. Add lime juice, zest, and chipotle pepper, simmer 30 more minutes. Filter the liquid, discarding all solids. Reserve 1/2 cup liquid. By simmering again reduce liquid down to about two cups. Taste. Add sugar to desired taste. Mix the corn starch in the now cool reserve liquid then mix that a little at a time into the sweetened sauce until thick. Use or refrigerate.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Thorny evergreen shrubs with serrated leaf margins and numerous thorns. They have white flowers and either red, orange, or yellow berries.

TIME OF YEAR: In northern climates the flowers come out in late spring and early summer; the berries develop from late summer, and mature in late autumn. In Florida this happens in spring and fall, sometimes continuously throughout the year.

ENVIRONMENT: Not particular about soil, refers full sun but will grow in partial shade. A common landscape plant

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Berries can be used for jelly. They can also be used for a sauce, marmalade, wine and extender. The seeds are not edible in quantities more than a few.




The ornamental Firebush in bloom. Photo by Green Deane

Hamelia patens: Edible pharmaceutical

The Firebush is probably one of the most commonly planted unknown edibles. They are usually arranged in the landscape to attract butterflies and migratory or resident humming birds. However the fruit is edible — with precautions — and the plant has a long history of medicinal and industrial uses.

Red berries ripen to black. Photo by Green Deane

It would be difficult to make a better consumer lawn shrub than the Firebush. It is showy, fast-growing, evergreen, stays small, attracts birds and insects and provides an edible fruit.  It blossoms all year with tubular flowers, reddish-orange or scarlet. Even the stems of the flowers are red. The fruit is a juicy berry with a lot of little seeds. It ripens from green to yellow to red then black.  It can be eaten out of hand — more on that in a moment — made in to a syrup or wine, a particular favorite in Mexico.  It can fruit nearly all year unless damaged by cold. The berry is deceptive raw. It has an initial sweetness and grape-like texture that yields a sticky, lingering, slightly bitter aftertaste in the back of the mouth. Try one first, not a lot. See if you like it. Some people don’t taste that so it might be a genetic trait. Cooking eliminates that aftertaste. 

The Mayans called it, Ix-canan, or “guardian of the forest.” In Belize the Firebush is  used to treat a variety of skin problems including, sores, rashes, wounds, burns, itching, cuts, skin fungus, and insect stings and bites. For topical use they boiling two handful of leaves, stems and flowers in two gallons of water for 10 minutes. Once cool, it is applied liberally to the affected area. This same liquid is drank as a tea to relieve menstrual cramps. The Choco Indians in Panama drink a leaf infusion to treat fever and diarrhea; the Ingano Indians make a leaf infusion for intestinal parasites. Tribes in Venezuela chew on the leaves to lower body temperature to prevent a sun or heat stroke.  In Brazil the root is used as a diuretic, the leaves for scabies and headaches. Cubans use the leaves externally for headaches and sores while a decoction is taken internally for rheumatism. In Mexico it is used externally to stop staunch to flow of blood and heal wounds.

In the lab animal studies with Firebush leaf extracts showed analgesic, diuretic, and hypothermic actions. External use showed significant anti-inflammatory activity. The bush also antibacterial and antifungal properties against a wide range of fungi and bacteria in several. Also, incisions bathed with plant juice healed faster and stronger than no bathing or application of petroleum jelly.

The industrial use of the plant comes from it high amounts of tannins.  The hard, brown wood has also been used. Firebush’s botanical name is Hamelia patens. Hamelia honors French botanist Honri Louis Du Hamel du Monceau and is said: huh-MEE-lee-uh.  Patens, said PAY-tenz, means spreading.

Firebush Catsup

2 cups ripe berries
½ cup mild vinegar
2/3 cup water
1 cup brown sugar
½ tsp each of clove, ginger and paprika
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
Put into a saucepan the berries, vinegar and water. Boil the berries until they are soft (5 minutes). Put through a blender or food processor. Then add the sugar, spices and salt. Simmer for 3 minutes. Serve at room temperature.

Carambola and Firebush Chutney

4 cups carmbola, peeled and pipped, cut into small pieces
¼ cup ripe berries
2 cups vinegar
2 cups sugar
¼ cup finely chopped ginger

Put in a heavy saucepan vinegar and sugar and bring to boiling point. Add the carambola and ginger. Cook on low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking to bottom of can. Add berries in the last 10 minutes of cooking to allow then to retain their shape.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Shrub or small, bushy tree to 12 ft. Young branches reddish. Leaves elliptic, oblong or elliptic-ovate, pointed, 3 to 7 in. long, more or less flushed and dotted with red or purple, and with red stalks; soft-textured, hairy. Flowers scarlet, tubular, with dark linear stripes, slender, to 1 1/2 in. long, in tassel-like, branched clusters. If the flowers are more yellow than red and without stripes it is probably the H. patens var glabra from Mexico, presumed to be edible.  Fruit ovalish, five-pointed calyx, seedy, distinct nipple.

TIME OF YEAR: Flowers and fruits year round.

ENVIRONMENT: Common in hammocks and landscaping. It prefers damp to dry. Native to Florida but can be grown along the southern gulf coast and up the west coast to southern oregon.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Ripe fruit is black, edible raw, can be made into a syrup or wine.


Wild Apple tree in October in Pownal Maine. Photo by Green Deane

Wild Apple tree in October in Pownal Maine. Photo by Green Deane

Malus sieversii, Hard-Core Apples

Wild Apples are one of the most common over-looked foraging foods. People take one taste, spit it out, and go on their way.

Because of the story of Johnny Appleseed (who was a real person) most folks think apples aren’t native to North America. There were plenty of apples here when Europeans arrived but they were Wild Apples not cultivated apples. What’s the difference? Taste and size. Most wild apples are small and sour, domesticated apples tend to be larger and sweeter. What most people don’t know is that wild apples can be baked or roasted (as in near an open fire or in an oven) and made very tasty. While some wild apples are too bitter to eat even after cooking many are transformed into good eats.

Well-treated wild apples can be sweet.

When I was a kid foraging in the Maine woods wild apples were very common. In fact, of the eight or so feral apple trees I knew of only one had a cultivated heritage. It was a Golden Delicious, and my least favorite. The rest were usually sour raw but wonderful when roasted by a campfire (and no pots to clean.)  Unfortunately there are few if any Wild Apples in this area of Florida. It is simply too hot. They like northern climes and northern people liked wild apples, too. No less a person than New England native Henry David Thoreau wrote a 10,000-word essay on the Wild Apple.

Many wild apples are better cooked than raw.

The domestic apple as we know it has been around some 6,000 years and came from Kazakhstan. There apple trees growing to 60 feet were the dominant species of the forest. That is something to think about, apple trees the size of Oaks, a forest of them… Orchards there today are remarkable in that the trees are very resistant to disease, unlike commercial crops. Further, two apples from that area — the Red Delicious and the Golden Delicious — are the parents of 90% of modern commercial eating apples. The Red Delicious was hybridized into the Fuji and the Empire, and the Golden Delicious into the Gala, the Jonagold, the Mutsu, the Pink Lady and the Elstar. The Granny Smith (below right) however, came from a back yard in Australia.

One Granny Smith sprouted in 1868

It originated in 1868 from a chance seedling propagated by Maria Ann Smith (née Sherwood) born 1799, died 9 March 1870. Researchers think the now well-known green apple was a chance cross between Malus sylvestris, a European Wild Apple — perhaps from France via Tasmania — with the domestic apple M. domestica. Widely propagated in New Zealand. It was introduced to the United Kingdom around 1935 and the United States in 1972. Each Granny Smith apple today is a clone. Actually every commercial apple is a clone.  One cultivated apple that does grows in Florida is the Apple Anna, which was a chance seedling found in the Bahamas and can  withstand the summer heat. Worldwide some 55 million tons of apples are harvested annually worth some $50 billion annually. Americans eat on average, as of this writing, 126 apples a year each. Meanwhile wild apples, which are free, feed mostly wildlife.

Often a wild apple’s taste will be moderated because of hybridizing with cultivated apples. There are no hard and fast rules identifying which are edible raw. You just have to taste and experiment with each wild apple tree you find. They also usually have more cholesterol-reducing pectin than cultivated apples thus are added to other fruits and domestic apples when making jelly. Incidentally, there is no such species as a “crabapple” per se.  Crabapple, like “pearl onion” is a reference to size. Crabapples, like pearl onions, are small and any small apple can be called a crabapple as any small onion can be a pearl onion. The fascinating aspect of apples is that every apple seed is totally different than the parent tree. Something like snow flakes no two apple seeds are genetically alike thus what kind of tree each will produce is a mystery. Every named apple you eat came originally from just one seed and one tree. As mentioned above they are clones which is why it takes a long time to get a new apple into production.

Besides foraging for wild apples I used to help my father make pieces of apple wood into tobacco pipes. We’d find a suitable size piece, rough cut and drill it then boil it for a few hours to drive the sap out of it. Then it was carved and sanded. A bit of bass wood became the stem. I still have one of them around after more than 50 years. You can read about that here. If you are a hunter wild apples trees are a good place to find game. When I roamed the woods as a boy wild apple trees were the prime place to flush partridge in the fall and later deer. A huge variety of wildlife like the apple among them foxes, raccoons, bears, coyotes, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, grouse, prairie chickens, and quail.  They know good food when they find it.

Johnny Appleseed (Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio)

Malus sieversii (MAL-us see-VER-see-eye) is the botanical title for these wild fruits. Malus is the Dead Latin word for apple, and Sieverrii honors Ivan Sievers, a Russian botanist who discovered the wild apples in 1793 in Kazakhstan but died before describing the species.  The name was given by Carl Friedrich von Ledebour, who got there in 1830. The word “apple” is also from Dead Latin and means fruit. All that said what about Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, September 26, 1774 – March 11, 1845.) While he wore a tin pot for a hat and a burlap sack for a shirt, and went barefoot even in the winter, he was an astute businessman. He bought or got land grants ahead of settlers and started apple tree nurseries so when the settlers arrived he had trees to sell. Then he would leave his nurseries in the hands of a local and set out for the frontier again.

While I am on the topic, what about eating apple seeds? There are two things we know for certain: Eating a few at a time is fine, eating a huge amount can make you ill and possibly kill you. What’s a few? What ever seeds you find in one apple is no big deal. In fact, my mother — who died at 88 — often ate a quarter of a cup of seeds at a time but that was living dangerously. For the average person of average weight the fatal dose would be around 114 average-size seeds thoroughly chewed. And what about the story that a man saved up a cup of seeds, ate them, and died from that?

Kingsbury’s book was the standard.

The story got legs when a prominent expert on toxicology, Dr. John M. Kingsbury included it in his book Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada, Prentice-Hall, 1964. Kingsbury was an associate professor of botany at New York State College of Agriculture and lectured on poisonous plants for the veterinary college. Everyone presumed Kingsbury had proof. But in 1998 in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology there was a letter to the editor grousing about folklore and “plantlore” specifically mentioning Kingsbury. That got me interested in the veracity of the death-by-appleseed story. To be specific I wanted to know the name of the man who ate a cup of apple seeds, where, and when did he die? Basic facts. After all, Kingsbury’s inclusion in his book gave the story legitimacy and it has been quoted extensively ever since. Kingsbury’s bibliography quoted two authors more than two decades earlier: Reynard, G.B., and J.B.S. Norton in Poisonous Plants of Maryland in Relationship to Livestock. Maryland Agricultural Experimental Station, Technical Bulletin. A10, 1942. 312pp. That would make sense as they and Kingsbury had an interest in plants that were toxic to farm animals.

On page 276 of the bulletin Reynard and Norton write about prussic acid harming livestock. (Amygdalin is essentially a sugar and cyanide molecule which is safe until digested where upon it releases hydrogen cyanide which used to be called prussic acid.) The cyanide blocks the uptake of oxygen by red blood cells causing asphyxiation. How much material, how chewed the material is, the liquid dilution of the material in the stomach, and how many stomachs you have and your size all affect the extent of the poisoning. In the listing of plants that can harm animals via prussic acid Reynard and Norton include flax, wild black cherry, wild red cherry, choke cherries, peach (kernels) plums, cherry (seeds) apple (seeds) sorghum, lima beans, arrow grass and manna grass.

Original Apple Seed Reference

They note in the last paragraph (photo left:) “Apple seeds are mentioned, not as having caused stock-poisoning, but because of the fact that one instance was recorded from personal inquiry in which an adult man was killed following eating a cup of these seeds at one time. The seeds had been saved up, apparently thought to be a delicacy in small amounts and upon being eaten developed enough of the deadly prussic acid to cause this tragic death. The instance is recorded here as a caution to others who might attempt to eat more than a few of these seeds at any one time. Previous investigators have reported that apple seeds contain appreciable amounts of amygdalin from which prussic acid is developed, but actual reports of poisoning are rare. “

So rare they didn’t or couldn’t say who actually did die from eating apple seeds if anyone ever did. Their reference — a personal inquiry — is as weak as Kingsbury’s. Without a name, a time and place it is but an early urban legend. It may be that someone indeed did died from eating a cup of apple seeds. It is theoretically possible. I say theoretically because if it did happen it was before 1942 and no one thus far in any professional paper has ever identified who it was if anyone. The best one can come up with is a no-referenced warning in a livestock bulletin 72 years ago. A 130-year search by this writer of the New York Times of 437 stories involving prussic acid revealed suicides, murders and a few accidental medicinal deaths. None by an appleseed overdose. I think that would have made the newspaper. The point is the seeds in one apple a day won’t kill an adult. To be on the safe side however, kids, because they are so much smaller, should not eat apple seeds.

For some of the above material I want to give special thanks to Stephanie M. Ritchie, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Avenue, Room 132, Beltsville, MD 20705

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: A tree seldom more than 20 feet high with a contorted and rigid crown, branches often short and spur like, thorn-like twigs, leaves alternating saw-toothed,  obvious network of veins on either side of the leaf. Quintet of pinkish or white petals, scented. If you cut the apple through at the equator you should see a star shaped core where the seeds develop.

TIME OF YEAR: Fall, if not late fall

ENVIRONMENT: Likes all terrain that is not bone dry or sopping wet, often found on the south side of hills.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Jelly, fruit, drink, source of pectin. Often they are improved greatly by roasting near a fire or in an oven.


Ambrosia trifida, once cultivated for grain, photo by Illinois Wild Flowers
Ambrosia trifida, was once cultivated for grain, photo by Illinois Wild Flowers

Some 18 generations ago — 600 years ago give or take a century or two — some Natives Americans stopped cultivating a particular crop and may have moved on to maize. About 150 years ago — five generations — American farmers were raising crabgrass for grain when they, too, moved on to corn, the descendant of maize. So what crop did the Indians stop growing? Ragweed, the most hay-fever causing plant in the world. No one alive knows why Ragweed fell out of cultivation though the development of maize is a prime guess. And Ragweed certainly is not  favored by farmers now who view it as a vile invader that chokes domestic crops. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider Ragweed.

Common Ragweed, photo by Wisconsin Plants
Common Ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia

The grain is some 47% crude protein and 38% crude fat. That’s an energy powerhouse despite the size. The seed oil is edible and at least one person alive today has eaten a small hand full of seeds. They taste like wheat bran.  In excess of 5,000 seeds can be produce per plant. Generally said Ragweed is not an “antique vegetable” as such things are sometime called. But, it might be a lost grain. Ragweed oil is on par with soybean oil and the plant produces about the same amount as soybean, one fifth the seed weight. Some reports say natives would grind the seeds, bring them to boil in water, the oil would float to the top, then was ladled off.

Ragweed seed, photo by USDA
Ragweed seed, photo by USDA

While one could argue this is much to do over some oil but fat is essential to survival. You absolutely cannot live without some source of fat. Oil would have been extremely important to native populations and could be again if we were ever forced to provide our own food. And unlike soybean which has to be cultivated, Ragweed is a weed that can do all right on its own. One debate in the ethnobotanical community is whether the natives cultivated a huge version of Giant Ragweed or not. One study says yes because the seeds that were found were larger than found in nature. Another study says no reporting that there are large seeds in nature as well. Bit of a toss up there. But we know animals certainly ate them and still do. In fact Ragweed is one of the few seed-bearing plants that stands above deep snow providing valuable creature food during the winter. It’s on the menu for the Eastern Cottontail, Meadow Vole, grasshoppers which eat the leaves, Dark-eyed Junco, Brown-headed Cowbird, Northern Bobwhite, Purple Finch, Mourning Dove, American Goldfinch, and the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Sheep and horses also like to eat the plant. What about humans eating the hard seeds or foliage? There’s a lot of speculation but few hard facts.

The author Peter Goodchild reports giant ragwee seeds were a source of grain
The author Peter Goodchild reports giant ragwee seeds were a source of grain

An article on the plant at Michigan State University for the W.J.Beal Botanical Garden says: “…some archaeologists have suggested that …  the seeds were impractical as a food source. However, the fact that Indigenous Americans were specialists at navigating starvation episodes, combined with the observation that giant ragweed seeds are comprised of about 19 percent edible oil, make it fairly certain that these seeds would not be overlooked as a food resource.” No details given. A weed ecology fact sheet for Ohio State University says: “One of our few native weeds. Seeds eaten by pre-Columbian Indians.” Again, no details. In the book Archaic Societies: Diversity and Complexity Across the Midcontinent by Thomas E. Edison (2009) it mentions a 1997 it report (Gremillion) that Ragweed seeds were found in paleofecal material from 950 to 1400 years ago along with sunflower seeds and sumpweed seeds. It’s difficult for a seed to end up in an ancient bathroom unless it was eaten. In 1984 Peter Goodchild published Survival Skills of the North American Indians.  On page 209 in a list of  “food plants” he writes for the Giant Ragweed “cultivated for its seed in several areas.

Was Giant Ragweed cultivated? It would seem so, and for its grain. It’s definitely in the ancient farmers crop line up but then falls away. The next question is was it raised to eat the grain or for the oil, or both? It’s not easy in modern times to be aware of past practices. For example, some suggest the natives crush the seeds and boiled them for oil (not unlike acorns.) Possible yes, but is it probable this was done for food? In communication with Goodchild he writes:

“Judging from other uses of oily seeds, the natives are unlikely to have done any processing of the seeds. Generally that’s not practical without modern machinery. I’ve even experimented myself with sunflower seeds, and found no practical (primitive) method of getting the oil out — it’s far easier just to eat the seeds”

Peter Goodchild

Thus while the seeds have oil its extraction might not have been the prime use whereas eating the grain could have been. But might I offer a variant of that? From a calories-in calories-out point of view — or level of difficulty — many ancient foods would not be consumed. They just were not worth the effort as food. Among them could be smilax root starch and pokeweed greens. Getting the starch out of a smilax root is a Herculean task that burns far more calories than is produced on consumption. And boiling pokeweed twice does not make caloric sense when boiling was difficult and other nutritious leaves could be eaten raw.  What I suspect was whilst in the pursuit of medicine  — which is not a calories-in calories-out dependent task — it was discovered various plants had other edible parts. Medicinal needs could justify calorie-deficit tasks. And while fat was obtainable from animals a plant oil might have its medicinal applications. So perhaps the Giant Ragweed could have been used for food and for oil but the latter in a medicinal sense. Ragweed oil might have been too valuable to eat but worth the effort to obtain medicinally. Another possible aspect professional archaeologists never seem to consider is that long ago the menu changed only with the seasons. They would dismiss Giant Ragweed grains as too small or not worth the effort to make a stable crop, and that may be true. But, such grains were another flavor and texture to add to the limited, slow-to-change diet. We sprinkle pine nuts on pesto. Might they have done something similar?

Ragweed Pollen
Ragweed Pollen

As for allergens, Ragweed is second only to mold in causing allergic symptoms. There are 17 species of Ragweed in North America. The common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) can produce a million grains of pollen per plant daily, the Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) can create in excess of 1.25 million grains daily and over a billion during its life cycle. This leads to a lot of cross pollination and plant variation. Left on its own Ragweed is a riparian plant living along rivers and local flood plains. Isolated patches depend upon the wind to carry the pollen. With the migration of man so went the Ragweed and the number of plants and the amount of pollen carried by the wind. Ragweed has multiple antigens but the strongest is Antigen E. There are also several plants that in the greater Ragweed family that can cause allergic reactions including sage brush, marsh elders, poverty weed, cocklebur, desert broom, groundsel bush, feverfew and dog fennel. Goldenrod is unfairly blamed for causing allergies because it blooms at the same time as Ragweed. But, its pollen is too heavy to be windblown. (Here’s a botanical hint: Green flowers, in particular small green flowers, are usually wind-pollinated. They aren’t colorful enugh to attract insects for pollination.)

Ambrosia tenuifolia has edible roots.
Ambrosia tenuifolia has edible roots.

There is also at least one Ragweed with a root the natives ate, Ambrosia tenuifolia, Slimleaf Burr Ragweed. Professor Daniel Moerman reports the Papago Indians dried the roots in the sun and used them as a staple crop (that would be in Arizona.) They also ate the stalks as greens. However the USDA lists Ambrosia tenuifolia as only growing in Louisiana and Puerto Rico. That particular Ragweed it is native to South America and has been naturalized in Spain, France and Italy. Why it is missing from Arizona now is anyone’s guess. Elsewhere natives used Ragweed stalks for rope. The stems and leaves of  Ambrosia peruviana were and are used as a green dye. Various species were also used medicinally, see Herb Blurb below.

The Greek Gods consumed ambrosia and see what it did for them!
The Greek Gods consumed ambrosia and see what it did for them!

As for the binomial name, Ambrosia is usually translated into English as meaning “food of the gods.”  A direct translation from the Greek means “unmortal”  or “not mortal.” In Greek mythology “ambrosia” was sometimes the food the gods ate and or wine they drank which gave the gods (and demigods) immortality thus called “ambrosia.” But, food and drink were used interchangeably thus for some ancient writers “ambrosia” was food and for others it was drink which was also called nectar, Greek NEKtar which means “death overcoming.” Ambrosia is close to the older Sanskrit word Amrita which means “without death.” Clearly there was a long-running theme here. Greek gods, who always had human failings and consequently were far from perfect, were what they ate and drank, not unlike people today. Why a rather nondescript plant that is a prime allergen would be called Ambrosia is anyone’s guess. No hints were left.

A couple of more things: The common ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, is the most efficient plant to remove lead from the ground. And I know a retired doctor in south Florida who tells me he’s eating Ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia. Like Pokeweed he is boiling it twice in this case to moderate the flavor. We know from his experiment this apparently does not cause any acute toxicity or quick reactions. However, a steady diet of Ragweed might cause issues over the long term, or might not. We just don’t know.  

Green Deane’s Itemized Plant Profile: Giant Ragweed

IDENTIFICATION: Annual 3 to 12 feet tall, branching occasionally. Green stems covered with white hairs, leaves opposite to a foot long and eight inches wide,  larger leaves divided into 3 or 5 lobes, usually serrated along the edge, long petioles sometimes winged. Smaller leaves near the base of flower lance-shaped, often hairy underneath. Upper stems terminate in a cylindrical flower spike to six inches long. Small flowers yellowish green, no petals or sepals, drooping clusters.

TIME OF YEAR: Flowers late summer or early fall, seeds follow, large, tough-coated, viable for many years.

ENVIRONEMENT:  Full sun to light shade, moist, fertile soil. It is native to 47 of the 50 states missing Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: We have no idea. Perhaps ground seeds boiled in water, oil skimmed off the top. Perhaps the seeds were parched then eaten. A few can be eaten raw. Beyond that there is no modern report of  consumption other than the doctor I mentioned above.

Herb Blurb

Te genus yields volatile oils. quercetin, and bitter alkaloids. Plant extracts are anti-bacterial and anti-viral. Ambrosia ambrosioides; a tea was made from the roots and given to women after birth. Ambrosia confertiflora; used to cure diarrhea, flowerettes chewed and followed by a drink of water. Ambrosia cumanensis; herb teas for yellow fever, constipation, menorrhagia. Herb juice for pleurisy. Root or herb infusions for colds, flu, fever, in postpartum depurants. Herb of second growth crushed leaves mixed with chicken fat and/or hot water, cool mixture rubbed on the body to reduce fever.  Ambrosia elatior as a poultice. Ambrosia hispida was used to relieve fever, stomach ache, pain, loss of appetite, and flu. To boiled leaf tea they added salt to to increase the appetite then drank the tea for nine mornings. Lemon juice and salt was added when it was used for gas and colds. A weak leaf tea with salt was used to relieve menstrual pain (again taken for nine mornings.) It was also a “granny” medicine to “clean everything out” after childbirth. Tea from fresh plant less better than tea from dried plant. Ambrosia psilostachya, a bitter decoction taken to relieve fever.

Journal of Northeast Forestry University 2008-01
GC-MS Analysis of Fatty Acid Constituents in Ambrosia trifida Seed Oil

Zhang Lin,Yang Lei,Niu Huiying,Li Xiaowei,Zu Yuangang(Key Laboratory of Forest Plant Ecology of Ministry of Education,Northeast Forestry University,Harbin 150040,P.R China)

Seed oil extracted from the seeds of Ambrosia trifida through solvent extraction was analysed by GC-MS after esterification. Four components from six peaks of the fatty acid constituents were identified.The main constituents are linoleic acid and oleic acid,and the relative contents are 81.60% and 14.73%,respectively.


Ripe saw palmetto berries

Serenoa Repens: Weed to Wonder Drug

Rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice

That’s how starving shipwrecked Quakers described the flavor of the saw palmetto berries in 1692, “rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice.”  The account is in a 103-page report on Saw Palmetto written by Dr. Edwin Moses Hale in 1898:

“There is no doubt that the aborigines of the Florida peninsula depended largely upon the berries of the saw palmetto for their food. In a very old book, with a quaint title page, published in 1796, are narrated by Jonathan Dickinson the adventures of a shipload of Quakers who were shipwrecked on the coast of Florida… The shipwreck occurred [24 September] 1696. They were captured by the Jaega Indians, who were believed to be cannibals. After terrible sufferings, a part of the men and women arrived at St. Augustine. Dickinson narrates that on their [capture] they were taken to the wigwam of the “casseky” or chief who “seated himself on his cabin, cross legged, having a basket of palmetto berries brought him, which he eat very greedily.” These Quakers, while with the Indians, nearly starved to death. The only food given them were fish and berries. Their first trial of the berries was not favorable. “We tasted them, but not one among us could suffer them to stay in our mouths, for we could compare the taste of them to nothing else by rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice.  …. of the palm berries we could not bear the taste in our mouths.” Even when almost starving “the Indians offered us some of their berries, which we endeavored to eat but could not; the taste was so irksome and ready to take out breath from us when we tried to eat them.”

Dickenson’s account of the journey

Hale, quoting Dickinson, goes on to say the Quakers did learn to tolerate the berries and the boiled juice of the saw palmetto helped feed and save Dickinson’s infant son. That makes sense: The berry is loaded with oil and sugar. In his book, the good doctor also describes eating them: “The berries are at first exceedingly sweet to the taste, but in a few seconds this is followed by an acrid, pungent sensation that spreads to the fauces, nasal mucous membrane and larynx. This is in turn succeeded by a feeling of smoothness in all those parts, as if they had been coated with oil.” He likened the flavor to butyric acid that grows stronger with age.

Some Internet pundits — no  doubt copying each other  — call the shipwrecked account about eating the berries humorous. That is woefully misplaced. Their ship, the Reformation, a barkentine sailing from Jamaica to Philadelphia, was wrecked off Jupiter Island, near Hobe Sound, by a hurricane. Twenty survived the wrecking and subsequent “capture.” And though starving they had to wrestle with the idea the Indians wanted to fatten them up for slaughter — cannibals only eat strangers. Released after several weeks of captivity they had to make their way on foot the 230 miles up the coast to St. Augustine, five of them died along the way from starvation and exposure. No food, no water, in a hostile strange land with often hostile natives. Hardly humorous. They were semi-captured as second time by the Ais Indians and endured yet another hurricane.  One can still read of the harrowing account in Dickinson’s narrative (abbreviated title) : God’s Protective Providence, Being the Narrative of a Journey from Port Royal in Jamaica to Philadelphia Between August 23 1696 and April 1, 1697. The book was reprinted 16 times in English, and three times each in Dutch and German between 1700 and 1869. Today it is known as Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal. Dickinson, by the way, went on to twice serve as mayor of Philadelphia. There is now an 11,500-acre state park in Florida, the Jonathan Dickinson State Park, about five miles from where they were shipwrecked.

Personally, I think the black ripe berries of the Serenoa repens (sair-ren-NOE-uh REE-penz) tastes like an extremely intense, very long-lasting, exceptionally peppery piece of blue cheese. It is also very close in flavor to the gastric juices we sometimes burp up and coats our throat. Blue cheese/gastric juice, intense, mouth coating, near burning. Discarding the seed unless I plan on squeezing it for oil, I eat one berry at a time, with wine, and still it is very intense blue cheese-esque….  not as good as blue cheese, but more intense, on the verge of being gastric juice. Not something to eat without a chaser… you have been warned.

Saw palmettos have multiple “heads”

Old time Seminole Indians said you shouldn’t eat more than five palmetto berries at one time. If you eat it with hot water it will bother your mouth for a while. They may know a thing or two about that. They still squeeze the berries, but add a little sugar with the juice, and drink it as a tea. In the early 1900’s in Miami you could buy “Metto” which was saw palmetto juice mixed with sugar and carbonated water. And as much as Dickinson said none of his party could eat them the berries were exported to Europe nearly as century earlier in 1602.

Fortunately for us there is more to forage off the saw palmetto than the berries. The terminal buds of the growing trunks contain heart of palm just like the cabbage palm does except it’s smaller. Taking it from the saw palmetto does not kill the many-trunked palm.  The growing bottom ends of young fronds are also edible, after one carefully pulls them out. You get one or two bites off those but it is work hauling them out.  You pull them out by putting on some thick leather gloves, grabbing the youngest stalk firmly, and yanking. Where it breaks is edible.  Also the stems can be chopped, ground, mixed with water, strained and an edible starch settled out.

The Saw Palmetto cover about 10% of the state of Florida and is a major source of honey. There are actually two varieties, one with yellow green fronds and ones with blue green fronds. Both of them also produce wax in their leaves but the wax from the blue green variety is preferred. Besides that the plant is used for fiber and thatching. Seminole Indians still make their dolls out of 100% saw palmetto fiber.  It stems provide a good cork substitute, the root pulp was used to plug WWII ammunition, and the root makes a natural scrub brush.

Saw palmetto in blossom

In a modern day twist the saw palmetto berries have several medical application so this “irksome” weed is a $70 million or more business in Florida. They’ve even had to pass laws to prevent unauthorized saw palmetto berry pilfering.  Has a $500 fine. We now know saw palmetto berries have a positive effect on the male reproductive system, though the studies are mixed. Older Seminole Indians called the berries the “spring of life.” Some think this is where Ponce De Leon got the idea there was some fountain of youth in Florida. Talk about a mistranslation. I processed  10 pounds of berries. Five pounds were dehydrated, and five went into vodka. The dried saw palmetto berries had a milder flavor. The ones in vodka moderated, too, but took on a tougher texture like think cardboard. 

Incidentally, be careful when foraging for palmetto berries. Palmetto thickets are favorite place for the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, not only on the ground but in the fronds. The snake often climbs the plant on sunny days to get off the hot ground and enjoy the shade. It is also where their prey like to escape as well. Proceed carefully. Creatures that like to eat the berries include raccoon, fox, black bear, gopher tortoises, white tailed deer, feral hogs, water birds and even fish. Butterflies like it, too.  In fact the plant provides food or cover for some 100 birds, 27 mammals, 25 amphibians, 61 reptile species and numerous butterflies. Cows fed saw palmetto berries produce richer milk, perhaps because the berry is loaded with oil. Two thirds of the oil is comprised of free fatty acids including capric, caprylic, caproic, lauric, palmitic and oleic acids.

Sereno Watson, Phd.

Incidentally, the heart of the Sabal etonia aka Sabal minor can also be eaten. It resembles the saw palmetto but its stalks have no saw-like teeth. It is also rather rare, so don’t put it on your dinner plate unless it is development kill.

The genus, Serenoa,  is named for shy Harvard botanist and herbarium curator Sereno Watson, 1826-1892. His name means calm, peaceful. Repens means “creeping.” The palm has many branches and creeps out in all directions along the  ground.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: A small palm, six to twelve feet, sprawling, grows in clumps or dense thickets. Leaf stalks are covered with saw like teeth.

TIME OF YEAR: Fruits ripen in fall, heart available year round.

ENVIRONMENT: Sandy ridges, flatwood forests, coastal dunes, islands near marshes, hardwood hammocks, dominant ground cover in some southeastern pine forests, sometimes covering hundreds of acres. Seen inland as far as Arkansas

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Fruits raw or dried, heart raw or cooked. Crown end of growing leaf, trail side nibble. The seeds are edible raw or cooked but is an acquired taste.

Unripe (yellow) and ripe (black) saw palmetto berries. Photo by Green Deane