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.

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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
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Carolina Bristle Mallow. Photo by Green Deane

Modiola caroliniana: A Bristly Drink

No one knows how many species of edible plants there are in the world, or in North America. In the former the guess is around 135,000, in the latter between four and six thousand, a margin of 50%. Of those perhaps 3,000 are reasonably well-known. There is still a lot to discover.

Resembles parsley but low growing. Photo by Green Deane

I would not be surprised to find close to two thousand edible species in Florida as it ranges over 400 miles from hilly temperate to nearly flat tropical.  In fact I know of a survey that listed 1,700 edibles in the local area but that included subspecies and varieties including ferns and mushrooms. The point is one can always find an edible plant one had not known before, and that was my case about a decade ago with the Modiola caroliniana (moe-DYE-oh-lah care-row-lin-knee-ANN-ah (or AIN-ah.)

I don’t lead many foraging classes in large state parks because they usually are not where the common weeds or the people are. The edible plants are also few and far between, sometimes a half a mile or more whereas in an old city park one can often find a half-a-dozen edible within a square yard.

While scouting Lake Woodruff Wildlife Refuge for a suitable foraging class site an odd plant presented itself under the bird observation tower — read a plant that follows man’s feet rather than traveling solely by nature. Deep green, kind of looked like plump parsley, maybe a mallow of some kind. Low growing, alternating leaves, in a wet area but growing high and dry on a dirt road in partial sun.

Tiny mallow blossom

Such discoveries can sometimes take months, if not years to identify. This time, however, I knew exactly where to look first: Weeds of Southern Turfgrasses by the University of Florida. I am very sure I use this book far differently than the authors intended. The book was put together to help home owners and businesses identify weeds in the lawn or golf courses so as to eradicate them. While they don’t say so, about half the plants in the book are edible, with good photos and descriptions. And there on page 152 was the object of my search, the Bristly Mallow, except it isn’t a mallow… well, that depends on how you use the word. It is in the greater Malvaceae family but its genus is not Malva. In fact, the Modiola caroliniana is the only species in its genus so there are no siblings to account for.

The seed head helps in off season identification.

Whether the Modiola is edible is a bit of definition as well. Cornucopia II says on page 148: “Cajuns make a refreshing drink by soaking a handful of the leaves in a quart of water for two or more hours. Many drink it every day.”

That’s good news but elsewhere the information is not so encouraging. Dr. Daniel Austin in his  huge tome, Florida Ethnobotany, says on page 442 it was used as a gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis and diphtheria; as an emollient  and sedative, and to treat edema. One would presume it is a diuretic, and perhaps “refreshing” means relaxing.  A cold water extract was used for a “healing bath” and it was also used for menstrual issues. It is suspected in the poisoning and paralysis of sheep, goats, and cattle. If it is troublesome to livestock in some degree or amounts it might be nitrate toxicosis, which is sometimes caused by Malva species.

It would seem on one end of the Modiola’s spectrum we have a … refreshing… drink and on the other a strong herb for medicinal uses. Approached correctly it’s probably a good plant to add to the bank of foraging knowledge.

Carolina Bristle Mallow seeds. Not edible.

Where the plant came from originally is not certain. Most think South America then naturalized into tropical and warmer temperate parts of the world. In the US it is reported in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania then south to Florida and west to California, up to Oregon and in Hawaii. Nevada and the northern half of the US haven’t reported it (save for Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.) Elsewhere it is found from northern Argentina north, in northern Spain, northwest Portugal, northern Morocco, South Africa, southern peninsula India, Java, New Zealand (common in the Auckland area), the Chatham Islands, Australia (southern Queensland to southeast South Australia) Tasmania, southern Swanland, Norfolk Island, the Caribbean and Atlantic islands, including Bermuda, Hispaniola and Jamaica. (On a personal note it is all over my cousin’s farm in South Carolina.) 

Modiola is from Greek and means the center of a wheel, a reference to the seed pod. Caroliniana means from Carolina, read the eastern North America (though we now know that not to be true.)

PS: If you are thinking of buying Weeds of Southern Turfgrasses purchase it through the University of Florida. The cost is around $22 including shipping. Some folks on the Internet are charging $100 for the same book. Read about it here. 

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: M. caroliniana has prostrate, hairy stems, rooting at the nodes, which is also where flowering stems also grow. The leaves are variable, being up to 3 inches long to two inches wide, delta to kidney shaped, varying from shallowly toothed, to deeply toothed,  3- to 7-palmately lobed, and the lobes themselves often pinnately lobed. The small, long, hairy, persistent, stipules are leafy. Roots are tuberous.

TIME OF YEAR: Year round in warmer areas, summers in temperate areas

ENVIRONMENT: Orchards, vineyards, crop fields, gardens, urban sites, roadsides, dike roads and other disturbed, unmanaged sites.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: A drink: Soak a handful of leaves in a quart of water for two or more hours.

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Raw Bunya nuts taste similar to raw peanuts.

Raw Bunya Pine nuts taste similar to raw peanuts. Photo by Green Deane

The Australian Aboriginals knew a good thing when they tasted it. So did the immigrants. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like the taste of Bunya Pine nuts. But you will find people who don’t like to clean up after it because the ancient species sheds sharp leaves and heavy cones.

The Bunya cone may be prickly but Cous Cous holds her on to her prime napping box real estate. Photo by Green Deane

The Bunya cone may be prickly but Cous Cous holds on to her prime napping space. Photo by Green Deane

As a well-fed kitty Cous Cous, right, doesn’t get too excited over wild food that can’t run. She weights 10 pounds and sharing the box with her is a 6.5 pound edible Bunya Pine cone. The Bunya Pine is a close relative to the Monkey Puzzle Tree which produces a similar edible fruit except rounder and more pocupine looking. And it’s a stretch to call them pines or the fruit “cones” but it will do. The tree, Araucaria bidwillii  (air-ah-KAIR-ee-uh  bid-WILL-ee-eye) is native to Australia and was prominent in Aboriginal culture. They would stop wars for its harvest.  the Bunya has been exported over the world for a few centuries. It’s naturalized in south Florida but can be found in landscaping in warm areas of the United States and elsewhere. None have made the official maps locally though they are naturalized locally.

My friend Marabou (see Yam Harvest on You Tube) tipped me off to where there was one dropping cones so I had to take a look and taste. And dropping is the lethal word. A six-pound cone dropping 50 feet or more easily has enough impact to kill a person. A couple in New Zealand in April 2012 were hit by a watermelon size cone as they strolled hand-in-hand in a botanical garden there. It fortunately landed between them damaging shoulders and arms rather than causing fatal concussions. They did require some hospitalization.

Bunya Pine leaves spiral geometrically.

Young Bunya Pine leaves spiral geometrically. Photo by Green Deane

In its native range the tree can grow taller than 150 feet. Around the age of 14 begins to produce cones which take up to 18 months to mature. They fruit every two to three years though three years is favored. Like the Monkey Puzzle Tree, which reportedlyy grows locally, when the cones are dropped the seeds inside are ready to eat.  There’s 30 to 100 seeds per cone whereas 50 is closer to average. They can be eaten raw,  boiled or lightly roasted (be careful if you roast them in their shell, they can pop!) The nuts can be deep fired or used in stuffing.  Raw the texture is crispy-ish with a soft crunch. Cooked the texture is like a cooked chestnut as is the flavor. Uncooked they taste more like raw peanuts to me.  The left-over shell (and wood) is used to grill fish and meat. Indeed, when you roast the nuts in the shell they smell delicious with hints of cinnamon and spice. The germinated seed also produces an underground “earth nut” which has a crisp coconut like flavor. Somewhere I also read the roots are edible but I can’t refind the reference. Seeds weigh around half an ounce each and have about 30 calories. Unlike most nuts they are more starchy than oily. If roasted a long time the become very tough but then they can be ground into a flour-like powder. You can used the shelled nuts like pine nuts and they freeze well for later use.

To see my video on the Bunya Bunya go here.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Bunya Pine

Bunya Pine leaves taper on both ends.

Bunya Pine leaves taper on both ends. Photo by Green Deane

INDENTIFICATION: A tall tree with an egg-shaped dome, whorls of gangly branches covered with very sharp leaves. They can draw blood. It is tempting to misidentify the Bunya Pine for the Monkey Puzzle Tree. But there is a fairly easy way to tell them apart besides their cones which are different enough not to be confusing. The Monkey Puzzle Tree has sharp triangle-shaped leaves, pointed at the tipm wide at the base. The Bunya Pine leaves, right, are not diamond-shaped but they have a pointed tip and a tapered base and not too wide in the middle. Young leaves tend to be oval and can align themselves in geometric rows. Older leaves tend to be longer and linear.

TIME OF YEAR: In the northern hemisphere around July, in the southen Hemisphere around January, read the beginning of hot summer.

ENVIRONMENT: Good soil and sun. Originally a rainforest tree it will not survive deep cold.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Nuts raw, boiled, roasted, dried, and sprouting roots as well.

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Only the ripe fruit in the husk is edible

Physalis: Tomato’s Wild Cousin

I discovered ground cherries quite by accident.

Ground Cherry, P. walteri & P. viscosa

It was back in the last century. I raided a particular field annually for smilax tips and noticed the ground cherries in blossom. That prompted me to returned later in the season to collect them. Unfortunately that field is now a residential neighborhood. While ground cherries are a common plant one has to look for them. They blend in well and don’t announce themselves. Even their blossoms are sotto voce. The blossoms like to look down and this one, right,  had to be coaxed into a picture.

Ground cherries, locally Physalis walteri, (FEE-sa-lis wall-TEER-ee) are  related to tomatoes and tomatillos. Physalis means “bladder” referring to the enclosed fruit.  The Physalis is found in the Old World as well as the New World. There are nine species in here in Florida and you would be hard pressed to tell some of them apart. The local Indians used them interchangeably.

Don't eat them if they are bitter

Don’t eat them if they are really bitter

After discovering my local ground cherry inland I then noticed some on the east coast of Florida. They looked similar (both had blossoms with and without purple throats.)  Inland they were P. walteri, and on the coast P. viscosa. I had two different books of Florida wild flowers with good descriptions. Yet I could not tell these two species apart, even after taking into account the blossom variation. I went to a third book and found out why. They are the same species. One book called it P. walteri and did not mention any other names, and the other book called it P. viscosa again also did not include any other names. Sometimes you want to strangle botanists…

That  would mean Physalis viscosa means “sticky bladder” and P. walteri means “Walter’s Bladder.” Who “Walter” was I do not know but many such plants are often named for  Thomas Walter, an 18th century South Carolina botanist. Another ground cherry I’ve found tasty is the Coastal Ground Cherry (Physalis angustifolia) that I have found on the west coast of Florida.

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Not all blossoms have a ruby throat

The fruit is edible raw or cooked, as in pies or preserves. The fruit can fall from the plant before it is ripe. That usually takes a week or two or more until the husk has dried and the fruit a golden yellow to orange. Each fruit is wrapped in a husk that is NOT edible. The fruit will store several weeks if left in the husk.  Unripe fruit — light green — is toxic.  Ripe fruits are light to golden yellow. If any ripe fruit has a bitter aftertaste should be cooked first. If it is still bitter after cooking, don’t eat it. A wild species that takes to home gardening very well is Physalis angulata, the Cutleaf Ground Cherry. It’s tall and prolific under cultivation.

P. walteri/ P. viscosa

Linguistically the plant has had quite a diverse journey with nearly every country and language having its own (or several) names for the encased fruit. The ancient Greeks used halikakabon and pheesalis (bladder and swelling) the latter was translated into Dead Latin as visicaria. The Italians used halicacabo uolgare and the French halicacabon comun, both of which mean “common bladder.”  In Italy they are now called Coralli (coral) and Palloncini (balloons.) Farther north they were called winter chirir ((winter cherry) Judenkirsen (Jew’s Cherry) and Schlutten (ground cherry in 1542 German) They were also called Judendocken (Jew’s bundle) Judenhutlin (a variation of Jew’s hat) and that got mangled into the English Jerusalem Cherry, which is still used. The Aztecs called it tomatl (source for the words tomato and tomatillo.) In Hawaii it is called Poha.

Coastl Ground Cherry

Coastal Ground Cherry, Physalis angustifolia

Other names used include Alkekengi (which is cultivated and perhaps the only one you don’t eat)  Barbados Gooseberry, cherry tomato, Chinese Lantern, husk tomato, Japanese Lantern, strawberry tomato, tomatillo, wild cherry, winter cherry and Cape Gooseberry. Several other Physalis fruits have been used for food: P. ixocarpa, P. fendleri, P. heterophylla, P. lanceoleta, P. longifolia, P. neomexicana, P. pruinosa, P. pubescens, P. turbinata, P. virginiana, and P. angulata , the latter which is also found locally, growing to more than two feet tall and wide.

Fruit photos by Sybaritica.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

Physalis angulata

IDENTIFICATION: P. walteri/P.viscosa: Fruit is a yellowish sticky berry that does not fill the husk, solitary growing from the leaf’s axil. Leaves are entire or wavy and angled, sometimes toothed. Flowers are yellow with dark centers, purplish antlers, or no dark centers. Entire plant covered with fine hairs, entire plant sometimes appears gray. All the P. angulatas I’ve seen had toothy leaves like the photo at left and strong branching stems.

TIME OF YEAR: Blossoms in late spring fruits towards fall, however in Florida it can have two seasons, summer and fall.

ENVIRONMENT: Old fields, sunny woods, bordering streams, cultivated fields, waste ground, railroads, road sides; full sun to some shade. Low growing, often overlooked. It likes water and humidity.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: When ripe raw or cooked like any fruit, pectin needs to be added to make jelly or jam.  Species with a bitter after taste are better cooked. If bitter after cooking do not eat.  Some foraging books say the fruit does not ripen on the plants but I have found and eaten many that were. More so, like a tomato while it will ripen off the plant it will not improve in sweetness off the plant. Only ripening on the plant accomplishes that.

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