Newsletter 1 December 2015
No. It is not edible. No. It is not medicinal. Well… maybe it is medicinal, and if anyone says it is edible I ain’t going to try it.
Locally you can see two different “Horse Nettles” this time of year, neither are proven edible as far as I know. One has red fruit, the other yellow (and that can vary, too.) The latter is Solanum Carolinense and that is definitely off limits. Toxic. The former, Solanum ciliatum is more iffy. It is also called a Soda Apple or the Tropical Soda Apple.
The first problem is S. ciliatum is not native. How it got to the United States is a good guess. Some think the seeds arrived in the intestional track of cattle from South America. The second problem is some members of this family grow more toxic as they age while others grow less toxic. There are reports of S. ciliatum being used medicinally for things like rheumatism, arthritis, and skin diseases. It does contain steroidal alkaloids. It has also poisoned cattle and sheep (which makes one wonder if it is that toxic to cattle why do they think it was imported in the dung of cattle? However, it might be that leaves and fruit have different toxicities. The poisoning could have come from leaves or green fruit while the ripe fruit seeds were just non-digested hitchhikers.) The third problem is the plant itself has had well over a dozen botanical names, close to a dozen and a half actually. That makes it difficult to know what plant is actually being discussed and if the traits attributed to it are really about that plant.
The worse problem is that about a decade ago I found an American university publication that listed the species as edible. Do not try to eat it because that is just too iffy for a plant that is also widely reported as highly toxic and fatal, especially the green fruit. I suspect the university botany department was just as confused regarding the identification of the plant as are others. What I wonder about is the ripe fruit. I’ve never seen any credible reference with the necessary details. What I would like to know is what if anything did Brazilian natives do with the plant? That could be a credible reference. Perhaps some of our Portuguese speakers can find that out. Indeed, on one Brazilian site it says (if the translation is to be trusted) “every child ate that fruit” and “consumption can only eat the skin with a thin layer of meat. The seeds are bitter and are not intended for consumption. The rind of the fruit can also be used in cooking, using it just like chili.” BUT… is it the same species? I am NOT going to try.
This time of year two wintertime foragables come up, one quite esteemed the other barely edible. They can at first glance look similar so I’ll mention them together.
The first is Henbit. It’s in the mint family but does not smell or taste minty. It does, however, have a square stem and the blossoms resembles mints. In northern climates it is one of the first green plants to pop up after the snow goes (it and chickweed.) Locally it likes the cooler months of the year. It was esteemed by the natives because among all the spring greens it is not spicy but rather mild if not on the sweet side. What can be confusing about it is that the leave shape and stem length is different from young to old leaves. But they all have a scalloped shape. It also has a similar looking relative that is also edible called Dead Nettle. You can read about Henbit here.
Also found in lawns this time of year are wild geraniums, usually Cranesbill or Stork’s Bill. (Why one is one word and the other two-words possessive I do not know.) Botanically they are Geranium carolinianum and Erodium circutarium. Neither is great foraging. In fact both are more medicinal than edible but they seem to get mention in a variety of foraging books. The problem is they are extremely bitter. You might be able to toss a little bit of both in a salad but that’s about the extent of it. If you have what you think is a Cranesbill or a Stork’s Bill but it has more of a bottle brush blossom than five petals you might have the non-edible Fumaria. It comes up this time of year and from a distance the leaves can remind one of the wild geraniums. To read more about them go here.
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Sunday, January 17th, 2016, Sunday, Nov. 15, Mead Garden,1500 S. Denning Dr., Winter Park, FL 32789, 9 a.m.
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This is newsletter 185.
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