Chaya is a cultivated relative of a local weed called the Spurge Nettle. The Spurge Nettles stings. As with many stinging plants an individual’s reaction may vary. Its sting feels like a mild sunburn to me and usually goes away in about an hour. Unlike the sting from an Urtica it’s a short-term distraction to me whereas our local Urtica’s sting (Urtica chamaedryoides) bothers me badly for days, very badly.
Chaya doesn’t like cold weather although there is at least one commercial attempt at growing it here in Orlando. Where I hold my classes often there are two specimens. Since it grows wild in Central America and is not “wild” here I don’t give it a lot of attention. I need to change that perspective. This past weekend while pointing out a yam vine on a caster bean plant I had to brush a man-size Chaya out of the way. It responded by stinging me. I did not know that particular cultivated version stung. Now I do. The sting was more prickly and more fire-ant-ish than its local relative. However, like the Spurge Nettle, the burn was gone within the hour. Approach with caution.
On every field trip I carry a magnifying class, a “loupe” though now days they are not the “loupe” that jewelers wore but folding or sliding lenses. The truth is I don’t use it too often. There are perhaps three levels of botanical inquiry: One using macroscopic features, another using microscopic ones, and then the entire DNA division. For the most part macroscopic features work well most of the time. What’s the leaf shape? How does it attach to the stem? What does the blossom look like? How is it arranged? About the only time I use my loupe is to sort out two Perseas, P. borbonia and P. palustris. Hair on the stem of the P. borbornia lies down, like it was combed. P. palustris has a bad hair day, it stands up. I also use the loupe to look at an occasional mustard blossom in season. Another problem with some loupes is they just don’t let in enough light for you to see well what you’re looking at. That is one of the main problems with cheaply made metal loupes from Asia and the like. I have, however, received an email from a member of the Green Deane Forum with an interesting alternative.
“Sandhill” wrote: “I’ve recently learned that I can do without the ‘loupe’ magnifier when using the iPad. When in photo mode of the Camera app, pinch wider and you see that it will do as well as the loupe or magnifier. Touch the screen at the magnified point you want, and the iPad will focus much better, constrained by the magnification. Touch and hold, and you get fixed focus at that point. Then move the iPad to the best view…”
Great idea…. a picture could follow. I have an Ipad — what MAC fanatic doesn’t? — and will have to give this a try. I’ll just have to remember to take my Ipad with me, and a plastic bag in case it rains. This use is worth a few tests runs. If you do so, send me some pictures of your success. You can also join the forum by clicking on the button on the upper right side of this page.
BOOK REVIEW: Florida’s Edible Wild Plants, A Guide To Collecting And Cooking by Peggy Sias Lantz, illustrations by Elizabeth Smith, photos by Mike Brinkley. Seaside Publishing, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-942084-38-2.
Life is local. Long before the “locavore” movement newspapers realized that. In a life-struggle with instant international television they told their readers life was local, and it is, very much so. News from 7,000 miles away doesn’t have much impact on your life. I’ve felt that way about most foraging books. I call them Ohio-centric.
While I grew up in Maine I live in central Florida. Most foraging book are focused on eastern North American plants about half way up the United States. Southern Ohio, West Virginia and points east are ground zero. The pictures are perfect for that area, the environments spot on, the seasons and harvest times right. But the farther away you are from that area the less accurate and relevant those foraging books are. They will have a good number of wide-spread national species but your local species and how they grow in your region and environment is often absent. If you live in Ohio or nearby national foraging books are perfect for you. But those of us in New England, Texas, the desert southwest, California or the northwest coast and up must have regional books. Now we have one for other end, the sunshine state and the southern states that touch it: Florida’s Edible Wild Plants by Peggy Sias Lantz.
It’s 154 pages covering the plants and the problems we have with them in our hot and wet corner of the country. Drawings complement a center section of color photos that actually do look like our plants here. Some of you might not know what a frustration good wrong photos can be. What got me on my Ohio-centric rant years ago was a very authoritative book with a picture of Lambs Quarter that looked nothing like the one I had in my hand.
Peggy’s book — her fourth — is arranged alphabetically by common names though Peggy is well-grounded in botany. Each entry has what to eat, when to gather, and where to gather. This is amplified in the appendix such as you can find cattails all year and look for Pond Apples along the coast. This is helpful in more than just finding a plant. If you think you have the right plant but in the wrong place you just might have the wrong plant. The same goes with time of year. And it may seem surprising to say so but it is difficult to get new foraging students to look for edible wild plants. They want all the plants around them identified when the vast majority are not edible. That’s kind of like trying to remember virtually everyone you meet. It’s more efficient to look for the 7% or so that are edible than learning about the 93% that aren’t. Peggy’s book also has a lot of recipes and “how to” and as one should expect there a section on what plants not to eat, which is just as important as what plants to eat.
I first met Peggy Lantz and Dick Deuerling at the same time a few decades ago on local Native Plant Society “hikes.” Those “hikes” usually traveled about 13 feet an hour. That’s because every plant in sight was discussed in depth, edible or not, native or not. Dick had an intense interest in taxonomy and Peggy usually had a weighty library with her so the two of them could sort out exactly what species they were examining. It was there I first saw Gray’s Manual of Botany, a multi-pound door-stop I still have. Later Dick and Peggy teamed up to produce “Florida’s Incredible Edibles” which has a lot of Dick’s traipsing through the woods in it. More comprehensive than that, Florida’s Wild Edible Plants provides a colorful foraging handbook for a state that really did not have one.
Foraging publications going back some 50 years have been partial or localized successes such as Julia Morton’s Plants for Survival In South Florida (the result of research on plants for possible downed pilots if the United States and Cuba ever went to war.) Marion Van Atta wrote a weekly column from the mid-east coast area in the 70s and early 80s. Clara Renner had a Wild Things column in the Orlando Sentinel in the 80s but for the most part Florida media has steadfastly ignored foraging and wild food. The Sarasota Herald Tribune last did a token article on collecting seaweed in 2007. Roger Hammer has produced some lovely and comprehensive books on Florida plants as has Gil Nelson but edibility of species is rarely mentioned, as if beneath them and of no interest. And a book called “Florida’s Best Herbs And Spices” was more about raising well-known spices in a garden than finding spices in the wild. Though well-done it was a book I was very disappointed in perhaps because of the title. I was thinking “wild” and for the most part it is not. “Florida’s Incredible Edibles” by Dick and Peggy in 1993 was a start with good information and personal experience but is shy on quality illustrations (which is the monkey on the back of every foraging author.) Thus the problem foragers have had was if one wanted an up-to-date, modern Florida foraging handbook it was not available until now, and perhaps for good reasons.
Florida is a tough state to forage in, maybe the most difficult in the nation. Climate wise it ranges from temperate to tropical, environmentally from desert-dry scrub to deep swamp. It has common weeds of man and agriculture found in other states but the seasons can be different. More so the summer heat or thunder storm deluges can stress them into looking alien or put them in temporary wrong environments. Florida also often has it own warm-weather varieties along with a lot of non-natives and ornamentals tossed in for good confusion. We needed a good foundational book and Peggy has created that.
Everyone who writes about or teaches foraging has to reach a personal comfort level with the advice they give and that will differ from person to person. Poke weed is a good example. If harvested and prepared incorrectly it can kill you. I tell people to collect spring shoots no larger than their hand (cutting the shoots off, not pulling them up) then boiling them twice in two changes of water. No bright red stems! That said I routinely receive mail from people telling me how their grandmother prepared it this way or that (some of which are downright frightening.) I mail them back and gently say their grandmother can’t be sued for what she used to do it whereas I can be sued now for how I recommend people harvest and prepare poke weed. Thus I recommend what I am comfortable with.
Besides the comfort zone there is experience. I’ve not yet found duck potatoes in this warm climate though I know of a 30-year-old recipe that says they grow here. (I can find the plant, it’s the “potatoes” that elude me. Not so in northern waters.) And despite years of trying — including growing my own — I’ve never been able to make the rhizome of the Spatterdock edible. It’s been a major foraging frustration. That problem might depend on finding the exact species. It’s a genus, like the Nightshades, that has been in major overhaul with genetic testing and name changes.
Foraging and botany, you see, are not completely settled activities. There’s wiggle room, some unknowns, and a few ponderables. I can well remember Dick telling me a couple of decades ago one could make tea out of a certain shrub. I never did make that tea out of it but now virtually every references says it is toxic. Do I try the tea or don’t I? There are a few quandaries but there’re issues only long-term foragers ponder.
Peggy’s book is a solid, botanically-based foundation for anyone interested in wild edibles in Florida. I have already used it for a reference several times. There can be no higher compliment.
You can order the book through the University Press of Florida for $13 plus shipping until June 6 (2014.) Call 800-226-3822. Or through her website, peggysiaslantz.com, autographed, for $20, which includes tax, shipping, and a $1 discount.
Upcoming foraging classes for two weeks: Saturday, May 24th, Bayshore Live Oak Park, 23000 Bayshore Rd., Port Charlotte, 33980, 9 a.m. Sunday, May 25th, at John Chestnut Park, 2200 East Lake Road, Palm Harbor, FL 34685. 9 a.m. Saturday, May 31st, Wickham Park: 2500 Parkway Drive, Melbourne, FL 32935-2335. 9 a.m., June 1st, Mead Garden: 1500 S. Denning Dr., Winter Park, FL 32789. This class will be unusual in that it will start at 8 a.m. rather than the usual time.
My foraging videos do not include alligators but they do cover dozens of edible plants in North America. The set has nine DVD. Each DVD has 15 videos for 135 in all. Some of these videos are of better quality than my free ones on the Internet. They are the same videos but many people like to have their own copy. I burn and compile the sets myself so if you have any issues I handle it. There are no middle foragers. And I’m working on adding a tenth DVD. To learn more about the DVDs or to order them click here.