Foraging is treasure hunting for adults. Not only is finding food fun but finding new food you didn’t know about is a joy as well. That happened this week during a foraging class in West Palm Beach at Dreher Park.
I have been teaching in the park for several years. It was the main project of a German immigrant, Paul Dreher, who came to the United States in the 1920s from Wurttenberg. (He had an aunt who was among the pioneer settlers of Delray Beach in 1895.) Thus a foraging fellow from a cold climate got a chance to create a park in a warm place before the advent of lawyers and rabid municipal liability. As far as I know there is no complete accounting of all the plants in the park and it has suffered some storm damage particularly hurricanes a decade ago. Dreher Park really a treasure trove of edible landscaping and I find new edibles often.
I had walked past this particular tree dozens of times, at the end of a street near a foot entrance (that might be a clue to finding other “treasures.”) This time, however, the ground was covered with orange orbs. Hundreds of inch-long “bullet”-shaped fruit that resemble a small persimmon except longer (and the calyx was different and a key identifier.) As you imagine doing a Goggle search for “Florida fruit orange” was not helpful. I have tentatively settled on the south Asia native Mimusops elengi, Bullet Wood, aka Spanish Cherry and Malabar Plum. Oddly it is not listed in a good book of mine, “Tropical Trees of Florida and the Virgin Islands.” It is native to India are surrounding area.
The evergreen tree is quite valuable commercially and otherwise. The wood is hard — is that why it is called Bullet Wood or because of the shape of the fruit? — and deep red. The fruit is orange to red and edible. Various parts of the tree have also been used in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s considered a prize addition to gardens for its fruit and fragrant flowers. The tree won’t grow in temperate climates but can survive subtropical areas and is tolerant of light frosts. I did taste the fruit but did not consume it because at the time I did not know what it was. It reminded me of a persimmon though what I don’t know is whether I tried a good sample or not. The tree’s bark resembles an oak but the leaves favor a Magnolia look and at one time the tree was named in that genus. Definitely a tree to look out for (I even brought home a seed for planting.) I think Mr. Dreher, Superintendent of Parks, would be proud.
The “Johnny Appleseed” of West Palm Beach, Dreher had a degree in horticulture from the University of Hohen-Heim in Stuttgart. He was hired for 25 cent an hour then later $5 a day. His projects included picking thousands of trees for the city’s streets, Flager Park, Currie Park, Phillips Park, and Bacon Park. In 1951 Dreher convinced the city to buy 108 acres for a park. The city came up with $100 to buy the land but would not fund its development. Dreher scrounged plants for ten years, rummaging around landscapers’ dumps and taking donations. That became the basis for what is now Dreher Park. Six farm animals he had on the property — a goat, two chickens, two ducks and a goose, valued at $18 total — became the beginning of the Palm Beach Zoo. Dreher, whose hobby was collecting rocks in rockless Florida, also was involved after his retirement in the landscaping of the city of Palm Beach Gardens, the PGA National Golf Course and Lion Country Safari. He died in 1993, at age 90. His wife of 63 years, Alice Irene Owen, died nine years later in 2002, age 92. Dreher’s philosophy was “Anything green that grows is good. You just have to control it.”
An often overlooked and edible ground cover that is blossoming more as the weather turns warm is Perennial Peanut, Arachis glabrata. In fact it can replace lawns completely, requires little care, and has an edible blossom. That’s a triple win. The little plant is long-lived, tough to kill and tenacious once established. It is often used in parks for lawn replacement in spots that are difficult to mow such as around a rock layout, rough banks, easements, around trees or even strips in a dirt driveway. An added benefit is that in full sun it grows thick enough to discourage grass and other weeds. One commercial variety is called Ecoturf. There is also UF Peace, UF Tito and Florigraze. Perennial Peanut can be used as livestock feed as a foragable legume and nitrogen fixer producing three to six tons per acre. We eat the yellow blossoms raw which have a pea to bean-like flavor. You can read about it here.
Sow Thistles, genus Sonchus, are in season and causing some confusion among students and in the usual way: Over common names. A Sow Thistle is not a true thistle (and an Australian Pine is not a true pine nor is the Spanish Cherry/Malabar Plum a cherry or a plum et cetera. Even canned “yams” are not yams. Common names are not serious descriptions.) Pointy parts of a Sow Thistle’s leaf can resemble a true thistle but unlike a true thistle, genus Cirsium, they don’t draw blood when you touch them. That said of the two most common Sow Thistles locally one looks more prickly than the other, the Spiny Sow Thistle. But, it’s more botanical bark than bite. Its relative, the Common Sow Thistle, can also look spiky but is actually softer and the preferred of the two. Related to Dandelions the Sow Thistles have a distinctive leaf-stem arrangement. You can read about them here.
Except for hurricanes foraging classes usually are held as scheduled. We’re hungry when we are cold and wet so foraging classes are held when it is wet, when it is cold, and when it’s hot. A class in Jacksonville this Sunday is full.
Sunday, April 2nd, Red Bug Slough Preserve, 5200 Beneva Road, Sarasota, FL, 34233. 9 a.m.
Sunday, April 9th, Wickham Park: 2500 Parkway Drive, Melbourne, FL 32935-2335. Meet at the “dog park” inside the park (turn right after entrance, go 1/4 mile, dog run on right, parking at run or on previous left.)
Saturday, April 29th, Bayshore Live Oak Park, Bayshore Drive. Port Charlotte. 9 a.m. Meet at the parking lot at the intersection of Bayshore Road and Ganyard Street.
For more information about the foraging classes go here.
Spring orders have started their annual increase. All of Green Deane’s videos available for free on You Tube. They do have ads on them so every time you watch a Green Deane video I get a quarter of one cent. Four views, one cent. Not exactly a large money-maker but it helps pays for this newsletter. If you want to see the videos without ads and some in slightly better quality you can order the DVD set. It is nine DVDs with 15 videos on each. Many people want their own copy of the videos or they have a slow service and its easier to order then to watch them on-line. They make a good gift for that forager you know. Individual DVDs can also be ordered. You can order them by clicking on the button on the top right of this page or you can go here.
Want to identify a plant? Looking for a foraging reference? Do you have a UFO, an Unidentified Flowering Object you want identified? On the Green Deane Forum we chat about foraging all year. And it’s not just about warm-weather plants or just North American flora. Many nations around the world share common weeds so there’s a lot to talk about. There’s also more than weeds. The reference section has information for foraging around the world. There are also articles on food preservation, and forgotten skills from making bows to fermenting food. You can join the forum by clicking on the button on the upper right hand side of this page.
EatTheWeeds Time Capsule 2010
This article is as relevant today as it was seven years ago. What has changed is that I get several inquiries a year from foreign governments who want to buy some seed for testing.
If you could choose one wild plant to become a commercial product, what would it be? Many people have tried to make poke weed (Phytolacca americana) a green in your local grocery but toxicity and the required two-boilings has always plagued its commercialization. The ground nut (Apios americana) was one of the original exports from colonial America but it has at least a two-year growth cycle. Louisiana State University (1984-96) developed a commercial variety but the program disappeared when the professor-in-charge, Bill Blackmon, changed colleges. In 1962 Professor Julia Morton of the University of Miami recommended Spanish Needles (Bidens pilosa/alba) become a commercial product. Nearly a half a century later that hasn’t happened, perhaps because of flavor or the fact it can grow almost anywhere as a weed. My candidate would be Suaeda linearis, Sea Blite, and if I could figure out how to do it I would.
Sea Blite has everything going for it except perhaps for its name. It’s mild but tasty, has excellent texture, can be eaten raw or cooked though cooked is the usual way. It’s nutritious, stores well, looks good, easily grows in salty ground (read unused land) and even feels good to handle. About the only downside, for me, is that I have to drive about 55 miles to get some. I need to introduce it to my garden.
Think of Sea Blite as a Chinopodium that likes to grow in salty places, either near the ocean or salt licks. It has a high sodium content but boiling reduces that significantly. If you live anywhere near the ocean or inland salty areas, now and the next few months is the time to go looking for Sea Blite and seepweeds. To read more about Sea Blite click here.
This is Issue 249