Newsletter 23 April 2012
EatTheWeeds was on the road lately with an interesting class in Live Oak, a nice wandering in Gainesville, and a shower-cooled session in Ocala. A treat in Live Oak was finding wild garlic, pictured above.
Wild garlic has the unusual habit of putting cloves on the top of the plant rather than the bottom. This makes identification and collection quite easy. Which brings up a rule around the world: If it looks like a garlic and smells like a garlic it is a garlic or can be used like a garlic. And, if it looks like an onion and it smells like an onion it is an onion or can be used like an onion. But you must have both, resemblance and aroma. Locally there’s a lily that looks like an onion but has no onion aroma. It is toxic. You must have looks and aroma. Additionally, one way to tell onions and garlic apart is that onions have bulbs, usually one per plant. Garlic has separated cloves, several per plant, segmented. And while Society Garlic is not a true garlic, it is edible. There’s an article on Society Garlic here.
In Gainesville we saw many Eastern Coral Bean in blossom. The blossoms are very distinct making the shrub easy to spot this time of year. Later in the season the uterine leaves also aid in identification but the spindly bush blends in well when it’s not blossoming. The bright red flowers take all the work out of finding it currently. The traditional method of using the flowers is to boil them whereupon they turn green. Then mix the cooked flowers in with scrambled eggs. Why that is a tradition is anyone’s guess but it is practiced from Florida west to Mexico then south into Central America. Eastern Coral Bean seeds are toxic, so leave them alone.
In Ocala we saw the last of this season’s stinging nettle (Urtica) and chickweed, most of it hiding in the shade. We also noticed the Milkweed Vine (Morrenia odorata) had made it through the winter so it should be fruiting soon. Blossoming now is the Spurge Nettle, no relation to the Urticas above. Covered with formic acid-armed hairs, the Spurge Nettle makes a delightful root that when boiled tastes like pasta.
♣ For foragers on the coast Suaeda linearis is in season from Daytona Beach to Port Charlotte, not on the beach side but the intracoastal water ways, river-fed harbors, and brackish water. It’s a great spring time green that has everything going for it except perhaps its name, Seablite.
Seablite is mild but tasty, has excellent texture, can be eaten raw or cooked though cooked is the usual way. It makes an excellent stuffing when roasting or poaching fish. Seablite is nutritious, stores well, looks good, grows easily in salty ground (read unused land) and even feels good to handle. You can also cultivate it in your garden, far from the sea. It would make an excellent commercial product, perhaps better than other wild foods brought to market.
Many people have tried to make poke weed (Phytolacca americana) a potherb in your local grocery but toxicity and the required two-boilings have always plagued its commercialization (though in Europe they seems to have gotten around those issues and it can be bought in markets there.)
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 (then called Bidens pilosa) become a commercial product. Nearly a half a century later that hasn’t happened, perhaps because it can be harvested for free nearly year round. If I had to pick a “wild” food for a commercial crop, my candidate would be Seablite. If I could figure out how to do it I would.
Think of Seablite 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 look for it. If you live inland near salt deposits look for its edible cousin, seepweed.
♣ Botany Builder #17: Latex is a white, sticky substance plants produce to heal wounds. Often called “white sap” it is a huge warning flag that the plant may be toxic. That said, a few commonly eaten foods have latex, which is often bitter. Figs are perhaps the best known food that has latex. In fact, fig latex is still used in some places to curdle milk in cheese making. Ripe Natal Plums have have flecks of latex. Wild lettuce, sow thistles, and everyone’s childhood favorite, dandelions, also have latex and usually are bitter which is why they are cooked, to rid them of that bitterness. The leafy plants just mentioned also tend to get more bitter as they age. In large quantities the latex of some Latucas can be a mild sedative (no, they don’t get you high and do not relieve pain.) Most other plants with latex are quite toxic. Some Euphorbias have extremely toxic latex which even when dry and very old have still killed people. In one case dessicated Euphorbias were burned to keep warm in the desert and the smoke did the people in. So while there are a few exceptions and a few plants with latex that are edible most of them are not. White sap, like white berries, should always be viewed as a big warning sign that requires more investigation.
♣ Upcoming Classes:
Saturday, April 28th, Mead Garden, 1500 S. Denning Dr., Winter Park, FL 32789, 9 a.m.
Sunday, April 29th, John Chestnut State Park: 2200 East Lake Road, Palm Harbor, FL 34685, 9 a.m.
♣ It was bound to happen: I was teaching a foraging class in a swamp, except the swamp was fairly dry compared to usual years. We came upon a taller than common Saw Palmetto, Seranoa repens. The Saw Palmetto usually grovels, grows low to the ground. I imagine this one was growing up to avoid the water that usually floods the place. Covering the Saw Palmetto were two examples of grapes that grow locally, a native muscadine and what we call an escaped cultivar. One climbs with a single tendril and the other has a forked tendril. As usual I waded into the brush to point out the differences, after all the ground was dry. That’s when I noticed another bush in the brush pile, face to botanical face as it were. I knew what it was immediately which was also immediately too late. The inflorescence growing out of the axil told me all I needed to know even though the leaves were not exactly text book perfect. Poison sumac. Ironically there was no immediate water available in the swamp to wash with so I pulled up some Dog Fennel and washed my hands with their sap. Not good enough. I have two minor rashes from it… well… one minor and one not so minor. But at least it’s just a reddening and a little swelling. No blisters. Itches a lot. Benadryl gel works well.
Lastly, from the Spam Mailbag: I receive hundreds of spam emails daily. My spam filter does a very good job and already has several thousand senders blocked. I’m not sure exactly how but if I respond to them that somehow elevates their sites. The spam is always linked to an EatTheWeeds post — always irrelevant — and contains a personalized message. A sampling from the 41 waiting for me this morning:
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