Posts Tagged ‘Wild Foods’

Spring caught me by surprise again. It does this every year. Winter in Florida is predictably unpredictable. It can be 80 degrees in the morning and plunge into the 20’s by midnight. Although the blooming of the Dog Fennel last fall predicted frost before Thanksgiving (and Dog Fennel’s predictions are more accurate than the almanac), Jack didn’t show his hoary head until January. Fruit trees that know no better began to bloom and set fruit. Then Winter skated in. Not a hard winter, as winters go, but enough frosts and freezes to nip those sassy buds and precocious peaches. Plants that know better, Yellow Jasmine and Wild Azaleas, knew to wait.

A thousand miles to the north, Punxsutawney Phil, that famous groundhog, predicted an early spring. I had my hopes, but didn’t bank on it. My misgivings were correct. I won’t be surprised if they fire that groundhog and replace him with another who can predict more accurately. But maybe it’s not his fault. Remember, my Dog Fennel was wrong, too.

Fortunately, we didn’t suffer the backlash of winter that hit our northern neighbors. No blizzards, but we did get a little snow, a few flurries that only the more adventurous caught before they melted to nothing. I missed the snowfall because it’s warmer in the woods where I live. If a few flakes drifted as far as the tree canopy, they never hit the ground.

Plants that hadn’t been fooled by our fickle weather stayed huddled in winter dormancy. When I gave my talk on Wild Eating to a neighboring garden club, the only thing I could find to eat was a pine tree. The usual weeds prudently remained in hibernation. At least we were able to enjoy a delicious pine needle tea.

Among leafless gray trunks of the woods and swamps, the Red Maples ignored warm days, cold nights, and the predictions of other species and blazed deep scarlet at their usual time. They’ve lived in Florida long enough not to be influenced by the uncertainties of what we call winter. You see, in Florida, seasons are backwards. Here, maple trees turn colorful in spring, not so much in fall. Soon their little helicopter seeds rained down into yard and flower pot alike and I have little maple trees coming up everywhere.

Then came March. Warm days of sunshine and short sleeved shirts, pollen from oaks and pines coating everything yellow, sending sensitive people to the doctor. I entered my best houseplants in the county fair. When I brought them home afterward, they begged to be left outdoors. They love the heat and humidity of summer. It reminds them of their jungle origins. In summer, they thrive on fresh rainwater and ask for no fertilizer. But they complain about the cool dry air of the winter house and need much coaxing to keep up appearances until fair time. It was the Ides of March. Was winter over? Against my better judgement, I left my tropical babies outside. Guess what—another cold front, nights in the 30’s. I brought the most vulnerable into the house and left the more hardy out. They weren’t happy, but they survived.

When I heard the first Whippoorwill, I knew spring had finally arrived. These aren’t really whippoorwills but that’s what we call them. They are actually Chuck-wills-widow, a cousin of the whippoorwill. Their song is not musical (Marjorie Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak”) but it’s unique and most welcome in March.

I love the light the sun sends in late winter—bright, unencumbered by foliage and haze, intense, almost silvery. It surrounds everything, leaving no shadows. Maybe that’s the cue. Buds began to plump. My Wild Azaleas bloomed, filling the woods with their sweet bouquet.

Then literally overnight, everything burst with color. A few trees tentatively put out green leaves. When no harm came to the early bloomers, other trees followed suit. Wildflowers have began to blossom. Yellow Primrose now decorates the dirt road from evening till noon. Phlox carpets the sunny roadsides and Lyre Leaf sage has turned the shady areas blue.  Before I knew what happened, my sunny yard transformed into a shady forest. Birds of more species than I can describe wake me with their morning songs.

I don’t know why Spring surprises me with its arrival. It happens this way every year. One day the oaks are bare, the next they are attired in spring green. Soon, the green will darken, the shade in my yard deepen, and heat and humidity will come home to stay. My tropical house plants will flourish, as will mosquitoes, and my human neighbors will wilt and hibernate in their air conditioning.

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Wild Winter Eating

While most of the country is shivering under a blanket of snow, we in North Florida alternately shiver on frosty days and sweat when the mercury hits 80. You may think we’re wimpy to complain about our winters, but our summers are truly brutal. While folks in most parts of the country grow vegetables in summer, little will grow here then. Even heat-loving tomatoes will not bear fruit when the temperatures stay in the 90’s around the clock. Here, we garden from September to May. Right now, our lettuces, cabbages, and carrots are happy, until an arctic air mass moves in and it plunges into the 20’s. Then even they threaten to move south.   

Winter is the time to enjoy home grown salads in Florida. I pick a few lettuce leaves and look for something else to add without going to the grocery store. I don’t like radishes, so I didn’t plant any. My carrots aren’t mature enough yet, so I take a stroll around my yard to see what I can find.

My grandmother had a plant she called “shamrocks” and I inherited her love for them. The leaves look like clover and they have cute little pink blossoms. They are not true shamrocks, but an oxalis. “Shamrock” is derived from the Irish word for “clover” which is what true shamrocks are. Oxalis is a member of the wood sorrel family. They grow all over the world, and they grow in my yard.

I don’t remember when I acquired my first oxalis but they do not like to stay contained. They reproduce by seeds and bulbils and I find them all over my yard, in my garden, and even in my potted plants. Since they are so plentiful, it’s fortunate they are edible. They have a tangy flavor and are high in Vitamin C. As their name suggests, they also contain oxalic acid which is toxic in large quantities. But spinach and many other vegetables also have oxalic acid. Spinach didn’t kill Popeye. Unless you eat rhubarb leaves (which is not advisable) you are not going to consume enough to harm you, so don’t worry.

I find three varieties of oxalis in my yard. One has rounded leaves that look like clover and another has triangular leaves. Both have pink flowers. Then there is a native called wood sorrel with yellow blossoms and seed pods that will explode in 1000 directions. You don’t want to encourage this one too much. It will take over. I have another that I bought at a nursery a few years ago. This one has purple leaves and white flowers. They assured me it would not escape and so far it has stayed nicely in its pot.

I pick oxalis leaves and scatter them on my salad. I chop the stems and cook them in soups and with mixed greens. One day I realized I was out of pickle relish and added some to egg salad, which they flavored nicely. You can also make a refreshing tea from this plant. The flowers are also edible. They may not make it as far as the kitchen as they are so tempting.

Wandering about my yard, I find a winter resident that is found all over the world, probably spread by European explorers. Chickweed (Stellaria media) makes a soft, spreading carpet no more than six inches high. The leaves are pointed ovals and it has tiny white flowers. The taste is as delicate as the plant appears to be, reminiscent of raw corn. This makes a sweet addition to my salad and can also be put in soup and cooked greens.

Ralph Wald Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” One much maligned plant is Florida Betony (Stachys floridana). If you Google it you will find 101 ways to eradicate it. Why not just eat it? I actually planted some in my yard for the pinkish-purplish spring flowers that honeybees love. This wildflower is a member of the mint family. The leaves are edible but not very tasty. Other names for Florida Betony are rattlesnake weed and wild radish. Dig down and you will find a small white tuber shaped like a snake’s rattle which tastes like a mild radish. This is the part to eat and it goes nicely on my salad. Unfortunately for some of you, it grows only in the southeast. Like most snowbirds, you won’t encounter it when summer comes, because it doesn’t like the heat.

Wild onion and wild garlic grow as far north as Canada and as far west as Arkansas. You can smell them when they mow the roadsides. They taste like their cultivated cousins, can be used the same way, and don’t cost anything. I’ve planted some of these in my garden. With chopped wild onions, wild radish, and oxalis leaves, my salad needs no further flavoring.

Emerging from the ground are the wild violets. They’re not blooming yet and the leaves are too small to harvest but they too will soon dress my salads. The blossoms are higher in Vitamin C than oranges. The leaves can thicken soups, the flowers can be made into candy, and the whole plant will make a nice tea. There should be some growing near you, maybe in your lawn. They, too, can be found around the world.   

Some words of caution: don’t eat anything unless you know what it is, don’t pick plants that have been sprayed with chemicals, and be sure to wash anything an animal may have watered. If you don’t live in Florida and your landscape is still buried under snow or brown from frost, don’t despair. As winter begins to recede north, you, too, will be able to enjoy these, and other, culinary delights. Bon appétit!

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