By Willow LaMonte
With summer camping season in full swing, we thought it would be fun to learn more about wild plants that are edible – including some that are medicinal – growing in Florida.
Sheris and Jason Patten of Seffner are long-time wildcrafters who are raising their four-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter with the family foraging passion. Whether they are traveling on a bike path, visiting a Brandon park, hiking in the Hillsborough River State Park or camping in a national forest, they identify and enjoy wild edibles with their children.
Some of their favorites include purple American -beauty berry (Callicarpa americana), wild grapes (Vitis spp.), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), hickory nuts (Carya spp.), and the tender shoots of greenbrier (Smilax spp.). “My daughter loves anything she can pick out of nature,” Sheris adds.
An herbalist as well, Sheris leads a weekly Little Earth Sprouts Group of two- to five-year-olds. They safely identify wild edibles in local parks. One little boy has a goal of eating flowers every day.
Two of our most nutritious native edible flowers are the humble daisy-like Spanish needles (Bidens spp.) and the dramatic, almost-otherworldly, passionflower. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” These weeds and their virtues give us a lot for which to be grateful.
Spanish needle—also known as beggar’s tick, hitch-hikers, or romerillo—is a great example. Blooming almost year-round, bees make a wonderful honey from this common “weed” found in most of our yards. The long, curved seeds stick to anyone or thing (yeah that plant!). All parts are edible; the blossom and tender leaves are a good salad item, the greens can be added to tea, steamed, or stir fried. Widely utilized in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Amazon region, the leaf juice is a good poultice for bites and stings.
Long taken in folk medicine—with extensive supportive medical research—this mildly bitter herb is used for digestion, acid reflux, liver support, Type 2 diabetes, cough, sore throats, flu and colds and is one of the best plants to chew during oak-pollen hay fever season. The next time you yank this weed up, be aware of its impressive properties: anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, kills leukemia cells, lowers blood sugar, and expels worms.
The sun-loving passionflower vine, also known as maypop, is found in sandy soils. It offers edible fruit and medicinal flowers and leaves. The fruit of the passionflower can be as large as a hen’s egg. The core is packed with seeds, but the edible flesh is delicious and has to be one of the most intensely and enticingly scented of all fruits. The pulp is very sweet and often used for beverages and jams. In fact, it’s what gives Hawaiian Punch its distinctive flavor.
If you’re hiking and camping, be aware that the leaves are often used as a sedative in Europe where they are said to calm nerves, ease headaches, and relieve pain and anxiety. American Indians have use a poultice make from the roots for boils, cuts and earaches.
Our Florida native common white and common blue violets (Viola spp.) are woodland plants often found in oak hammocks. Euell Gibbons, the iconic America wildcrafting author called violets “natures vitamin pill.” High in Vitamins A and C, the fairy-like flowers are edible as are the tender young leaves which are great in salads or sandwiches. The blossoms can be popped into ice cube trays for a magical effect. The English like to dip them in sugar water to decorate cakes. This nourishing little herb has a long history in cough syrup and as anti-tumor plant dissolving growths and cysts.
If you’re in a sand scrub area look for our native prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa). Beloved by our Florida gopher tortoise, the tender cactus pads are the nopales popular in Mexican cuisine.
Handle the pads with gloves, scrape off the thorns and small prickly glochids, and you have a mild tasting vegetable which can be pickled raw, baked, broiled, steamed or stir-fried. The glycemically neutral cactus is considered a very helpful diabetic food. The fruit can be eaten out of hand or turned into drinks, jams, or ice cream. The juice inside the pad is used like aloe vera on wounds and burns, and the seeds inside the fruit can be ground like flax seeds.
Some of our Florida pines (Pinus spp.) are also found in dry woodlands or sand scrub habitat. Any pine needles can be used to make a refreshing tea. Boil water, turn it off, then add the pine for an antiseptic beverage helpful for coughs, sore throats and colds. In the Spring, the Vitamin C-rich tender new tips can be popped into salads. Pine pitch and sap (turpentine) have been used by native people for worms, colic, diarrhea, boils, and lung ailments. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) also bears edible pine nuts inside the cone.
Another native beverage plant is the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). The caffeine-rich yaupon tastes like black tea. First the leaves are dried, roasted, cut, then steamed for five minutes. Enjoy with honey or lemon.
Native blackberry and dewberry (Rubus spp.) grow in sandy soil and disturbed areas. They yield anti-oxidant rich berries and astringent leaf tea good for moist coughs and diarrhea. Black mulberries are in season for most of the summer, look for them on lower branches because the birds tend to eat the higher fruit as soon as it’s ripe.
The elderberry shrub (Sambucus canadesis) is found in rich damp soil by streams and brooks. The white flowers are made into tea, fritters and refreshing sweet cordials. When harvesting flowers, you might find a well-camouflaged white spider stalking the pollinators. In Europe, elder blossom tea has been used for centuries as the preferred treatment for children’s illnesses.
The anti-viral deep purple berries are used in cough syrups and tinctures in addition to pies, jams, elixirs, and wine. Raw berries have some toxicity, so they’re best cooked or dried.
The crushed elderberry leaves in standing water will kill mosquito larva for about two weeks. Wherever elder grows in the world they are always respected as a sacred tree and thus not used for fire wood.
Roselle and false roselle – also known as Florida cranberry – aren’t native but were widely planted by Florida’s pioneers for their tasty and nutritious leaves and have naturalized in many areas. Related to hibiscus and okra, the edible part of the “real” roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) are the calyces of the roselle flower which can be used to make a variety of jams, sauces, and teas.
The false roselle (Hibiscus acetosella) is generally a better source of food for summer campers. Its unique maple-shaped leaves are edible year-round although the smaller new growth is best raw. For stews or soups, they don’t lose their color or distinctive taste when cooked.
Seminole pumpkins, a native squash that tastes like a butternut but sweeter, is ripening across Florida now. If you can’t find ripe fruit, the flowers also are edible, straight off the vine, stuffed like cabbage or even fried.
Central Florida is home to many oak varieties; all bearing edible acorns in the Autumn. The sweetest come from white oak (Quercus alba) and live oak (Quercus virginiana). Most others are bitter and need to be soaked and rinsed continuously to leach out the tannic acids. Once the bitter had been removed the acorns are usually dried, then used as mush or ground into flour and the meal transformed into many delicious and nutritious recipes from bread to pancakes. Organic farmer and wild plant expert Frank Tozer claims, “acorns (Oak seeds) have been called the ancestral food for much of humanity, and have been a primary source of food for humans almost everywhere they grow . . . It has been said that the Oaks produce more nuts annually than all other wild and cultivated nut trees combined.”
These wild Florida plants continue to share their generosity and wisdom with us as they have throughout the generations. When foraging don’t forget to share your gratitude with them and the communities in which they grow.
- Be careful not to eat wild plants near roads, dog parks, or in the vicinity of pressure treated wood.
- Make sure you have correct identification before eating; many unrelated plants look similar.
- When eating something for the first time, start by holding it to your lips. If you don’t have an itching sensation, then bite into it but don’t swallow yet. Any itching, copious saliva under the tongue, or feeling drained are signs of allergic or toxic reaction. If so, then spit it out. If not, proceed, and enjoy!
Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles, Richard J. Deuerling & Peggy S. Lantz
Florida’s Edible Wild Plants, Peggy Lantz
The Uses of Wild Plants, Frank Tozer
Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants, Steven Foster & James A. Duke
Healing Powers of Rainforest Herbs, Leslie Taylor, N.D.