Wild Edibles in Southwest Florida: Freestyle ForagingAug 01, 2010 12:00AM ● By Linda Sechrist
Gators and snakes and bears, oh boy! While this enthusiastic response is not what most of us would utter in an encounter with Southwest Florida’s wilder side, it is one that’s frequently exclaimed by the biologists, botanists and research associates who staff the Institute for Regional Conservation (IRC). This private nonprofit organization works in South Florida, the Caribbean and beyond to prevent the regional extinction of rare plants, animals and ecosystems. Now doing conservation research and monitoring biodiversity in the Picayune Strand State Forest, Senior Botanist Michael Barry jokes about his network of environmental professionals. “We have a defective gene, and we know it,” he quips. “When we’re out in the woods and come across a big gator or a diamondback rattlesnake, we think it’s a great day. We’re more afraid of driving in Miami’s rush-hour traffic.”
To describe IRC’s preserve management strategy, Barry uses a familiar analogy. “We’re gardeners who observe and weed,” he explains, “because we can’t leave nature on its own if we care about biodiversity and want to keep all parts of the ecosystem around for the future. As much as possible, we let the ecosystem run itself, but when invading species run amuck, we try to fix it.”
Working in the dominant inland pine flatwoods and prairie, Barry and his colleagues enjoy a natural benefit of their job: wild edibles. “It’s slim pickings, which is why the indigenous people, who lived here before Christopher Columbus landed, ate mostly fish and shellfish,” says Barry, a modern Huckleberry Finn who also enjoys the wild edibles on his flatwoods property in Golden Gates Estates. He describes several of the plants that he and his colleagues nibble, depending upon the season.
Muscadine grape (vitis rotundifolia) is the most prevalent vine in Golden Gate Estates. With small, tart fruit that ripens in late summer, this year’s bumper crop is due to a wet winter. To quench his thirst, Barry pops them into his mouth by the handfuls, mashing them and sucking out the juice. Seeds and skin are spit out. “I was working with Mexican and Central American workers in the woods,” he says, “and I observed that when they took short breaks, they loaded up on the grapes.”
Ground cherry (physalis walteri) is Barry’s favorite treat. Common in flatwoods and weedy areas, the cherries ripen in June. He weed whips around them in his firebreak.
Earleaf greenbrier (smilax auriculata) is an evergreen vine with edible buds that flourish in spring and after a fire. Barry eats them raw, but his wife prefers to sauté them with onions.
Wild cucumber (melothria pendula) was Barry’s favorite before he discovered ground cherries. “My dogs love them, too, so I have to work to get my share,” he says with a grin.
Florida bully (sideloxyron reclinatum) or Buckthorn fruits, belong to the same family as sapodilla, a commonly planted neotropical fruit tree. Although Barry has an abundance of these small, spiny trees on his property, he regretfully notes that he has to share them with the birds.
Willow bustic (sideloxyron salicifolia) is tasty, but less common than its recognizable family members, which include saffron-plum, caimito and mastic.
Saw palmetto berries, which ripen in late summer, are a must-try, in Barry’s opinion. “The first one is usually the last one for most people,” he chuckles. “For prostate health, though, it’s worth the aftertaste—described as ‘rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice.’ When perfectly ripe, the berries taste good. The wildlife goes nuts over them, and so do my dogs.”
Cabbage palms are part of Barry’s annual Thanksgiving feast. “I sacrifice a couple of them each year to cook up with swamp cabbage in butter and garlic,” he says, noting that the palms can be legally harvested in Picayune Strand State Forest by stopping in at the office to request a free permit.
Dewberry (Rubus trivialis and Rubus cuneifolius) is common in the Estates. Fruit is produced in early summer.
Red mulberry (Morus rubra) is a hardwood hammock plant often found at indigenous sites such as mounds, middens or campsites. Barry is presently cultivating mulberries.
Elderberries, now ripe in the swamps, are beloved by bears.
Shiny blueberry (Vaccinium myrsinites) is the most common wild blueberry. Darrow’s blueberry (Vaccinium darrowii) is found upland, and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is a swamp species.
Spurge nettle (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) can be boiled and eaten like spinach.
Native violas will persist in a lawn that is not fertilized or irrigated. Leaves and flowers are edible.
Pokeweed, though common, should be avoided; the plant and its berries are poisonous. Some people pick the young leaves and repeatedly boil them for salad, but consuming any part of the plant can cause vomiting, diarrhea and difficulty breathing.
Barry and his colleagues share a common concern regarding the perceived value of conserving biodiversity: the lack of visible financial benefit to the public. “Only the aesthetic value is considered,” Barry laments, pointing out that before crops were engineered, the potential existed to cultivate and harvest natural species capable of growing in harsh environments.
“If we wipe out our existing native foods, we can’t get them back in the future, when we are dealing with the severities of climate change,” advises Barry, who believes that the world’s Achilles’ Heel is agriculture. “In my field, we believe that people are ill-informed about civilization’s ability to handle the traumatic changes that will come about due to climate change. It’s why we need to keep all our options open, including wild edibles.”
For more information, visit www.RegionalConservation.org.