The following plants are all easy to cultivate within their home ranges and, once established, may not require any attention outside of harvest. There are many virtues of raising locally native plants: decreased use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides; promoting regional identity; and providing for wildlife. Those, however, aren’t my main motives for sharing these untamed delicacies. These often-overlooked foods are, quite frankly, delicious, and in some cases they offer superior nutrition. “In vitamins, minerals, and protein, wild foods can match and even surpass the nutritional content of our common foods,” writes Delena Tull in her book Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest.
The following plants are indigenous to large areas of the United States. Many nonnative and even invasive plants also provide good eats, but in the interest of space, I’m limiting the list to natives.
Late in the year, many of us can revel in the luscious sweet treats offered by the eastern persimmon. Trees vary in the quality of their fruit, and common wisdom suggests they are best after a frost. In any case, immature fruit is very astringent and not recommended. Black persimmon (D. texana), a related species occurring in Texas and Mexico, delivers sugary lumps of fruit with a floral hint as early as July.
Photo: Rob Cardillo
Both of these perennials are beautiful in bloom and abundant throughout the country. Aboveground parts may be sautéed (anything in butter tastes great!) or eaten raw. Toss the greens into a salad or add to soups or stir-fries. Evening primrose greens impart their best flavor when collected through winter and spring before flowering. Edible species of spiderwort include Tradescantia virginiana, T. edwardsiana, T. ohiensis, and T. bracteata.
Photo: Saxon Holt
Most gardeners in North America fight yellow woodsorrel. After your next weeding session, add a few leaves, flowers, or green seedpods to a salad or soup as you would French sorrel. The flavor is strong and sour, so add sparingly. Woodsorrel is rich in vitamin C and, like spinach, contains oxalic acid, which when eaten in large amounts may tie up calcium.
Photo: Rob Cardillo
Chopped green leaves of wild onions resemble chives, and cooked bulbs may be used like other onions, although the flavor will be sharper. A. canadensis is quirky in that it forms bulbils on the flower heads, sometimes forgoing flowers altogether. Eat these, too. Beware: Many bulb-forming plants that resemble wild onions are highly toxic. Take care to harvest only plants with a distinct onion odor.
Photo: (cc) Frank Mayfield/Flickr
|Pequin chile pepper|
(Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum)
Chile pequin (or bird pepper), precursor to most familiar peppers including jalapeños, is perennial where winters are mild. It has small but potent fruits that spice up a pot of spaghetti sauce or beans. Crush them and add to scrambled eggs or salad dressings. They are great pickled or dried for use anytime.
Photo: (cc) Stingray Phil/Flickr
Grapes are most commonly used for making jelly, juice, and wine. But have you ever tried tart green grape pie? Leaves are also tasty; in midspring when tender ones emerge, you can brine them for making dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. Young leaves wrapped around chicken, then grilled, impart a mild tangy note to the meat and help keep it moist. Note that only female vines will develop fruit. When choosing a garden location, keep in mind that ripe fruits are messy.
Photo: Rob Cardillo
(Lepidium virginicum, L. densiflorum)
Another plant high in vitamin C, and iron, too, is one of my all-time favorites: peppergrass. It’s a member of the mustard family, and as the name hints, it is spicy but with a sweet and nutty undertone. When peppergrass is in season, no salad should be without it.
Photo: (cc) Annie Roonie/Flickr
The correct way to consume wild edibles: Harvest from sizable colonies and always with permission from the landowner. Understand that whether collected from natural areas or from plants in your garden, otherwise safe and nutritious foods may become toxic in large amounts. As with any new addition to your diet, add small amounts at a time until you know how your body will respond. Before eating any wild food, be absolutely certain of its proper identity. Many plants have lookalikes. When in doubt, do not eat it.
Wild Green Grape Pie
Shift away from the usual thinking about grapes, when they are dark, sweet, and summer-ripe, to the tiny immature fruits that are pea-to-not-quite-marble-sized. Pay close attention to the window of development before the seeds get crunchy. This is when they are just right to harvest for making this deliciously tart green grape pie that pairs nicely with vanilla ice cream. Recipe courtesy of Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek Farm in Austin, Texas.
- 2 pints tiny fresh green grapes (1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter)
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons butter, plus additional for topping
- 1 tablespoon flour (for thickening)
- Freshly grated cinnamon and nutmeg
- 1 9-inch double piecrust
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a pie pan with one of the crusts. Destem (twist stem off instead of pulling) and wash grapes. Simmer with the sugar and water in a pot for 15 minutes. Mash with a potato masher, then stir in the 2 tablespoons butter and the flour. Pour into prepared piecrust and top with lattice. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg and dot with additional butter. Bake for about 45 minutes.