Nature’s Grocery

These easy-care native edibles are so delectable.

By Andrea DeLong-Amaya

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Several species of wild grapes are native to North America

You are a home gardener passionate about nourishing yourself and your family with wholesome, organic, fresh, and ultimately local vegetables and fruits. It is empowering to know exactly where your food comes from. And gardening is perfect exercise, but can be a lot of work. What if you could grow food plants that all but took care of themselves? Or simply harvest—with caution, of course—from the wild?

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.

Eastern Persimmon
(Diospyros virginiana).
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

After a light frost, the flavor of eastern persimmon shifts from puckery to sweet.


Evening primroses
(Oenothera spp.)
Spiderworts
(Tradescantia spp.)
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

Spiderwort is often cultivated in gardens


Yellow wood-sorrel
(Oxalis dillenii).
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

Yellow woodsorrel has a tangy flavor


Wild Onions
(Allium spp.)
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

wild wild onions couldn't drag me away


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

chile pepper pequin

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