Saturday, February 23, 2008

Eating Green

Apparently I've been poisoning myself on occasion, and not just on toxic grasshoppers. That's the problem with learning about edible plants from books, sometimes good and bad are hard to tell apart.

Luckily I and the Wethergirls were able to attend a wild edible plant tour out at Jesse H. Jones Park. It was a real eye (and mouth) opener. We munched our way through the woods guided by the park expert, Anita.

Anita the Expert, basket in hand.

Fellow Piney Woods Primitive Skills Group member "Wildcat" and his two kids were also along.
Sidenote: the tiny blue arm isn't his.

The first wild edible I learned were violets. Back in my undergraduate days I had a friend who was nuts about breeding violets. He had this big hydroponics system set up and used to talk on and on about how delicate his violets were and how the slightest change in his system would cause all his violets to die. Now, I knew violets were edible but after hearing lecture after lecture about their sensitivity from this guy I never bothered to look for them in the woods. Turns out they are all over the place!

The heart-shape leaves are violets. They are about about the size of a quarter.

Where there are violets there are quite likely also cleavers (Galium aparine). These long, semi-vine-ish type plants are very clingy and I've often left the woods with these stuck to me. I wouldn't have guessed these are edible as they are covered in fine, prickly hairs. Cooking the cleavers (sautee, steam, or boil) destroys these hairs.
Sidenote: You can stick a bunch of cleavers together to make an impromptu strainer while out in the woods.

Texan woods are filled with many types of vines ranging from small ones with diameters under 1/2" to massive wild grape vines thicker than my wrist. There's an old jungle trick for acquiring fresh water from vines. You find a thick one, reach up as high as you can and cut the vine off. Then you cut the vine away at the bottom and let its water drain into some container. Once the water stops flowing from the vine cut off the top two feet and more water will flow out. Once the flow stops again cut the next two feet off and continue in this manner until the vine has been reduced to two-foot sections. This will give a person a significant amount of fresh, drinkable water. Of course, the trick is to make sure the vine itself isn't poisonous.

At least here in Texas the easy way to tell the difference between safe and toxic vines is by the bark and also by its growing technique. Vines that cling tightly to trees as they grow are toxic while "Tarzan" vines that dangle loose from the tree are LIKELY to be safe. To confirm the dangling vines are safe you need to look at their bark. Vines with smooth skins are toxic while vines with rough bark are safe to tap for water.
Rough-barked grape vine, whose sap you can drink, and fruit/leaves you can eat.

Now, the rough/smooth-safe/toxic vine classification does not apply to greenbriar. The young, tender shoots are bitter when raw but cook up quite tasty. The greenbriar root can be cooked, then dried and pounded into a high-energy gelatine powder. It's fruit is also edible though quite chewy.

Two different greenbriar vines.

Another easily overlooked wild edible is betony. The leaves can be used to make tea but its real treasure is underground. Betony roots can produce swollen tubers that taste much like radish.

Betony tuber (spelled wrong in my notebook). Yes, it kind of looks like a maggot but tastes completely different.

Close-up of a betony plant.

A large patch of betony. Sidenote: only a few plants actually had tubers this time of year. We had to dig up a lot of the plants to find just a few tubers. Luckily Miniwether (with bag of cereal) likes to dig.

Meanwhile, mambowether is more of the supervisor type...

The wonderfully fragrent seasoningbay laurel trees are plentiful in the area. However, the almost identical and highly poisonous cherry laurel grows in the same area. Luckily it is easy to tell them apart. First, the edges leaves of the toxic cherry laurel are jagged or toothed while the edges of the bay laurel leaves are smooth. Second, crushed cherry laurel leaves smell like a mix of cherry and bitter almond (from the large amount of cyanide it contains. Crushed bay laurel leaves smell like bay leaves (think Italian cooking).

Toxic cherry laurel. Notice the fine tooths along the leaf's edge. Bay Laurel leaves are smooth-edged.

Another edible plant with a toxic mimic is wild onion. For years I've nibbled on what I thought were wild onions growing in my yard. Turns out they were the identical-looking but somewhat poisonous Crow's Poison. The only sure way to tell the difference is by smell. Wild onions smell like onions, Crow's Poison doesn't really have much of any smell. Unfortunately, my sense of smell was damaged long ago in a lab accident so I have a very hard time telling these two plants apart.

Crow's Poison.

A much safer plant is wild lettuce. This plant looks similar to dandelion but isn't quite as sharp-tasting. The leaves of wild lettuce can either be smooth-edged or somewhat toothed.
Toothed wild lettuce.

Smooth wild lettuce.

One last thing I learned, the seeds of river cane/wild bamboo are edible, not just the young shoots. Sidenote: make sure you are collecting the seeds not fungus pellets. The bamboo fungus is highly toxic but can be distinguished from the bamboo seeds by color. If the grains you collect are pink/purple you've collected the poisonous fungus. Don't eat it.

The tour ended with a lovely salad made from the plants we had harvested.
It was very tastey, fresh and crisp. The purple parts are redbud blossoms, not bad bamboo fungus.

So, of course we had to swing by McDonald's on the way home to fill ourselves up...

Happy munchers (with dirty faces).

Adventure! Excitement! Fooooood!


Izzy G. said...

I've been coming to your blog for a long time now, Blast. I can say without a doubt you are one fine Father. And proof that you don't need to be of the same blood or relation as your children to be a good father to them. Just thought I'd say that.

-IzzyJG99/Joe. G.

Anonymous said...

That was a fun/informative walk. Don't forget the wood sorrel. It had a nice lemon flavor. I hate that I had to leave early. I love a good salad. Did they have grilled chicken to add to the salad? hehehe

We are headed to Brenham Monday. Gonna eat some Blue Bell direct from the maker and go on the tour. Then off to Barrington Farm for some hands on old timey farming, spinning and good ole day livin. I love that place. Have a good one!


Merriwether the Adventurer said...

Izzy, thanks for the compliment. I try hard to be a good dad. Misseswether and I have an agreement. She takes care of the kids during the day Mon-Fri until after supper, then I take over to give her a break. On weekends I let her go do whatever she wants while I watch the kids. Holidays and vacation days from work are all mine to spend (mostly) as I want, kid-free. She'll also give me the weekend if the local rivers are flowing and I want to canoe them. This arrangement has worked great for us.

Wildcat, I like the taste of wood sorel but it's easy to eat too much of it. It's loaded with oxalic acid which can be poisonous. I was always taught that you should limit yourself to three wood sorels per meal to avoid ODing on the stuff.

Barrington Farm sounds just like my sort of place! Where is it located?

Ursula said...

Meri, you said: That's the problem with learning about edible plants from books, sometimes good and bad are hard to tell apart.

You know, old bean, one could say that not just about plants, but about life in general! A wise observation.

Christina E. Rodriguez said...

I absolutely loved this entry, so informative and with a humorous ending. I hope you get that TV gig. You'd be great!

This reminds me of when I used to teach art classes in the summer back in Virginia. I worked for a lakeside park and would take the kids I was teaching out on the trails to sketch the wildlife. Some kids were natural explorers and we'd have fun overturning logs and rocks to find and sketch the worms and lizards underneath. Good times!