Whenever there is a chance to break away from the kitchen and actually get out into the dirt and learn something, I feel discouragement that these moments don't happen with more frequency. Especially when learning about foraging in South Florida, there isn't a huge wealth of information out there on the subject. Foraging is also one of those things that is much better to learn from a person rather than a book. Fortunately for me, I had a walking talking encyclopedia give me an initiation. The problem with tropical environments is that they break all of the rules that typically apply to the mass of information out there because those sources are based on climates further north. The reality of it is that South Florida has more in common with the Caribbean and Central and South America than with the rest of the United States. Also, while hot environments are perceived to be an agricultural paradise by many, the truth is that most of the plants that happen naturally much further north will not grow here (also, the damn state is called Florida... which would also suggest a paradise of flora).
My foraging guide was Andres Mejides of Tropical Delights farm in Homestead, FL. I posted on Andres and his farm a few years back, and to say that he's knowledgeable on tropical climates and agriculture is a great understatement. Much thanks to him for taking time out of his schedule to walk the farm and educate me on 'eating the weeds' as he put it. Here's a little of what I learned (or can remember... I'm doing this fresh so as to forget as little as possible).
moss rose- The leaves of this plant were fairly neutral in flavor. They are a little plump and the texture is nice. It reminds me of a landscaping filler plant, but I don't think it's the same. (Note: Thank you, James for the purslane hint. Turns out this is a variety of purslane that favors sandy soil. It is also a muscilage, which I forgot to note, and thus can be used as a thickener for soups or stews. It is native to a few South American countries and is spread throughout the tropical world. In Vietnam, it is known as the 10 o' clock flower because of it's tendency to bloom at a particular time of day.)
Nigerian spinach- This was very nice in flavor... slightly tart, a mild bitterness, and grassy. I liked it very much. Andres warned me that the African population who brought this plant here strongly believes that it is bad luck to give it away. It must 'volunteer' on its own.
bidens- Not the Vice President. This was an important find for me because it's growing all around my house and yard. The flavor of the leaves are slightly hoppy at first, then rounding out into a typical 'greens' flavor. Bidens is the genus and it contains many species... although I do not know what this one is. Andres informed me that the leaves are often stir fried to hinder their bitterness although they tasted great 'as is.'
oxalis- The largest family of wood sorrel. I have not seen an oxalis with leaves this large and beautiful. The flavor was booming... is that a result of the species or the freshness. As expected, the leaves are tart with green apple flavor. I believe it is a variety know more in tropical regions though do not quote me.
toothache plant- I can only compare this to the Szechuan buttons that have been out for a couple of years. The leaf has a numbing effect on the tongue and mouth (hence the name). Very interesting although it would take some true creativity to find a place for it in a dish since the after effects would affect the tasting ability for the next couple of courses.
pereskia- Andres explained this as a Virgin Islands ancestor to the cactus plant. The stem has long thin thorns that are very much like the needles on a cactus. The plant has thrived in North America for a very long time, and when the Rocky Mountains eventually rose and blocked off the moisture coming from the west the drier climate forced the plant to lose its leaves and expand its stem... thus becoming more like the cactus we know today.
Jamaican mint- We noticed this huge woody mint plant on our first trip here. It is now even bigger. The leaves are used as mint would be, and have a unique flavor. Apparently this is a difficult plant to reproduce within organic guidelines since the only hormone available for propagation contains many ingredients that would violate its organic status.
Brassicaceae- One of my favorite flavors of the day. The leaves have a slightly fruity and basil-like flavor (almost a light flavor of gin... just my interpretation). There are also tiny pepper-like pods along the stem which have a mustardy and sweet flavor slightly reminscient of wasabi. Andres gave me a small shoot to bring home. I'll let you know how it works out.
violets- Not sure if these are native or not. They are growing in abundance though. The flowers are not in yet, but the leaves are edible.
sawgrass- This is the grass that gives the Florida Everglades their historical nickname of the "River of Grass." I can relate the blades to that of the sugarcane I ran through as a kid. The edges are jaggedly sharp and will cut you up if you're not careful. We did not try it, but the heart of the base of these stalks are edible. The base becomes rounded like lemongrass, and the outer layers can be pulled and cut away revealing an edible interior. Definitely something to try in the future when I get my hands on an abundant growth of the stuff.
tree chiles- Just some medium hot chiles on a woody plant. I have a couple of these and have not yet decided if I will eat them or dry them to plant.
Caribbean tree basil- A woody basil plant with a unique flavor like that of so many other basil varieties... just how many basil varieties are there anyway. I'm always hearing of new names.
holy basil- Hey, here's another one. The overtones of this variety have an anise-like flavor. The story of the name comes from a tale of Buddah taking shelter under a particularly large specimen... and so, the plant was obviously blessed with its religious name.
coffee- There are just four or five of these trees growing in the back. Andres explained that there is actually a coffee plant native to Florida, but it is inferior to the beans we know and love. Apparently birds here find the native coffee berries good to eat, but since the caffeine in these is about 10 times greater, the birds will wig out and fly irratically around the farm. At least that's what Andres said, and I'm never quite sure whether or not he's joking. Like many geniuses, his sense of humor can leave the lay person in a state of confusion.
chicory- Coffee and chicory... together in the cup, together in nature. This chicory was exceptionally bitter. The reason may be that the leave I ate came from a flowering plant. I do like the bitterness, but this was pushing it.
heirloom brown cotton- Not edible, but an interesting plant. I assumed (like with most things) that cotton was cotton. Apparently, this brown variety was undesired by the plantation owners back in the day, so they would give all of it to the slave-workers. Just like those parts of the pig that they didn't want and gave away also which are ironically on every fine dining menu today for a fine dining price.
Remember I said that it was bad luck to plant the Nigerian spinach oneself. Well, Andres had me cuff up my jeans and place the plants in them so that they could 'hitchhike' home with me. This was obviously a voodoo loophole of some sort, so that the African demon Saint that curses this plant would leave me alone... let's hope it worked.
I did not get pictures, but we also ate the white part at the bottom of blades of St. Augustine grass. These are edible too. It's not great, but as Andres explained it... it's there if you ever need it and you won't starve. We'll keep this in mind in the event of an economic collapse.
Also (missing a picture) was the cycad, known as coonte by the native Indian population. It is native to South Florida and is referred to as arrow root here. Like some plants that are not readily consumable in their natural state, the root of the coonte must be boiled 3 separate times before the resulting paste is edible and nontoxic. I've often wondered, as Andres suggested also, how this discovery came about during more primitive times... how persistent and brave was the soul that decided to add a 3rd boil and eat it after people had died from boiling it only once or twice. The olive has confounded me in similar ways... it is such an ancient food source, yet the processes by which is becomes edible seem strangely complex for ancient peoples.