Can you survive on the free food growing all around you?
Published: March 22, 2012
I want to be able to eat the plants outside, in the park, lining the fences and ponds of Orlando. Call it a pseudo-survivalist instinct, but it just seems unfair that I must go to the grocery store and buy farmed vegetables when Florida is a veritable buffet of wild food. I imagine plucking leaves off weeds and eating them a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as I walk in a park or traverse my neighborhood.
Although those leaves wouldn't be as sweet as candy, they could contain up to three times the nutrients of vegetables found in grocery stores, a positive side effect in wild plants due to the high level of antioxidants and nutrients they require to constantly duke it out with pests and other adversaries. Plus they're not genetically modified. Many super-nutritious plants – and a few protein sources – can be foraged, i.e., scavenged or hunted, locally. If you can identify these foods, you can feed yourself even if you're hit by hard times.
When I read the Army's Illustrated Guide to Edible Wild Plants and Florida's Incredible Wild Edibles, written by Richard Deuerling and Peggy Lantz, though, it became clear to me that a) it's hard to match real plants with the ones in the pictures, and b) there are several plants in our area that will kill a person within an hour of ingestion. So before fulfilling my adult version of Augustus Gloop's self-indulgence, I decided to learn plant identification from an experienced forager. Deane Jordan, aka Green Deane, teaches classes on foraging in Central Florida and writes about foraging extensively on EatTheWeeds.com. He got his start as a 4-year-old, eating the plants his grandmother and mother picked during their daily walks in Maine, where he grew up, and now he's a full-time educator on the topic of edible wild plants.
On a blustery February morning in Winter Park's Mead Garden, Jordan, in bomber jacket and fedora, led three students (including me) across the park on a four-hour search for food sources – and toxic plants. Mead Garden is full of easily identifiable edibles, “the same stuff that people find near their homes,” according to Jordan. As class unfolded, I soon found that I recognized many edible plants from my own unkempt backyard.
We start around a picnic table, where Jordan shows us a couple of species from elsewhere in Orlando. It doesn't take long for one forager to feel the burn of the stinging nettle. The hairs on the plant contain formic acid similar to that of red ants, but the prickle dissolves and the leaves taste like spinach when the plant is crushed or cooked. Next Jordan carefully checks his hand for cuts or scrapes, then pours several shiny, smooth, red and black seeds into his palm and announces, “This is the most toxic seed on Earth.” They look like innocuous little beads, but eating just three of the seeds of the rosary pea will kill you (so will a crushed seed coming into contact with a cut on your hand), and there's no antidote. These particular seeds came from a vine found growing on a fence near Panera Bread in Winter Park. Having sufficiently struck fear and respect into the hearts of his pupils, Jordan moves on.
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