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Central Florida forager Deane Jordan invites you to a backyard buffet

Can you survive on the free food growing all around you?

Photo: Dave Plotkin, License: N/A

Dave Plotkin

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Our walk in the park proves that you're never far from a salad. Pellitory, with its translucent green leaves, tastes like cucumber and grows along fences in the shade. Spanish needles are easily identifiable, with miniature daisy-like flowers (edible raw, with a piney taste) and bountiful 1-centimeter needle-shaped seeds, which catch on clothing and pets. The leaves have two times the nutrients of spinach and can be eaten raw or cooked. Sow thistle and wild lettuce, two plants that you've likely seen before, make a nice mixed-greens assortment.

Foraging isn't just about plants – there's protein to be had, too. For instance, apple snails are abundant in Lake Brantley. (Jordan suspects these delicacies made their home in the lake after being let go by someone keeping them as pets.) All freshwater snails and aquatic edible plants must be cooked thoroughly, to kill bacteria and parasites that flourish in wet places. Some snails don't taste like much, but hey, it's free food.

Pine trees offer both meat and veg: The needles are packed with vitamin C and can be made into a tea (and they don't cause abortion, as some Internet sources posit, much to Jordan's consternation); the calcium-rich white inner bark can be cooked in a soup or fried, and the scorpions that live in the bark can be crushed and cooked if you need a protein bump.

There's oh so much more. Jordan talks fast, peppering us with historical facts and recipes. Marinate two cups of loquat seeds in a quart of vodka for a cherry-flavored liquor. Creeping Charlie, a low-growing mint that carpets many lawns, can be made into tea. The light-green inner shoots of cattails are edible right off the plant. Queen palms drop delicious and fibrous orange fruits, but don't eat the seeds. Magnolia leaves can be used to flavor broths just like bay leaves. Florida betony roots, white crunchy grub-looking things, taste just like their relative, crosnes root (aka Chinese artichoke), which goes for $150 per pound at gourmet markets.

On our foraging excursion we encountered at least 55 different plants, but there are about 100 edible species in the park, Jordan says. You need only learn 12 plants – edibles and toxic ones – to get started (see sidebar). While that doesn't sound like much, he surmises it would take about a year of regular outings to become an accomplished, safe forager. It's the intricacies – certain parts of certain plants are edible, while others of the same plant are not; some plants can be eaten raw while others require cooking – that make me wonder why we don't hear of more casualties from wild eating. The quickest way to get good at identification, he says, is to learn from a person who shows you the plant, points out its key characteristics and eats it right in front of you, thus proving its safety. Jordan suggests learning from a member of the Native Plant Society, like himself. He urges people not to use Wikipedia or other Internet sources for identification of wild plants, because these sources are frequently incorrect or incomplete.

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