Edible wild plants: Free locavorism
This time of year, it seems like the plants are doing nothing but dying. Lawns are brown, houseplants are wilting and the tomatoes you pick from your garden come pre-baked.
But look closer, and you’ll find a variety of plants around town that actually thrive in this heat. Better yet, some of them are edible and highly nutritious. Some are even delicious.
Surprisingly, the plants that grow well in Texas summer heat don’t fall into a single category. Some are sweet and juicy, like prickly pear fruit, while others are tough and dry, like mesquite pods. Some are succulents, like cactus, while others are leaves, like lamb’s quarter and purslane. Whether you choose to make a mismatched meal out of nothing but gathered plants or incorporate them one at a time into meals you already make, try out some of Central Texas’ edible wild plants this summer to eat both locally and for free.
- Prickly pear pads – Commonly known as nopales, the pads of the prickly pear plant are edible as well, and are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. This viscous but addictive food with a flavor similar to that of green beans is commonly used in Mexican cuisine. Harvest the pads that are still relatively small and tender. Scrub the nopales to remove the spines, then skin the pads. The pads are often sliced into strips and are usually cooked by boiling or sautéing.
- Prickly pear fruit – The fruit of the prickly pear cactus is covered in tiny spines that must be removed to get to the juicy fruit inside, but it’s worth it. To avoid getting pricked, gather the fruit with gloves, and try removing the spines before peeling by rolling the fruit in sand or dirt, or burning them off. The fruit inside is sweet and is usually of a light green or bright pink/purple color. It can be eaten as-is, or blended for use in juice or margaritas.
- Mesquite tree pods – Honey mesquite trees are rampant in Austin, and in the summer they sprout long, thin, edible pods. While mesquite is more commonly used in smoking meats, the pods are can be dried, ground and used in baking (mesquite meal should not be eaten raw). The meal is highly nutritious — it’s high in fiber, contains protein and essential minerals, and can be beneficial in preventing diabetes, at it helps to regulate blood sugar. Different pods have different flavors, so throw back the bitter pods and stick with the sweet ones.
- Turk’s Cap – This common, bright green shrub grows a tiny, spiraling red flower in the summer that many Central Texans will recognize. However, what they may not know is that the plant also produces edible red berries in late summer. The berry is mealy, but try throwing it into muffins.
- Lamb’s quarter – This common garden weed has rough, triangular green leaves often tinted with purple. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked as you would with any other leafy green. The taste is similar to that of spinach, and the nutritional content is similar as well, though lamb’s quarter is higher in vitamins A and C, and lower in iron.
- Purslane – Purslane is also an edible garden weed. It has small, fleshy, teardrop-shaped leaves with the rounded side facing out. It can be eaten raw or cooked, and its flavor is slightly salty and sour. It’s notably high in omega-3 fatty acids, and also contains essential vitamins and minerals. Harvest purslane in the late afternoon for the least sour taste.