March 11, 2021
By Bre Lewis
Water and land “hunting” opportunities make Florida a sportsman’s paradise, but less known is that the fairly consistent climate makes Florida a gatherer’s paradise as well. Like fishing and hunting, collecting food from wild sources fulfills an innate drive and provides an excellent opportunity for immersion in the outdoors. While some foraging is seasonal, each season offers an abundance of species, many of which can also be harvested year around.
First, be sure that the landowner or manager permits taking natural products. Florida Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) are generally off-limits to foraging without some specific authorization from the FWC Executive Director. Similar rules govern our state and federal parks. Perhaps in the near future state and federal land-managers will make some concessions, but for now this article deals primarily with activities to enjoy on private lands (hunting leases, ranches, etc.) to which you’ve received lawful access. Your own backyard, with or even without intentional cultivation, may also yield seasonal delights.
Most iconic of Florida is foraging the “heart” of cabbage palms to make swamp cabbage. Cabbage trees are readily identified, with their palmed tops and armored trunks, but finding one the ideal size, about 5 to 8 feet to the top of the trunk, for maximum heart size and ease of harvest, can be more difficult. The real challenge comes with cutting the palm to get to the heart. A cabbage palm’s many-bladed trunk easily unchains a chainsaw, so take care to clear away as much of the blades using the saw against the trunk before cutting across the grain. Then a horizontal cut can be made about two and half feet below the top of the trunk. Don’t continue to expose the heart until cooking to prevent oxidation of the flesh. Once ready to cook, cut vertically through the layers until soft and tender white meat is reached with a sharp knife. Then, cut up from the bottom until you can see rings. Even if this portion before the rings looks white and tender it should be discarded because it’s very bitter, and is actually called “the bitter” by Florida Crackers. All of the heart can be used except the fibrous section right before the green growth. Swamp cabbage is cooked by boiling slices of the heart, generally with salt and pepper. I add cooked bacon and the bacon grease to give it more of a “southern comfort” flavor. Some people add tomatoes to keep the cabbage from oxidizing, and many coastal Floridians add fresh seafood.
Throughout the year cattails can also be harvested in Florida, and almost every portion of the plant can be utilized. During the summer and fall, the characteristic brown cylinders at the tops of the rush make identification of cattails easy. However, without the presence of these tops, cattails can be mistaken for their toxic lookalike, the water iris. If identity of the plant is questionable, harvest young shoots from patches with more mature flowering plants. The lower stalk of the young shoots are tasty cooked as asparagus or added to soups or stir-fries. Pollen from the brown flowering head can be harvested in the spring and summer and used as flour for baking or cooking, providing an excellent source of protein, phosphorous, potassium, and vitamins A, B, and C to your meal. Before the flowering head turns brown, the immature green heads can be cooked like corn on the cob and eaten whole. Even the roots can be used, though this requires more work to boil down into starch or dry and pound into flour.
Fresh lower leaves of the cattail can be added to salads. When foraging for a diverse Florida salad, my preferred base is the new growth of greenbriers. Using the fresh and tender leaves and stems of this vine provides a slightly nutty flavor, similar to a mild arugula. There are no toxic lookalikes to the pear-shaped leaves and thorned stems of greenbrier vines. New growth can be found year-round, though springtime provides a plethora of tender pickings. Dayflower, another common native, creates a flavorful salad as well. Brilliant blue flowers and triangular leaves manifest the presence of this treasure. There are a couple varieties of dayflower in Florida. Both are safe and tasty, but the larger of the two, the whitemouth dayflower, has more fibrous leaves. The leaves from the smaller, common dayflower, however, are extremely tender. Common dayflower often grows along the ground, while whitemouth dayflower grows taller away from the ground. For varied texture and flavor in either of the salads, I often add young leaves from a dwarf plantain, a common native weed recognized by its flowering stalks and hairy leaves. Seasonal foraged fruits create an excellent salad topping.
Guava and mulberries are ripe in spring...wild grapes, elderberries and persimmons late summer... sour oranges and prickly pear year-round.
Florida always has some fruit in season! Blackberries and blueberries dominate the summer, though gopher apples, pawpaws, and sea grapes are also ripe at this time. Wild grapes, elderberries, and persimmons can be harvested late summer through early fall. Citrus takes over in winter, with sweet oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit in season. Guava and mulberries are ripe in the spring. Sour oranges and prickly pear fruit can be found almost all year around in Florida.
Although sour oranges are lip puckering by themselves, they make a great meat marinade and help with tenderization. Slow cooking wild hog with sour oranges is a great way to tenderize the meat and remove any boar taint. Additionally, sour oranges can be made into an even more “Floridian” rendition of a Key lime pie.
Sour oranges look similar to the sweet oranges, but are generally brighter colored and look more appealing. If you’re still uncertain, a small taste of the fruit will quickly alert you to the variety.
Prickly pear fruit, along with the cactus itself, is another readily foraged Florida treat. The cactus has flat, tear-shaped segments and the fruit can range from green to purple red. Harvesting the red fruit results in the sweetest fresh snack, but take care to burn off the small hair-like spines and peel back the sour skin before consuming.
The green cactus pads, also called the “nopales,” can be eaten raw or cooked, once skinned and with the same small spine precautions taken. Larger spines can be cut off with scissors, but note that the small, more aggravating spines at the bases of each large spine need to be burned.
Grilling nopales as a side dish or as a taco or burger topping is popular. The okra-like slimy texture can be unappealing to some, but can be erased by boiling the cactus for about 10 minutes. The slime congregates at the surface of the water where it can be skimmed off. Rinsing the cactus in clean water after ensures slime removal.
There are quite a few delicious mushroom species in Florida, though many require a good deal of knowledge to confidently identify the species. Sulfur shelf, or chicken-of-the-wood, is a great beginner mushroom to forage because it has no toxic lookalikes in the Sunshine State. In Florida, this bright, brilliant, “chicken flavored” mushroom grows in layering “shelves” on the base and trunk of dead or dying live oaks. The mushroom keeps growing as long as conditions remain favorable, so remember the spots mushrooms were harvested and, in just a few days’ time, you can potentially recollect from the same growth. The center portion of the mushroom is less desirable to eat because it turns a bit “corky” as it ages. Leaving this section behind on the tree helps to grow fresh outer margins for a second harvest. Also, mentally mark the tree for years to come, because sulfur shelf will continue to return there each season.
These mushrooms are typically found August through December in Florida. New growth can be found after rain. It’s important to harvest mushrooms before they go to spore, when they’re still moist. As they age, they dry out and lose their appealing taste and texture. The bottom of these mushrooms has pores instead of gills. The young sulfur shelves will have their pores close together; they spread and open as they begin to spore. Cooking sulfur shelf is recommended, and almost any chicken recipe works excellently with the mushroom as a substitute.
A foraged meal is not complete, though, without a beverage. Drinks are limitless with the options for juices and wines made from fruits and teas from leaves and roots. The flavors achieved can be diverse as well, ranging from peppermint tea using candy weed roots to native lemonade from the acid on the outside of winged sumac berries. Year-round, blackberry leaves can be brewed with boiling water to make a fantastic, fresh hot or cold drink. Blackberry leaves have variegated edges and their stems have thorns. Leaf color can range from bright green, to dark green, to even reddish. The bright green, younger leaves are ideal for brewing. Leaves from blackberry bushes can even be dried in an oven or dehydrated and preserved for later use. In the spring, adding an actual blackberry to the drink can add sweetness and more flavor!
Now, all that remains for a complete foraged meal is your fresh fish or game. So tighten your drags, sharpen your arrows, and go get ’em! But bring some containers, too, for all the other treats to collect on the way! FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2021
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