Since before the first agriculture developed in the Nile watershed over 5000 years ago, humans have gathered plants from their surroundings to provide food, clothing and shelter. With the quality of our commercial food supply becoming questionable, many people have returned to the hunter gatherer lifestyle to supplement the table. Today this is known as wildcrafting. Texas folks are fortunate to have an abundance of plants available to gather. Delena Tull's Edible and Useful Plant's of Texas and the Southwest (University of Texas Press 2003) is a comprehensive guide to the usable flora or our great state. Remember when using this book that edible is not synonymous with tasty.
A few of my favorite local products that are available for the picking range from the common to the unusual. Since I was a kid in south Texas we picked dewberries in the spring to make jam. It was a rare year when enough dewberries made it home for more than a cobbler. Our purple fingers and lips were a clue to lack of berries in the pails. Another popular ingredient for making jelly was the Mustang grape. Here in central Texas we have the Mustang grape as well as it's close cousin the muscadine grape. They are identical as far as usage. The muscadine grape, which is slightly larger and has a shiny skin, is found in damp shady areas such as forests and creek banks. The Mustang grape has a smaller fruit with a dusty appearance and can be found in dry climates around fence rows and windbreaks where birds perch.
The ominous prickly pear cactus is one of those rare plants that almost every part of the plant can be used. In addition, recent studies have shown that eating the plant lowers cholesterol, prevents heart disease and contains anti-inflammatory agents to relieve symptoms of arthritis and gout. The paddles (leaves) can be sliced and sautéed (nopalitos). The pears (buds, tunas) can be juiced for a tasty juice, jelly or wine. (See sidebar for my jelly recipe). Even the bugs that reside on the cactus are used. These cochineal bugs are farmed and harvested to make a beautiful magenta dye. If you drink some of the more popular sports drinks you have already ingested these little critters. Check the label for cochineal extract.
Another dye producing plant is Smilax. It is the plant most landscapers and homeowners curse as greenbriar. Anyone trying to get rid of it knows the only successful way is by digging up its massive knotted root system. These root nodes can be chopped up and boiled down into a beautiful red dye.
Mesquite is another abundant Texas plant. In addition to the obvious use as barbeque wood, the ripe beans can be boiled down into a liquid and made into jelly or dried and ground into a coarse flour for use in place of cornmeal for bread or corn flour for masa. The beans need to be harvested just as the pod turns reddish brown.
I use most of these plants on a seasonal basis. Feel free to contact me for recipes and other uses.