Wildcrafting

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WILDCRAFTING

      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.

Comments

David Shimtzon Added Dec 19, 2013 - 8:54pm
Got any good recipes for Magic Mushrooms or Jimson Weed? Cacti?
Anonymous Added Dec 20, 2013 - 4:55am
"With the quality of our commercial food supply becoming questionable, many people have returned to the hunter gatherer lifestyle to supplement the table." 
 
Actually people have been abandoning farms and the rural lifestyle and moving to urban centers…see demographic data.  A better/true statement would have been “Some question the quality of our commercial food supply and have returned to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”  Please change it and I’ll be inclined to read further to see just how crazy these people are.    
Tantra Bensko Added Dec 20, 2013 - 10:48pm
Hmm. I would instead say that the commercial food supply has been questionable for awhile, with all the pesticides and herbicides, habitat destruction, etc. I don't see what clinical qualifications there are for someone who gathers food such as berries or cactus to supplement the table to be called crazy.

I've spent quite a bit of time myself gathering, living in the wilderness, and find it to be beautiful.

This is a very useful article, with specific information I didn't know. I've tried sauteeing the cactus paddles and it didn't seem right, was a very odd texture, and taste. Is there a trick?
Tony Burnett Added Dec 21, 2013 - 1:29pm
Garlic, olive oil, your favorite spice. I use a little cumin. Slice into thin strips.
 
Dear pointless ghost above (anonymous),
"Many" is a subjective term and unless you've had your head buried in the sand it is accurate here.