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Mr. Smarty Plants - Edible plants native to Austin, TX

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Wednesday - August 05, 2009

From: Austin, Texas
Region: Southwest
Topic: Edible Plants
Title: Edible plants native to Austin, TX
Answered by: Dean Garrett

QUESTION:

Hello, I am a chef from Buenos Aires Argentina visiting Austin, Texas and would like to learn about native, edible plants in the region. Please let me know if there are any native, edible plants and if they grow wild, I can harvest them myself, or if there is a place I can purchase them. thanks, salud!!

ANSWER:

There are several native edible plants that grow wild in central Texas. I will list only a few that can be consumed with no processing or minimal processing and then refer you to references where you can learn more. Many are so common that you can easily find stands of them to harvest yourself, and there are a couple of plant nurseries in the region that specialize in native plants where you can also purchase some of them.

The best known native food plant is Pecan (Carya illinoinensis), which grows wild here and is also a common landscaping tree. Cultivated forms have thinner shells and more nutmeat than wild ones, but wild trees sometimes surpass cultivated ones in flavor, once you get through the thick shell. Look for them in the fall.

Also common in the wild here are grapes, of which we have three local species: Mustang Grape (Vitis mustangensis), Sweet Mountain Grape (Vitis monticola), and Winter Grape (Vitis cinerea var. helleri). Mustang Grape is the most easily found but the least palatable, having rather tart pulp and a very astringent skin. If you’ve ever wondered why Roman emperors ordered their servants to “peel me a grape,” it was because of grapes like Mustang Grape. It does, however, make very good jelly, which can sometimes be found at grocery stores and at local farmers markets. Sweet Mountain Grape is arguably the sweetest of the local wild grapes but is much less common than Mustang Grape. Winter Grape is less common still, and has very small grapes, sometimes not much larger than blackberries, but they are very good. These grapes ripen from summer to fall.

Austin is also within the natural range of a wild chile pepper, Chile Pequín (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum), a small, very hot pepper that is the ancestral form of most of our cultivated varieties and bears fruit almost all year. To my tongue, its heat is greater than that of a jalapeño but less than that of a habanero. It is, however, very tasty and pretty easy to find, basically coming up wherever mockingbirds have deposited them. You can find dried ones for sale in some Latin American grocery stores.

A common native onion/garlic/chive that can be used for flavoring is Drummond's Wild Onion (Allium drummondii). The stalks taste like chives.

A plant you may be familiar with as an Argentinean is mesquite. Our local species is called Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and the lining of its pods is edible and can be as sweet as caramel. In recent years, mesquite meal has become popular in health food stores for its nutritional value and delicious flavor, and the species used for it are mostly South American, like your Algorrobo Negro, Prosopis nigra. Honey Mesquite pods range from bitter to bland to sweet and can be chewed raw or dried and ground into a powder for mesquite meal after the seeds have been removed. You'll have to do a lot of taste-testing to locate a palatable tree, though. The pods appear in summer.

Central Texas also is home to two kinds of barberry that are very tasty: Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) and Texas Barberry (Mahonia swaseyi). Agarita is very common in Austin. You’ll see prickly, holly-looking bushes of it in local parks and older neighborhoods. Its berries used to be prized for jellies and desserts, and you can still occasionally find Agarita jelly in stores. The berries are also delicious straight off the bush in late spring, though they are so acidic that it’s best not to eat too many. The closely related Texas Barberry is limited only to a few counties in central Texas and I’ve never seen jelly made from it, but I have tried the berries and in my opinion they are sweeter than Agarita. However, access to them will be very limited.

Two kinds of local plums have also been used to make jellies: Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana) and River Plum (Prunus rivularis). Both have somewhat tart summer fruit, both grow wild in and around Austin, and Mexican Plum is also a popular landscape tree, so it should be available at local nurseries.

Texas Persimmon (Diospyros texana) is a locally common, black persimmon. Like all persimmons, it should only be eaten when it is overripe and soft, sometime in early fall for this species. Eating it too early exposes you to intense astringency. It is also very messy, with black juice that stains skin and clothes. Though not as sweet as the orange Eastern Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) found east of here, Texas Persimmons are, in my opinion, very good. I’d like to see them tried in desserts and sauces.

Central Texas also is home to a local form of blackberry called Southern Dewberry (Rubus trivialis). These are very sweet and can be found in summer in dappled shade by roadside ditches and creeks.

Though less common now than non-native mulberries, Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) can still occasionally be found along creeks and has a mildly sweet summer fruit.

Surprisingly, a group of trees that many people hate for being so abundant, hackberries, were once so valued for their fruits that they were called Sugarberries. We have two in Austin: Sugar Hackberry (Celtis laevigata) and Netleaf Hackberry (Celtis laevigata var. reticulata). They are mostly seed, and the seed can’t be separated from the pulp so you have to eat it, but they are mildly sweet. The seed is chalky, with little taste, but contributes some calcium. Indigenous people ate them both whole and ground into a powder. I have found Netleaf Hackberry to be slightly sweeter than Sugar Hackberry. A species of hackberry native more to the southwest of Austin, Desert Hackberry (Celtis ehrenbergiana), is said to be the sweetest and pulpiest of all and is sometimes used culinarily. Look for hackberry fruit in late summer and fall.

Another tree sometimes called Sugarberry is the Anacua (Ehretia anacua), which is at the northern limit of its natural range in Austin. It also has mildly sweet fruit like hackberry, but with more flesh and less seed. It ripens in early summer.

A common native plant often used in gardens is Turkscap (Malvaviscus arboreus). One of its Spanish names is Manzanilla, because it has an edible, thumbnail-sized fruit that is red and tastes sort of like apples, appearing in late summer. You’ll see these growing wild all over town.

A fruit-bearing tree more common in less developed parts of Austin is Texas Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum hirsutum). This tree is in the citrus family and has summer fruits that look like pea-sized limes, with a flavor like a tart lemon zest. It is in the same genus as Sichuan Peppers, Zanthoxylum, and I think they could easily be used like Sichuan Peppers in various dishes. All plant parts, but particularly the fruits, cause the mouth to tingle when eaten in small quantities and can numb your mouth in large quantities, just like Sichuan Peppers. I love eating the fruits straight off the tree. In limited amounts, they are good added to fruit drinks, fish dishes, and fruit salads. Not easy to find in town, though.

There is another fruit that is delicious but that I hesitate to mention because of its spines: Prickly Pear. There are two main local species: Plains Prickly Pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) and Cactus Apple (Opuntia engelmannii). The late summer fruits can be delicious, tasting kind of like watermelon, but the spines are dangerous. You must not only remove the large, visible spines, but also the almost invisible ones called glochids. This is best done by singeing the surface of the fruit over a flame and then peeling all the skin off. Prickly Pear fruits were prized by indigenous people. The pads are edible and nutritious, too, known as nopales and nopalitos and often sold in Latin American markets, but they must be handled with extreme caution when preparing your own.

Some of our local native plants also have edible flowers. Any red Salvia flower is good to eat and we have four red ones native to the Austin area: Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii), Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), Cedar Sage (Salvia roemeriana), and Big Red Sage (Salvia penstemonoides). Autumn Sage is a common landscaping plant so it should be easy to find, but be sure and choose plants with red, pink, or orange flowers. Autumn Sage comes in many varieties, but only those with flowers in the warm color range will be sweet. Salvia leaves can also be dried and used like culinary sage. A Salvia species native south and west of Austin, Blue Shrub Sage or Mejorana (Salvia ballotiflora), has long been used in this way.

There are a number of local native plants from which teas can be made, but one that might interest you as an Argentinean is a holly called Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria). Its parched leaves and twigs were once used to make a dark tea with high levels of caffeine similar to your Yerba Maté (Ilex paraguariensis).

For more info on the uses of wild plants of Texas, see Delena Tull’s book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest.

The website called Texas Beyond History contains information on indigenous people’s use of a variety of plants. Click on one of the regions on the left, then on Nature’s Harvest, and then on Plant Gallery to bring up a list of plants used in each Texas region.

Two regional nurseries that sell some of the native plants mentioned here are Barton Springs Nursery in Austin and Natives of Texas Nursery near Kerrville.

 


Carya illinoinensis

Vitis cinerea var. helleri

Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum

Prosopis glandulosa

Mahonia trifoliolata

Prunus mexicana

Prunus rivularis

Diospyros texana

Rubus trivialis

Morus rubra

Celtis laevigata var. reticulata

Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii

Zanthoxylum hirsutum

Opuntia engelmannii

Salvia roemeriana

 


Salvia ballotiflora

Ilex vomitoria
 

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