Central Florida forager Deane Jordan invites you to a backyard buffet 

Can you survive on the free food growing all around you?

click to enlarge DAVE PLOTKIN
  • Dave Plotkin

I want to be able to eat the plants outside, in the park, lining the fences and ponds of Orlando. Call it a pseudo-survivalist instinct, but it just seems unfair that I must go to the grocery store and buy farmed vegetables when Florida is a veritable buffet of wild food. I imagine plucking leaves off weeds and eating them a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as I walk in a park or traverse my neighborhood.

Although those leaves wouldn't be as sweet as candy, they could contain up to three times the nutrients of vegetables found in grocery stores, a positive side effect in wild plants due to the high level of antioxidants and nutrients they require to constantly duke it out with pests and other adversaries. Plus they're not genetically modified. Many super-nutritious plants – and a few protein sources – can be foraged, i.e., scavenged or hunted, locally. If you can identify these foods, you can feed yourself even if you're hit by hard times.

When I read the Army's Illustrated Guide to Edible Wild Plants and Florida's Incredible Wild Edibles, written by Richard Deuerling and Peggy Lantz, though, it became clear to me that a) it's hard to match real plants with the ones in the pictures, and b) there are several plants in our area that will kill a person within an hour of ingestion. So before fulfilling my adult version of Augustus Gloop's self-indulgence, I decided to learn plant identification from an experienced forager. Deane Jordan, aka Green Deane, teaches classes on foraging in Central Florida and writes about foraging extensively on EatTheWeeds.com. He got his start as a 4-year-old, eating the plants his grandmother and mother picked during their daily walks in Maine, where he grew up, and now he's a full-time educator on the topic of edible wild plants.

On a blustery February morning in Winter Park's Mead Garden, Jordan, in bomber jacket and fedora, led three students (including me) across the park on a four-hour search for food sources – and toxic plants. Mead Garden is full of easily identifiable edibles, “the same stuff that people find near their homes,” according to Jordan. As class unfolded, I soon found that I recognized many edible plants from my own unkempt backyard.

We start around a picnic table, where Jordan shows us a couple of species from elsewhere in Orlando. It doesn't take long for one forager to feel the burn of the stinging nettle. The hairs on the plant contain formic acid similar to that of red ants, but the prickle dissolves and the leaves taste like spinach when the plant is crushed or cooked. Next Jordan carefully checks his hand for cuts or scrapes, then pours several shiny, smooth, red and black seeds into his palm and announces, “This is the most toxic seed on Earth.” They look like innocuous little beads, but eating just three of the seeds of the rosary pea will kill you (so will a crushed seed coming into contact with a cut on your hand), and there's no antidote. These particular seeds came from a vine found growing on a fence near Panera Bread in Winter Park. Having sufficiently struck fear and respect into the hearts of his pupils, Jordan moves on.

Our walk in the park proves that you're never far from a salad. Pellitory, with its translucent green leaves, tastes like cucumber and grows along fences in the shade. Spanish needles are easily identifiable, with miniature daisy-like flowers (edible raw, with a piney taste) and bountiful 1-centimeter needle-shaped seeds, which catch on clothing and pets. The leaves have two times the nutrients of spinach and can be eaten raw or cooked. Sow thistle and wild lettuce, two plants that you've likely seen before, make a nice mixed-greens assortment.

Foraging isn't just about plants – there's protein to be had, too. For instance, apple snails are abundant in Lake Brantley. (Jordan suspects these delicacies made their home in the lake after being let go by someone keeping them as pets.) All freshwater snails and aquatic edible plants must be cooked thoroughly, to kill bacteria and parasites that flourish in wet places. Some snails don't taste like much, but hey, it's free food.

Pine trees offer both meat and veg: The needles are packed with vitamin C and can be made into a tea (and they don't cause abortion, as some Internet sources posit, much to Jordan's consternation); the calcium-rich white inner bark can be cooked in a soup or fried, and the scorpions that live in the bark can be crushed and cooked if you need a protein bump.

There's oh so much more. Jordan talks fast, peppering us with historical facts and recipes. Marinate two cups of loquat seeds in a quart of vodka for a cherry-flavored liquor. Creeping Charlie, a low-growing mint that carpets many lawns, can be made into tea. The light-green inner shoots of cattails are edible right off the plant. Queen palms drop delicious and fibrous orange fruits, but don't eat the seeds. Magnolia leaves can be used to flavor broths just like bay leaves. Florida betony roots, white crunchy grub-looking things, taste just like their relative, crosnes root (aka Chinese artichoke), which goes for $150 per pound at gourmet markets.

On our foraging excursion we encountered at least 55 different plants, but there are about 100 edible species in the park, Jordan says. You need only learn 12 plants – edibles and toxic ones – to get started (see sidebar). While that doesn't sound like much, he surmises it would take about a year of regular outings to become an accomplished, safe forager. It's the intricacies – certain parts of certain plants are edible, while others of the same plant are not; some plants can be eaten raw while others require cooking – that make me wonder why we don't hear of more casualties from wild eating. The quickest way to get good at identification, he says, is to learn from a person who shows you the plant, points out its key characteristics and eats it right in front of you, thus proving its safety. Jordan suggests learning from a member of the Native Plant Society, like himself. He urges people not to use Wikipedia or other Internet sources for identification of wild plants, because these sources are frequently incorrect or incomplete.

Still thinking about foraging outside beautiful Mead Garden, I ask about pollution. How can I tell if the plant is growing in a toxic puddle or has a layer of asbestos or lead dust covering it? Jordan has common-sense answers. Forage uphill, well away from the exhaust cloud that can form adjacent to roads. Forage on the west side of major interstates, because the prevailing winds carry pollution to the east bank. Don't eat anything watered by parking lot run-off. And perhaps this is the most obvious: Don't forage anywhere where there's a mysterious absence of weeds; it probably means that herbicides were used there.

When we sit down at a picnic table to recap, I ask why foraging isn't a regular way to make up at least part of our diets. “We moved from the farm. We're totally estranged from nature,” he says.

My stomach rumbles; I'm feeling less estranged from nature than I have in a long time. Orlando's mottled green canvas has come into clearer focus. I see food where once I saw annoying weeds. As I get up to go, I pocket a few of the leaves and seeds I've collected during my search for sustenance. When I get home, I rejoice at the positive identification of Spanish needles – the wily things are springing up all over my lawn.

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