The American Southeast may be hot and steamy, but plenty of plants enjoy this natural “greenhouse” climate (and the mild winters). When foraging in the Southeast, keep watch for these great wild foods.
Warning: Use a reputable field guide to positively identify any wild plant before eating it.
Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a woody plant, much like a miniature palm tree. They often grow from 3 to 6 feet tall in sandy southern forests as an understory “shrub,” though there’s nothing “bush-like” about it. The familiar-looking leaves grow in the palmate compound pattern, often bearing about 20 leaflets per leaf. Watch out for the sharp teeth on the leaf stalk, both when harvesting the plant or just walking through them. It’s not called a “saw” palmetto for nothing. This petite palm tree grows large reddish-black fruit in autumn. Not prized for their flavor (a bit like rank cheese), these fruits are valuable nutrition for wildlife and survivors with limited resources. Throughout the year, better-tasting food can be found inside this plant. The terminal buds contain a shoot that can be carefully removed (watch out for the teeth) and eaten fresh or cooked.
A member of the walnut family, the pecan (Carya illinoinensis) is a hickory species that is native to the southern United States and northern Mexico. Often cultivated as a commercial crop, wild specimens and escaped cultivars are frequently found in the Southeast. Like a hickory tree, pecan trees have compound leaves in the alternate pattern. They also have a two-part nutshell. The outer husk is divided into segments, and it covers another nutshell underneath. Pecans typically have a thinner shell and larger nut meat than other hickory species, and they are easier to shell out. 100 grams of shelled pecan nut meat contains 691 calories, which are mostly from fat. The nut meat is also 9% protein and 14% carbs, by weight. It’s a great source of manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and thiamin, along with lesser amounts of other B vitamins.
Native to Florida, Mississippi, and much of the Caribbean, the sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) is a coastal shrub that is in the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae). Also called a bay grape, these salt-tolerant bushes bear may be small or tall, and they bear clusters of grape-like fruit in late summer. There may be dozens of these ¾ inch fruits on each bunch, which turn a reddish color when ripe. Although much of each fruit is a large inedible seed, the skin and pulp are edible and vitamin-rich. Sea grapes contain vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K, folate, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iodine. They can be eaten raw, cooked into jams or preserves, or fermented into sea grape wine.
Dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) is one of the signature species for the American Southeast, and it is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). This field weed is common along roadsides (though this isn’t the cleanest place to collect it), and you’ll know you’re in the south when you start to see it. The tender tops and leaves of this wispy weed have a strong scent and flavor, similar to dill. These tender parts can be chopped and used as a fresh seasoning or pickle ingredient. The leaves and young tops can also be dried for later use as a spice. Too wimpy for a bow drill, you can try your luck with the dead, dry stalks as a friction fire hand drill. They’re surprisingly good for the task.
The cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco) is also known as the paradise plum and abajeru. This shrub grows in sandy soil throughout the Caribbean and South Florida. It’s often found growing wild near beaches and is even grown as an ornamental. It can take a shrub-like form, topping out at 10 feet, or a more tree-like size up to 20 feet tall. The shrub has leathery evergreen leaves that are oval in shape, with greenish or reddish coloration. The ripe fruit can be pink or dark blue/purple-colored when ripe and is often used in jams (but can be eaten raw as well). The seed inside the “plum pit” is edible raw or cooked. Cocoplum is rich in vitamin C, iron, vitamin K, calcium, copper, and many healing compounds.