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Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants
By Christopher Nyerges
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2014 Christopher Nyerges
All rights reserved.
Century Plant Family (Agavaceae)
Common Names Century plant, mescal, maguey
Most Prominent Characteristics
OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE The base of the mature plant is an approximately four- to five-foot diameter rosette (circular cluster). The flower stalk reaches up to 20 feet tall upon maturity. The leaves grow to approximately three to four feet in length on the mature plant.
LEAVES The strong, tapered, evergreen, spine-tipped leaves have toothed margins (edges).
FLOWERS When the plant is 10 to 20 years old, a flower stalk shoots up from the center of the rosette. The flower stalk, which reaches a height of 10 to 20 feet, is clustered at intervals with small, bright yellow flowers. These clusters of edible, thick, fleshy flowers are spaced along the stalk so that they appear almost like steps (such as those used to climb telephone poles).
EDIBLE PROPERTIES The center bud, or caudex (fleshy, cabbage-size center of the plant from which the leaves radiate), available year-round, is edible — preferably steamed, roasted, or boiled. In the past, the Apache, Hopi, Havasupai, Kaibab, and other southwestern Native Americans prepared the buds by digging firepits and building a large fire. When the fire died down to a bed of hot coals, the Native Americans put in the buds, covered them with fresh vegetation and a layer of soil, and let them steam for two days. The steamed buds were then simply peeled and eaten or mashed, formed into cakes, and sun dried for later use. (This dried product also makes a nourishing beverage when crumbled finely into water.) The unique (but somewhat bland) taste of the agave buds has been described as a combination of turnip, squash, and pineapple.
The flowers can be boiled and eaten or dried and later steeped into teas. The seeds, also nutritious, can be ground into flour. John Watkins of Harbor City, California, reports that during a trip to Mexico City in August 1979, he was served agave flowers. "The women boiled the flowers and mashed them into patties," Watkins said. "They seasoned the patties with their herbs. (I don't know what herbs were used.) Then the women sautéed them. They were delicious."
A sweet water can be obtained directly from the agave plant. When you observe a mature plant that has not yet flowered, you'll note that there is a solid center cylindrical spike from which each leaf unfolds. To obtain water, cut off approximately half of this center spike, making a horizontal cut. Next cut off a one-inch piece, which will be used as a cap.
Use a sharp knife to hollow out a bowl into the spike and place the cap over the bowl. Within a few hours water will seep into the bowl, and you can drink it as is. It is mildly sweet and is called aguamiel ("sweet water" in Spanish). Water will continue to seep into the bowl for up to a month, depending on the size of the plant.
When allowed to sit for about two weeks, the sugar content of aguamiel naturally ferments, producing pulque, legally classified as a wine due to its approximately 12 percent alcohol content. Tequila can be made by distilling this liquid.
MEDICINAL USES A juice made by boiling the caudex can be used directly on the skin to heal infections and treat fresh wounds.
OTHER USES The stringy fibers of the leaves can be extracted and used in much the same way as yucca fiber: 1) Gently pound the fresh leaves until only the fiber remains. This can be be done in running water or the fibers can be washed. 2) Separate the fiber into strips. 3) Join the strips and twirl them into twine. 4) Weave the twine into items such as sandals, mats, or rope.
The peeled skin of the agave leaves can be used as paper. Make the paper by cutting a large rectangle from the broadest section of the leaf. Carefully and slowly peel back the rectangle from one corner. If you peel carefully, and if the leaf has no imperfections, you should be able to get a large piece of this agave paper.
At the Museum of Natural History in Mexico City, John Watkins reported seeing photocopies of early Spanish reports written on agave parchment. He was told by the curator that many of the reports that went to Spain from this part of the world were written on this material. If you experiment with agave paper, you'll note that as the skin dries, it tends to curl into a small tube. To prevent this, the fresh paper must be stretched and kept flattened between two boards. To prevent the paper from becoming brittle, rub glycerin over it as soon as it is peeled. This causes the paper to remain flexible.
The large agave leaves make an excellent roofing material for emergency shelters. They're waterproof and can actually be used like shingles.
Agave has long been one of the most important plants of the desert Native Americans. In fact, it was the cultivation of agave that made it possible for the Hohokam people to flourish in the deserts of southern Arizona from around AD 1100 to 1300. Although archaeologists had long known of the foraging practices of the desert Native Americans, it was not until 1988 that they confirmed that the Hohokams once had 102,000 agave plants under cultivation. A survey by four archaeologists (Paul and Suzanne Fish of the Arizona State Museum, Charles Miksicek, and John Madsen) showed evidence of dams, terraces, and rock piles where 1,200 acres of agave were under cultivation. This desert plant provided a significant amount of the Hohokams' food, water, fiber, and construction material.
Even in death, agave is useful. When the large flower stalk dies and dries, it can be 20 feet long and up to a foot and a half at the base. Cut two- to three-foot sections of these dead stalks, hollow them out, attach a bottom and a leather strap, and you'll have created an attractive and useful quiver (carrying case). The wider sections can be hollowed out and covered with skins for a drum.
Be careful when gathering agave leaves. The fresh juice can cause a rash the equivalent of that caused by poison oak. (See Poison Oak for treatment.) Thus, long sleeves and gloves are advisable during the harvest.
One species, A. lecheguilla, found in western Texas, southern New Mexico, and northern Mexico, has caused liver damage and photo-sensitization poisoning in grazing sheep, goats, and horses. Poisoning occurs with this species most often during drought years.
The plant is commonly found in dry, desertlike canyon areas and in the upper half of alluvial fans.
Agave is a perennial that flowers once after 10 or 20 years and then dies. Numerous babies are typically found around the base of the dying adult.
Lobularia maritima (formerly Alyssum maritimum)
Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) formerly known as Cruciferae
Common Name Sweet alyssum
Most Prominent Characteristics
OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE This plant grows in low clumps, usually just a few inches tall, rarely over a foot tall. The plant is mildly aromatic.
STALKS AND STEMS The weak and branching stems lay on the ground and reach possibly a foot in length. The main, somewhat fibrous, stem appears to be five sided in the cross section and is about one-tenth of an inch thick.
LEAVES The linear- to lance-shaped leaves are from ½ to 1½ inches long and approximately 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch wide, tapering to a point at both ends. Leaves are alternately arranged, but some appear almost opposite. Although the leaf surface appears to be hairless, careful observation through a 10× magnifying glass reveals that both the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf are scattered with fine white hairs.
FLOWERS The white, sometimes lavender, flowers have the typical mustard family characteristics, that is, four petals, four sepals, six stamens (four long, two short), and one pistil. Each individual flower is about 1/8 inch across, and each cluster measures about ¾ inch across. The six yellow anthers are somewhat noticeable. The flowers, formed in racemes, bloom all year if there is enough moisture — provided, of course, they're not in a climate where they are covered with snow.
FRUIT The fruit is a two-celled pod, often referred to as a pouch.
SEEDS The small, approximately 1/16 inch diameter tan or yellowish-brown seeds are formed singly in round-shaped pods along the stalk. They are without albumin. From my observations, the pods seem rather ephemeral, and seeds do not always develop.
ROOTS There is a small, slender, somewhat fibrous tap root. The color is off-white to tan. It is slightly larger in diameter than the lower part of the mature (aboveground) stem.
EDIBLE PROPERTIES The blossoms, leaves, and tender stems are all good additions to your salad bowl. Entire flower clusters can be picked and eaten raw. Adding ¼ to ½ cup of the flowers to your salads imparts a mildly hot, watercress-like flavor. The flowers, leaves, and tender sections of the stems can also be mixed into cooked foods, such as omelettes, soups, stews, and vegetable dishes.
Alyssum is small and tedious to gather. It's mostly used as a garnish and seasoning in salads and other dishes where a watercress spiciness is desired.
A tender flowering sprig can even be served with meals, in the same way you'd serve a sprig of watercress, parsley, or cilantro.
MEDICINAL USES We'd appreciate authenticated reports from readers.
OTHER USES The attractive, mildly aromatic plant is great for flower gardens and for simply planting and allowing to go wild in your yard.
We'd appreciate authenticated reports from readers.
Aside from the commercial varieties that grace many gardens, wild alyssums are common along many hiking trails. Being low growing, it is well known in the western United States as both a flowering ground cover and a weed; it generally grows as an annual ornamental in the rest of the United States.
Alyssum is an annual in the eastern states, whereas it is almost perennial in California, where it is considered a weed in gardens. The plant seems to be readily available year-round in warmer climates where there is no snow. It dies back somewhat in the heat of the summer and early autumn.
Lore and Signature
Alyssum comes from the Greek, a meaning "without" and lussa meaning "madness," since it was anciently used as an antidote for hydrophobia.
The four petals are arranged in such a way as to suggest the form of a cross (as with most members of the mustard family). Particularly interesting is the member of this family called rose of Jericho (or resurrection plant).
Amaranthus retroflexus, and other species
Amaranth Family (Amaranthaceae)
Common Names Pigweed, redroot, quelite
Most Prominent Characteristics
OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE Amaranth, introduced from tropical America, is an annual herb reaching from one foot to three feet tall.
STALKS AND STEMS The root and lower part of the stalks are tinged with a red or purple hue.
LEAVES The underside of the young, lower leaves is purple. The oval-shaped (ovate) leaves are alternately arranged on the stems, are pinnately veined, have wavy margins, and are glossy green.
FLOWERS The small, green, inconspicuous flowers are in bristly dense spikes. When dead, they give the plant an unkempt, weedy appearance. Numerous small black seeds develop after the flowers mature.
EDIBLE PROPERTIES The young leaves and tender stems can be eaten raw in salads (the flavor is pleasant and mild). The older leaves become slightly bitter and astringent, and should be lightly cooked. To cook, chop the greens, add onions, bring to a heat, season, and sit down to a delicious, better-than-spinach meal.
The Aztecs dried and ground the leaves into a flour, which they made into tamales. These tamales were offered to the dead and to the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli on the feast of Huauquiltamalcualitztli, which means "the meal of the amaranth tamales."
The young stems also make a tasty vegetable when lightly steamed, cooked, or sautéed.
The seeds can also be used for food. Gather them when the plant is fully mature. Rub the seed clusters between your hands to free the seeds from their husks. Then winnow if there is a breeze or, if the air is too calm, slowly pour the seeds out of your hand and blow the chaff away. The whole seeds can be added to bread products or ground and used as flour.
In Mexico, the seeds were used to make tortillas even before the cultivation of corn. An atole made with ground amaranth and honey was a popular, high-protein drink. The seeds were used to make a sweet candy bar when mixed with honey or maguey sap. Still today in Mexico (and Los Angeles), this candy is formed into human skulls and other shapes, and is most popular on the Day of the Dead.
One hundred grams, about ½ cup, of amaranth leaf has between 267 and 448 milligrams of calcium, between 411 and 617 milligrams of potassium, between 53 and 80 milligrams of vitamin C, 4,300 micrograms of beta carotene, and 1,300 micrograms of niacin. This volume of leaf contains about 35 calories. (The variations listed here depend on whose analysis you are reading.)
One hundred grams of the seed contains about 358 calories, 247 milligrams of calcium, 500 milligrams of phosphorus, and 52.5 milligrams of potassium.
The seed offers a nearly complete balance of essential amino acids, including lysine and methionine. Leaves, seeds, popped seeds, and flour are all used in traditional Mexican dishes and in gluten-free dishes.
MEDICINAL USES The leaves of amaranth are a recognized astringent. Made into tea, it is used for abnormally excessive menstruation, diarrhea, and dysentery.
OTHER USES We'd appreciate authenticated reports from readers.
We'd appreciate authenticated reports from readers.
You'll find this ubiquitous friend in dry fields, cultivated fields, foothills, arroyos, vacant lots, orchards, front lawns, vegetable gardens, and even sidewalk cracks! For this reason, amaranth is unfortunately looked upon as a weed, and, thus, its many benefits are lost as it's hauled by the truckload to the dump through spring and summer.
Amaranth is an annual. The large leaves are best gathered in the spring. The seeds are harvested in late summer and autumn as the plant matures and dies.
Amaranth seed and leaf was such an important part of the diet of the people of Mexico in the precolonial period that the seed was mixed with honey or blood and made into the images of their gods, such as Tlaloc (the rain god), or Xochipilli (god of flowers and youth), and others. The images were then eaten as a "communion." When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they outlawed the cultivation of the amaranth plant, probably because it was viewed as a key plant used in "pagan rituals." Ironically, the rituals were very similar to the Catholic communion.
As the Spanish friars began their forceful conversion of the inhabitants to Christianity, they outlawed not only religious holy days, but also the foods associated with those holy days. In his Book of the Gods, Diego Duran lists many forbidden foods and notes that amaranth in particular should be banned because of its use in a ceremony that appeared to be a "blasphemous parody" of the Christian communion.
Mint Family (Lamiaceae) formerly Labiatae
Most Prominent Characteristics
OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE This shrubby plant is one of those common species of Salvia characterized as belonging to chaparral. It grows from three to six feet high. The base of the flowering stalks is very leafy.
LEAVES The simple leaves are narrowly oblong, one to two inches long, and a third as wide. The leaf margin is crenulated. The upper leaf surface is rugulose (minutely wrinkled or creased), and the lower leaf surface is cinereous and minutely tomentose. The leaves are opposite and very aromatic.
FLOWERS The lilac-colored corolla (united petals) is about ½ inch long. Flowers appear in whorls arranged in a spike-like inflorescence. Closely situated under the upper whorls are oblong to ovate leafy bracts, each of which is sharply pointed.
EDIBLE PROPERTIES The dried or fresh leaves can be used for flavoring in soups and stews in much the same way that you'd use ordinary garden sage. The leaves can also be infused for a strong-tasting tea. They are best gathered when the plant is not flowering.
Excerpted from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants by Christopher Nyerges. Copyright © 2014 Christopher Nyerges. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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