Wild Edible Greens of Florida/ (w/ a special encouragement to eat passionflower)
Updated: Apr 7, 2019
I’d like to take a moment to share the wild edible greens and other things I have most frequently harvested over the last few years day-to-day in Northeast Florida.
This is not an extensive list, but a distilled comment on those plants abundant and so agreeable that they have made their way into my days rather effortlessly.
Bullbriar (Smilax bona-nox)
This Florida greenbriar leaves all others in the dust, or rather, sand. Like its more Northern friend Smilax rotundifolia, S. bona-nox emerges new, tender, meristematic growth tips nearly the entire warm season long. But it starts earlier (in February!). And these growth tips are so large and of such a robust, earthy flavor that they leave little S. rotundifolia and yes, even asparagus, in the dust. I am ever, ever impressed by the flavor and the tenderness of these shoots raw. And their abundance.
Bullbriar grows like a king in the dunes of the Northeast Florida Atlantic coast, on the edge of the dunes, along roads and sidewalks, along edges of pine forests and scrub… pretty much all over the place, wherever there is sun and a big tangle of things growing. If you’re crossing a wooden boardwalk to the beach, it is easy to tenderly snap a handful of these growth tips as they wind their way over, under, and through the boardwalks. Meaning, you don’t have to tromp all over the gopher tortoises’ kingdom in the dunes below to collect Smilax.
Have a taste raw, but as a vegetable, these tips are, like most things, at their best when stir fried in butter until tender and a little crispy. I eat these all Spring and Summer long.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Passionflower is a plant that walks the line between medicine and food, potent and mild. Like many other a plant person besides myself, I have always found the energy of this plant, and the smell of its freshly broken leaves to be a little intense, even trippy. Just looking at the flowers of Passiflora incarnata you’d swear that this plant is psychedelic. The leaves also smell a bit like plants in the Solanum genus (nightshades), which for years always turned me off from the idea of this plant as food.
But, passionflower has two faces. When you dry these leaves for tea they seem to mellow out and deepen and, to me at least, change their nature to a calmer mood. Similarly, these young greens, once cooked make a fabulous vegetable.
I first harvested these young shoots last year, in 2018, when they began springing up everywhere in mid February in North Florida. In open fields and meadows mainly, but even throughout the leaf litter under mature oaks. In the community vegetable garden and orchard in Saint Augustine, passionflower shoots are one of the garden’s most abundant “weeds.” In any of these places, it is easy to collect a hefty little bundle of these tender, meristematic shoots. Like all edible shoots, snap off the tip of the growing vine where it is tender, bright green, and breaks easily. On shoots that are already several feet long, you can still snap off the tender few inches of the growing tip.
Passionflower shoots are tender and abundant in North and Central Florida from about mid February well into March. Meaning this is a Springtime only vegetable. I like to saute these shoots in butter until they are dark green and tender. They have an earthy, hearty, and very satisfying flavor.
To passionflower shoots!
Dollarweed (Hydrocotyle bonariensis)
I eat dollarweed leaves pretty much every day, all year round when I’m in Saint Augustine. It is the plant that is always there. It’s everywhere! I pick a tall stack of leaves (long stems removed), slice them into thin ribbons, and add them to pretty much anything I’m eating. On bread and butter. On rice and fish. On pasta. On cheese. Whatever. The sour-bitter flavor of these leaves means it meshes well with anything fatty. Sometimes I’ll saute a handful of these sliced ribbons in butter first and then add them to a meal. But I always keep some raw.
This green took some adjusting to for me. I wasn’t all that into when I first tasted it years ago (its flavor is strong). But I have found that, especially in the hot weather, I become so accustomed to this green that I crave it a little every day. I experienced this most profoundly in July and August, when the heat and humidity in Florida can be so extreme that I really have to be careful or else get ill. It was during those months that I had the clear impression that dollarweed was helping my blood to cope with heat.
The flowers are tasty too, and I’ll chop them up raw in just the same way when they are in season.
So much love for this common and powerful friend.
Western tansy mustard (Descurainia pinnata)
I first met Western tansy mustard (by name) on a plant walk with Florida plant man Andy Firk, last Spring in 2018. This adorable, small sized early Spring mustard is so abundant along roadsides, edges, in yards, fields, and anywhere else you might expect to find “weeds”. In a way it is similar to the little white Cardamine mustards that turn yards white farther North, announcing brightly the arrival of early Spring. Western tansy mustard has finely divided, soft and slightly fuzzy leaves, and yellow flowers.
This mustard is tender for eating from about early-mid Feb until late February. By March it has, along with most of the other wild mustards, all flowered and begun forming seeds, meaning it is past its eating stage.
This mustard is pretty mild tasting. It is tiny, but because in some areas it can be so abundant, I have found it easy to gather a heaping bundle while on a walk through a field or other open area. I go for the plants which are just beginning to rise a stalk to form flower buds, and pinch off this whole meristematic part (tiny flower buds, tender stalk, and leaves all together). The same way I would harvest a more Northern early Spring mustard like Barbarea vulgaris.
You can think of these greens as a general potherb. Meaning I add them to any other greens I am cooking (whether steamed or sauteed). They are mild and earthy tasting and go with pretty much anything.
Yay for cute mustards!
Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa)
It’s hard to be in Florida without getting to know prickly pear. These cacti grow in clumps along roadsides, in any vacant lots, all over the beach dunes, and in open fields (Learningdeer and I have seen cow pastures that were essentially just a sea of Opuntia far into the horizon).
I don’t know how to make nopales, but I can tell you my favorite way to prepare prickly pear fruits, which you can find ripe pretty much all throughout the year. Heck, just riding a bicycle down the sidewalk I’ve been able to fill up a whole basket full of ripe prickly pears without even meaning to. Pick the fattest, darkest purple-red fruits. Later, stick each fruit on a long stick and roast it by holding over the flames of a fire. This burns off all of the infinitesimal spines, darkens the outer skin to a deep, slightly blistered purple, and cooks the inside pulp just a bit. Once roasted and cooled, you can squeeze these fruits right into your mouth if you want to (you’ll still have to spit out all the many seeds), or through a strainer until you have pure prickly pear syrup, which you can put into drinks or cook with. It’s even great as a sauce with fish.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
It’s hot here. So purslane grows to epic and heart-fluttering proportions, mid-late Spring through at least the first half of Summer. (July & August are so hot in Florida that most plants actually go into a dormant state. It is essentially the “Winter” time for gardeners). Purslane is a thing to be celebrated during the hot months in Florida. I harvest heaping baskets of these greens while they are lush and tender, chop them up, and add them raw to pretty much any dish. Like cold quinoa salads, cold fish salad, sliced tomatoes--anything cold and water-filled that helps me balance the heat and sun.
Yeah, purslane is not an afterthought here. It’s a main event. <3
Wild Cucumber (Melothria pendula)
I love this little cucumber. I’ve also seen it growing as far north as coastal North Carolina. It may continue farther North than that. I don’t know.
As soon as Spring is in full swing, this delicately vining annual starts to climb all over the shrubbery. Yaupon hollies and wax myrtles can become one gigantic heap of delicately tangling Melothria pendula vines veritably dripping with these little cucumbers. They’re about an inch or so long, but hanging by the thousands. Just like a garden cucumber, pick the ones that are light green and crunchy. The dark green ones are too mature. Green Deane has a lot to say about this plant if you want more information.
I add these cucumbers raw to pretty much any dish during the hot weather, just like purslane. They’re ever so slightly tangy and refreshing. And cute. Sometimes they can be a little wormy (especially if you leave them sitting out for a day or two), but like with chestnuts I’ve never found this to be any problem.
These wild vines produce fruit for many many months during the warm season. And come back the next year in the same spots. So keep an eye out!
Ground Cherries (Physalis spp.)
I have found multiple species of ground cherries to be very abundant in North Florida. Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum, though I know there’s always been controversy about the species of this plant) too. Nightshades just like it here. I gather ground cherry fruits while gathering wild cucumbers and purslane in the Summertime. They all end up in the same salads. Though ground cherries are great cooked too, if you can gather enough of them.
I harvest ground cherries by shaking each plant at the stalk. The paper lanterns that fall to the ground are the ones I collect. If you have enough to cook, I like to cook them like tomatillos, meaning I saute them for a long time until they become a sticky, sweet, golden brown sauce, that I like to lump on top of scrambled eggs or other savories.
Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia var. munsoniana)
The wild muscadine grapes in Northeast Florida are quite different from the ones I gather in Georgia, North Carolina, and the rest of the Southeast. Rather than being large and globus, these grapes are more like the size of a dime, and ever so slightly oval. The leaves and vines look identical to other wild muscadines, and can be found growing on edges, such as roadsides, scrub forest edges, and fences. The grapes are very dark purple, and have a unique and sweet taste. They’re not tart or sharp tasting. They have an earthiness about them. They’re delicious! I gather them every place I notice them in the Summertime, and most of them never make it home because I quickly put them all in my mouth.
Florida Betony (Stachys floridana)
Florida betony grows abundantly as a weed in the Spring (March), and its white, grub-shaped underground rhizomes are tasty, but honestly I often miss its harvest time, or it just falls off my radar.
Sea Purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum)
I have a lot of question marks about this plant. I enjoyed eating it quite a bit in the Spring and Summer of 2017, either by just nibbling it while fishing at the Matanzas River or chopping it finely and adding it raw to to other dishes. But I occasionally experienced it making my mouth feel a bit prickly or tasting quite acrid. These days, I nearly always get this reaction, so I’ve backed off from nibbling it. Even though on occasions in the past I found it to be delicious. I’m not sure what the factors involved are here.
Sea Rocket (Cakile spp.)
Sea rocket greens are crunchy, juicy, and delicious. Their taste can vary from painfully spicy to fairly mild, and I’m not sure why. This wild mustard grows all over the beaches of the Atlantic in Northeast Florida, in the fluffy white sand between the high tide line and the dunes. Its season is Spring. I have all good things to say about this plant as an edible, if you like spicy mustard greens (and the texture of purslane). But it’s often not too kosher to look like you are harvesting dune plants if other people are around. Though it is not technically on the dunes.
I’ve seen sea rockets growing as far north as the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. It may grow farther north than that. The species I see in Virginia looks to be the same one as in Northeast Florida, but I haven’t keyed out these species enough to give you my word on it.
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria)
Though not necessarily a food, I have to mention Yaupon holly as simply being a dominant face, friend, and magical harvest in Florida, for tea! Yaupon holly bushes grow all over the place. I like to pick the meristematic young leaves and twigs during the Spring and Summer, dry them in baskets, then crumble them into a skillet and dry roast them a little until they smell nutty kind of like Japanese twig tea. Then infuse the tea leaves in a similar fashion to green tea. The tea is light green-gold colored, mild, full-bodied, a little sweet, but not tannic like green tea (Camellia sinensis).
Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)
I found saw palmetto hearts not to be worth my while to harvest as a wild edible. I found them difficult and time consuming to harvest, the heart quite small, and often bitter.
I hope this has given you some helpful tips and inspiration for the next time you are on the Northeast Florida or Georgia coast! <3 <3 <3