When I was little in New England, I had a clear sense that you could live off the land. As a result, I knew the location and season for a number of interesting wild plants. I could track down wild blueberries, knew where all the blackberry brambles were, had at least theoretical knowledge of how to blanch acorns, and then there were the wild onions: spicy little pearls announced by curled green tubes. When I came home from school hungry one spring only to find the door locked, my sister may have cried, but I ate wild onions.
I never gardened up north. Or, I never grew anything besides a child’s first flowers, the giant yellow disk of sunflowers, taller than my mother (who was tallest being in my small universe outside of my father). I never learned the northern gardener’s curious habit of putting plants in these “cold frame” things. Frost kill orange trees, yes, but we grow oranges outside here, and most years there is no frost. Summer is a heat blight. Start only basil, and watch the okra and sweet potatoes you planted in May do their thing.
The idea of eating wild plants in Florida, then, seemed strange. On one level, I knew it was not only possible but that for thousands of years, people had been doing just that, as well as cultivating plants, and using coastal resources. On another level, it just didn’t stick. I knew the plants up north. New England was my backyard, and if you turned me loose among the stitched hills and granite outcroppings, I’d be thinner by the time you caught up with me, yes, but I’d be fed on something at least.
Now, picture this: a shady Tallahassee yard, tomatoes in buckets, unable to set fruit because there just isn’t enough light, and one girl, driven mad by the fact that she can’t seem to find anywhere to set her plants so that they happily photosynthesize. Enter http://www.fallingfruit.org. In Fort Lauderdale, I was already a mango thief, scouting abandoned trees or ones that overhung the road. Why should I change my fruit thieving ways just because I’d skipped town?
I went with my boyfriend on an epic quest for figs, marked clearly on the map, and hitting the midpoint of their season. I found none. Or rather, I am fairly certain I found the plants talked about, but they weren’t figs. They were some kind of stone fruit, fig-like in shape, but they did not smell in the least edible, oozing a white rubbery sap from the fruit itself. Disappointed, my eyes were cast down. My mosquito-bitten love did likewise. It wasn’t long before I heard him call out, a little behind me, “Hey! These are chanterelles!”
Sure enough, fringed orange fungi poked their damp and gill-less heads from among the tree roots. And then it struck like lightning: I can feed myself from the woods. We picked as much as the basket would hold, and carried our find home for dinner. Turns out the boy-creature is no fan of mushrooms, but I found them rich and satisfying.
After that. I took up my research tools, looking for more plants I could identify and eat. I stumbled on an old friend: the wild onion. They grow here. They grow all over North Florida. I hadn’t seen them in Sarasota or Miami because that’s too far south, but here? Here they grow!
Now all that remains is finding them…