Foraging is healthy and fun at magnificent Mead Garden.
Each day I go on a long walk through my backyard looking for good stuff to eat. There is plenty to choose from — more than 150 edible plants, herbs and medicinals. And here’s the best part: It doesn’t cost me anything to gather food for my table or a little something to brew in a tea to soothe my nerves or cure whatever ails me. It’s all just growing wild.
True, I am playing fast and loose with what legally constitutes my “backyard.” I live across the street from Mead Garden, the 55-acre botanical garden owned by the city of Winter Park. Founded in 1940 to memorialize Thomas Mead, a renowned horticulturist who grew orchids and developed new varieties of rare ferns, bromeliads and caladiums, the garden occupies a precious habitat between Lake Sue and Lake Virginia with Howell Creek running through it connecting the two.
While camellias and azaleas are a big draw in spring, no matter what season the garden is a veritable open-air Publix for the foraging crowd.
“You can eat very well here if you know what to look for,” Emily Ruff tells me and the 20 or so other folks who gather at Mead Garden on a Sunday afternoon for one of Ruff’s “Wild Weeds Herb Walks” that are held throughout the year. In addition to being a certified herbalist, Ruff is director of education for the Florida School of Holistic Living and a founder of the Homegrown Co-op.
When it comes to making a meal out of everyday plants that we might otherwise step on or pass right by, Ruff could have held her own in the wild with the likes of the legendary Euell Gibbons. We stop under a pine tree (“chop up some needles in hot water for a nice tea”) where the chest-high branches of an American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) are resplendent with big clusters of bright purple berries no bigger than BB’s.
I’ve walked past this very plant hundreds of times and never considered sampling its fruit, thinking it was poisonous. But I’ve been missing out. The berries are sweet and mild, tasting a bit like lavender smells.
“Really good for making jams,” Ruff tells us as we move past a saw palmetto (“The berries can be brewed into a tea that is effective for treating prostate problems”) with hundreds and hundreds of acorns crunching underfoot. The acorns are edible but require a fair amount of work.
First the caps must be removed and then the meaty part soaked in water that has to be regularly changed for three days to remove the tannins. Enthusiasts, Ruff tells us, often keep bags of acorns in their toilet tanks to aid with the rinsing process, not exactly the most appetizing of propositions and a whole lot of effort.
Or, as Ruff says, “If we had to rely on foraging for all our food, most of us would be burning up more calories in finding and preparing than we would take in from eating.”
Far more appealing and much easier to snag from the wild are the plants we come across near the banks of Howell Creek. We munch our way through tropical chickweed (“Good in salads and great for respiratory ailments”), try some spiky shoots from a spiderwort (“More vitamins than spinach”), nibble on some false dandelion (“You can steam or sauté it like greens”) and finally cleanse our palates with some creeping charley (Glechoma hederacea).
Most landscapers and lawn services work hard to exterminate the stuff—it’s also known as ground ivy—but with its startlingly minty flavor it makes a fine tea, and rubbing some on your arms and legs can keep away mosquitoes.
There’s more, much more—wood betony, aka “Florida radish,” and Spanish needle and one standout revelation, pellitory, an unassuming little plant with leaves that taste just like cucumber. By the time we’ve completed our 90-minute traipse through Mead Garden I feel as if we’ve sampled from God’s own buffet. Especially when we wind up near the lake and a broad stand of elderberry bushes.
Elderberry Blossom Tempura
As much as I appreciate the healthfulness of wild edibles that can be used in salads and teas, the southerner in me yearns for something deep fried. The common American elder (Sambucus canadesis) flourishes throughout Central Florida, notable for its hand-sized clusters of white flowers (the elder blooms twice during the year so the flowers are available for months at a time) and its tiny black-blue berries that can be turned into jams or elderberry wine. For this recipe, try to pick flowers fairly early in the blooming stages since they hold up better when frying.
• 1 egg
• 1 cup ice water
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 8-10 elderberry blossoms, left whole with main stem trimmed
• Canola or vegetable oil
Beat egg in small bowl. Add ice water (make sure it is very cold). Add flour. Do not overmix; it’s OK if it’s lumpy. Heat about one inch of oil to medium-high in cast iron pan (preferable) or other frying pan. Gently dip blossoms into tempura until they are coated. Fry and turn until golden (about four minutes). Drain on paper towels. Tastes good with soy sauce.
Bob Morris, a forth-generation Floridian, is a Winter Park-based novelist who teaches creative writing at Rollins College and is founder of Story Farm, a custom publishing company.