Florida's Wild Edibles

flatwoods plum ripe fruit (Prunus umbellata)
wild plums (Prunus umbellata) ready to be harvested for use

There are many wonderful wild, edible, plants available in Florida. The first step is to get to know the plants. A field guide will teach you how to identify wild edibles and is essential to your new adventure. If you are lucky enough to know a veteran at harvesting wild edibles, like Dick Deureling, ask him or her to take you along on their next collecting trip.

winged sumac ripe fruit cluster (Rhus copallinum)
winged sumac fruit (Rhus copalinum)

When you first begin learning about wild edibles you may find the large number of plants available overwhelming. Start by learning a few plants. Pick a handful of plants and get to know the botanical name, where they grow, how they grow, what part is edible, how to prepare it, & what time of year is best for collecting it. If you are unsure of the identification of a plant don’t eat it until you are sure of what it is. Once you master your initial list then move on to others.

Botanical Latin is not as intimidating as it seems. If you can learn the common name of a plant – you can learn its botanical name. Plants can have many common names so it is important to know the Latin name for identification purposes. For example, pigweed is a common name for both Amaranthus and Chenopodium. Knowing the botanical name of each plant will help to avoid confusion when collecting wild edibles.

peppergrass ripe seeds (Lepidium virginicum)
peppergrass seeds (Lepidium virginicum)

Wild edibles should be harvested at their peak of freshness. If you can’t collect enough to use at one particular time then harvest & store it for later use. Many plants, acorns, & berries can be gathered & frozen. Seeds can be collected and dried. Fruit & berries can be made into jelly or syrup for long term storage. Some plants can be canned as you would pickles. Horsemint and other plants used for teas can be harvested and dried. Wild edibles should not be collected near roadsides or other areas that may contain pollutants or pesticides. Be sure to leave more than you take. You certainly don’t want to deplete your supply of the plant, or deprive the animals of their food source.

Most plants that are used as potherbs become bitter once they begin to flower and need to be picked when they are very young. It’s a good idea to be able to identify these plants from their vegetation. If you go to harvest them and they have already flowered mark the area or make a notation to yourself so that you can come back the following year to gather the tender young leaves.

Chinsegut Nature Center Wild Edibles Program in 2000 (l to r) Kristin Wood, Sharon LaPlante, & Sid Taylor

Experiment with some of your favorite recipes by using wild ingredients as substitutes. Smilax can be used in place of spinach in many recipes. Acorns and wild nuts can be used in place of pecans or walnuts in baking recipes. Tender wild herbs can be added to salads. Use wild instead of domestic garlic the next time you make garlic butter.

Collecting wild edibles can be very rewarding. It teaches you about habitat types, seasonal changes, native plants, & surprisingly – appreciation for some plants you may have formerly thought of as useless. You will learn that certain plants are found in certain areas and nowhere else. You will learn the season to harvest the plant at its peak of freshness. You will also learn appreciation, maybe even a fondness, for the many plants that have been mislabeled as weeds. Granted it is not like going to pick up produce at the grocery store, but it is a rewarding in many respects.

Dick Deuerling

I’ve had several occasions to present programs on ‘Incredible Edible’s’ with my friends Sid Taylor and Kristin Wood at the Chinsegut Nature Center. We had a blast collecting, cleaning, preparing and EATING all the wonderful wild foods of Florida. We were thrilled to have Dick Deuerling at one of our programs … he enjoyed it immensly and complimented us on doing a great job. We miss you Dick … thanks for the guidance and encouragement.

Please be careful and make sure you are eating an edible plant … always have a field guide to make sure of identification. I don’t do mushrooms, so please don’t ask … people with decades of experience have picked the wrong mushroom and gotten very ill so I avoid them and suggest others do as well.

Have fun and enjoy Florida’s Wild Edibles!

Florida Wild Plants Used for Salad Greens

Latin Name Common Name Part of the Plant Used
Amaranthus spp. amaranth species young leaves
Bidens alba Spanish needles petals and young leaves
Cercis canadensis Redbud flowers
Commelina diffusa dayflower young leaves
Hydrocotyle umbella dollarweed young leaves
Lepidium virginicum peppergrass young leaves, buds, and seeds
Micromeria officianale micromeria leaves
Mitchella repens partridge berry berries
Pteridium aquilinum  bracken fern fiddleheads less than 6″ in length
Rhexia virginica meadow beauty young leaves and flowers
Scirpus validus bullrush young shoots
Smilax species catbrier tender vine tips
Stachys floridana Florida betony root tubers
Stellaria media chickweed young leaves
Typha domingensis southern cattail young shoots and tender tubers
Viola species violet young leaves and flowers

Florida Wild Plants Used Cooked as Potherbs or Added to Recipes

Latin NameCommon NamePart of the Plant Used
Amaranthus spp.amaranth speciesyoung leaves
Bidens albaSpanish needlespetals and young leaves
Chenopodium albumlamb’s quartersyoung leaves
Hydrocotyle umbelladollarweedyoung leaves
Phytolacca americanapokeweednewly emerging plants less < 6″ in length
Pontederia cordatapickerelweedyoung leaves
Portulaca oleraceapurslaneyoung leaves
Pteridium aquilinum bracken fernfiddleheads less than 6″ in length
Rumex hastatulusheart-wing dockyoung leaves
Smilax speciescatbriertender vine tips
Stellaria mediachickweedyoung leaves and stems
Tradascantia ohiensisspiderwortyoung leaves
Typha domingensissouthern cattailyoung shoots and tender tubers
Viola speciesvioletyoung leaves and flowers
Youngia japonicahawk’s beardyoung leaves

Florida Wild Plants Used for Beverages and Teas

Latin Name Common Name Part of the Plant Used
Diospyros virginiana persimmon dried leaves and dried ground seeds
Monarda punctata spotted beebalm dried leaves, flowers and stems
Passiflora incarnata purple passion vine ripe fruit
Pinus species pine young needles
Rhus copallinum winged sumac ripe fruit
Rosa species wild rose fruit (rosehips)
Rubus species blackberry dried young leaves
Sambucus candensis elderberry dried blossoms
Sassafras albidum sassafras bark and roots
Viola species violet young leaves and flowers

Florida Wild Plants Used for Jellies and Jams

Latin NameCommon NamePart of the Plant Used
Callicarpa americanabeautyberryripe berries
Diospyros virginianapersimmondried leaves and dried ground seeds
Gaylussacia specieshuckleberryripe fruit
Morus rubrared mulberryripe fruit
Opuntia species prickly pear cactusripe fruit
Passiflora incarnatapurple passion vineripe fruit
Prunus speciesplums and cherriesripe fruit
Rhus coppelinawinged sumacripe fruit
Sambucus candensiselderberrydried blossoms
Vaccinium speciesblueberryripe fruit

Recommended Field Guides and Books to Get You Started with Florida’s Wild Edibles

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