Mulberries

The Mulberry trees (Morus nigra) along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou are producing their delicious fruit. The picture above is an immature berry–this particular tree produces a dark purple berry when ready to eat. Some sources on the internets, as well as Delena Tull’s excellent book Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest warn against consuming the unripe fruit, claiming that doing so produces an unpleasant, mildly psychedelic experience. Apparently you throw up, fall on the ground and become convinced you’re going to croak. We wonder if this is a myth, like the story about boy scouts roasting hot dogs on Oleander sticks (yes, Oleander is very poisonous, but apparently the boy scout story is an urban legend).

We found the Mulberries sweet and delicious. It’s a fruit that doesn’t ship well, hence its absence in our crummy supermarkets.

Nopales Season

It’s nopales (the pads of the prickly pear cactus for you Yankees) season at the Homegrown Evolution compound. Our prickly pear has thrown off so many leaves that a neighbor dropped by last week to ask for some. We filled a bag for her and declined the dollar she offered us.

To cook up our nopales we use a simple recipe found in Delena Tull’s book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. First scrape off the spines with a knife and chop a pad (one pad per person). Boil for 10 minutes. Next, put 1/3 cup whole wheat flour, 2/3 cup cornmeal, 1 teaspoon chili powder, salt and pepper in a bag and shake with the boiled chopped nopales. Fry up in a pan and you’ve got a delicious side dish.

One of the charms of the prickly pear cactus, in addition to the food it provides, is its ability to survive drought and fend off pests. Sadly, it’s not as indestructible as it seems. The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum was introduced into the Caribbean in the 1950s and has slowly worked its way to Florida and Mexico. It may soon reach Texas and California. The USDA is hoping to halt the spread by releasing sterile moths.

And speaking of Texas, for the next two weeks Homegrown Evolution will be in residence in Houston where it’s also nopales season. If we see any Cactoblastis cactorum, we’ll deal with them Texas style:

Something for Nothing – Wild Mustard Greens


Sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch, which was the case for us yesterday after discovering a large stand of white mustard (Sinapis alba) growing at the end of a nearby dead end street. Mustard grows all over the neighborhood, but rarely in a place out of dog pee range like this little patch. Classified by the USDA as a noxious weed, the leaves have a pleasant and pungent flavor and can be eaten raw or cooked. From the Plants for a Future database entry:

“Leaves . . . A hot pungent flavour, especially if eaten raw. Young leaves are used as a flavouring in mixed salads, whilst older leaves are used as a potherb. Seed – sprouted and eaten raw. The seed takes about 4 days to be ready. A hot flavour, it is often used in salads. A nutritional analysis is available. The seed can be ground into a powder and used as a food flavouring, it is the ‘white mustard’ of commerce . . . The pungency of mustard develops when cold water is added to the ground-up seed – an enzyme (myrosin) acts on a glycoside (sinigrin) to produce a sulphur compound. The reaction takes 10 – 15 minutes. Mixing with hot water or vinegar, or adding salt, inhibits the enzyme and produces a mild bitter mustard.”

And speaking of urban foraging, we’ve been inspired by our visitor from Chicago, Nancy Klehm. Hear an interview with her, “Foraging for Food on the Streets of L.A.“, on Weekend America. Happy foraging . . .

Arundo dorax

My native Los Angeles and Houston, where Homegrown Evolution is in temporary residence, have a lot in common. Both are real cities, unlike the Disneyfied theme parks that New York and San Francisco have become. Both Houston and Los Angeles have lots of heavy industry and working ports. Visit the docks in Manhattan or San Francisco and you’ll find expensive restaurants and boutiques. Like the port of Los Angeles, along Houston’s Bayous you’ll find refineries, factories and scrap metal yards. And both L.A. and Houston have clogged mega-freeways.

Add to these parallels, an abundance of Arundo dorax, a giant invasive reed known by the popular name, Carrizo. According to Delena Tull’s excellent book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest, Arundo dorax seeds can be ground into a flour, the young shoots are edible and a kind of candy can be made from the stems. Just like bamboo, the tough stems make excellent building materials, which is why the plant was originally imported to California in the early 19th century.

Arudo dorax often finds a home alongside river banks, and in Los Angeles massive amounts of it wash up on the beach after big storms. The plant’s prodigious spread and ability to crowd out native species puts it on many a bad-ass plant list. Homegrown Evolution’s attitude is–like it or not it’s here, so we might as well learn to work with it, just like the folks I saw the other day who repurposed this abandoned (and wind damaged!) gas station for an impromptu barbecue.

Sadly I wasn’t able to get a picture of them, but the BBQ smelled good.

Feral Tomatoes on the Bayou

While walking along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, just next to a concrete plant and under a bridge we stumbled on some feral tomatoes. We theorized that some fast food meal pitched in the gutter found it’s way into this meandering, heavily industrialized waterway. The tomatoes separated from the cheeseburger, floated to the surface of the water and were deposited on the muddy banks of the bayou. Houston’s hot and humid climate sprouted the seeds and the result is the plant below.

Back with more foraging tales soon once we’ve returned from Texas.

Mallow (Malva parviflora) an Edible Friend

In late February, towards the end of our winter rains, it’s high weed season here in Los Angeles–folks in other parts of the country will have to wait a few more months. We await this season with anticipation, since it’s the best time of year to forage for wild edible weeds. We’ll highlight a few of these edible weeds in the next few months beginning today with Mallow (Malva parviflora also known as cheeseweed because the shape of the fruit resembles a round of cheese), which grows in great abundance in lawns and parkways.

Malva parviflora does not have an especially strong or exciting taste, but does make a pleasant addition to salads and can be cooked as a green. Both the leaves and the immature fruit are edible. An assortment of cooking ideas can be found on Of the Field, maintained by wild food author and self described “environmentarian” Linda Runyan. A Turkish blogger has a recipe for mallow and rice here. We’ve used mallow in salads, and it would also do well cooked Italian style in a pan with olive oil, garlic and some hot peppers to spice it up a bit.

Malva parviflora comes from the old world–the ancient Greeks make it into a green sauce and use the leaves as a substitute for grape leaves for making dolmas. Modern Mexicans also make a green sauce with the leaves. If any of you readers have recipes, please send them along.

If that ain’t enough, the mucilaginous nature of the plant can be exploited by making a decoction of the leaves and roots to use as a shampoo, hair softener, and treatment for dandruff.

And yet, like so many other gardening books, the oh-so-bourgeois Sunset Garden Guide only tells you how to get rid of mallow, and fails to note its many useful qualities.

An Echo Park Weed Salad

There’s nothing like a little urban blight to produce an excellent salad. While not impoverished (not unless you consider dilapidated $600,000 bungalows a sign of destitution), our neighborhood ain’t exactly Beverly Hills, meaning that in terms of landscaping it’s a little rough around the edges. And the edges–parkways, cracks in the asphalt, neglected plantings were, on this warm February day, overflowing with weeds. Edible weeds.

We explored these edible edges this afternoon with visiting Chicago artist Nance Klehm, who proved that many of these weeds are not only edible, but tasty, in a lecture and food foraging walk she led that was sponsored by the innovative art space Machine Project. Gathered on the walk were wild mustard, mallow, shepherd’s purse, dandelions, oxalis, prickly lettuce, lamb’s quarters and a lemon and orange found overhanging the sidewalk, all of which made for a large and delicious salad.

A highlight was a front yard overflowing with lemony oxalis (Oxalis deppei, pictured on the right behind the chain link fence. Oxalis is sometimes known as Iron Cross Plant because of the shape of its leaves–see the Plants for a Future Database entry on Oxalis for more information). It’s a relative of sorrel, which we have growing in our garden and has a similar taste. Oxalis contains vitamin C, but also contains oxalic acid which can interfere with calcium absorption, though you’d have to eat vast quantities to have an ill effect.

As Klehm pointed out, these weeds know no boundaries or borders. Like all of us in North America, they are interlopers, trespassers and immigrants.

At the end of the walk the class mixed up and shared a bowl of our findings. Klehm will be teaching three classes in February and March: cheese making, fruit wine and vinegar, and pickling. Clickulate here for more information.

How to Catch and Eat a Rat

We certainly have rats around our little Los Angeles compound, but we’ve never considered eating them. Thankfully potty-mouthed survival expert Cody Lundin, author of 98.6 Degrees The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive, shows you how in this youtube highlight. If you enjoyed the squirrel melt video we posted some time ago, you’ll love this one as well. And the kids will dig those rat pelts!

Tree Spinach – Chenopodium giganteum

For most of the country planting time is far off but for us, here in the Homegrown Revolution compound in Mediterranean Los Angeles, it’s time to start the winter garden. The billowing clouds of apocalyptic smoke from the fires ravaging the suburban fringes of our disaster prone megalopolis are the only thing that keeps us inside today, giving us time to contemplate one of the seed packets that has crossed our desk, Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a “tree spinach”.

The Chenopodium family encompasses what less enlightened folks call “weeds” such as lambs quarters (also edible we’ll note), but also contains cultivated crops such as Quinoa and Epazote. Tree spinach is a tall, hardy annual that easily reseeds itself and can become invasive–but we give extra points for the combination of invasive and edible.

Tree spinach contains saponins and oxalic acid, substances which the Plants for a Future database notes can cause nutritional and medical problems. Note to all the raw food fetishists out there–cooking takes care of both oxalic acid and saponins.

We ordered our tree spinach from Trade Winds Fruit but it’s also carried by Seeds of Change. We’ll post a full report if and when we get our first harvest.

See the update on our first harvest.

Plantain!

Homegrown Revolution neighbors Annelise and Eric intercepted us on our nightly dog walk and not only invited us up to their front porch for a glass of wine, but also sent us away with a couple of plantains harvested from their next door neighbor’s tree. It’s exactly what we’d like to see more of–folks growing food instead of lawns and everyone sharing the abundance.

While there’s a lot of banana trees in Los Angeles they tend not to yield edible fruit since our climate is not quite hot and humid enough. But plantains, judging from the delicious taste of the ones we fried up, are a different story. They do require a lot of water to grow, but greywater expert Art Ludwig calls bananas (the same family as plantain) “the premiere plant for greywater in warm climates”. You can bet that as soon as the building inspectors sign off and leave the scene of our newly retrofitted foundation at our crumbling 1920s vintage compound we’re going to try to figure out a way to route the shower drain out to a new mini-grove of plantain.

We’ll be our own banana republic and do the world a favor considering the amount of blood that has been spilled bringing bananas to North America. Witness Chiquita’s recent admission to teaming up with right wing terrorist groups in Columbia.

In the meantime, for the Homegrown Revolution readers out there in warm climates here’s the lowdown on growing bananas and plantain.