Foraging Around the Lone Star State

By Amy Crowell
Photography of Pinus edulis courtesy of National Parks Service

Next time you set out on a road trip to the unique nooks and crannies of our state, consider adventure foraging! A hunt for a few delicious, wild delicacies on the itinerary might add something sweet or spicy to your otherwise-lacking road food. Curious about wild strawberries? Consider a spring trip to the northeastern edge of the Piney Woods. How about wild pine nuts? Try the Guadalupe Mountains in the late summer or fall.

Ever wondered what sea plants can be nibbled along the beach? A trip to the Gulf Coast any time of the year will present all kinds of edible seaweeds and sand weeds. Here are a few fine wild edibles to try on your next trip to these amazing places.

The Piney Woods
The Piney Woods is vast and offers many wonderful wild edibles such as the black walnut. But venture into the northeastern corner of the forest, perhaps even around Caddo Lake, to find the tiniest, most delicious wild berries. Sometime around late spring or early summer, the delicate, marble-size wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) ripen to a perfect, soft red and are best eaten right there on the spot. And where there’s one, there’s bound to be plenty because the plants multiply by runners and form patches that are particularly abundant where the edge of the forest meets a river, a fence line or an open meadow. Remember, too, that the berries ripen much sooner on south-facing slopes. Wild strawberries are uncommon in Texas, so straying into Arkansas to find more might be necessary, but worth the time and adventure.

The Western Hills and Mountains
Every time I notice the price of pine nuts in the store, I want to set up a pine nut collecting expedition to New Mexico. There are only about 24 pine species worldwide that produce a nut worth eating, and here in Texas, we’re lucky to have three that bear a tasty nut. The Texas piñon pine, or Pinus remota, grows sparingly in the westernmost part of the Hill Country around Rocksprings, and more abundantly in the mountains of northern Mexico, but is definitely the most accessible on a day trip from Austin. P. cembroides, or Mexican piñon, is found in abundance in northern Mexico and in the Davis and Chisos Mountains of Texas. And Pinus edulis, also known as the New Mexico or Colorado piñon because of its prevalence in those states, produces some of the tastiest North American pine nuts.

Chris Sheffield, program director of the Environmental Corps (and my loyal foraging partner-husband), notes that he bought bags of local piñon nuts from the road stands around Guadalupe Mountains National Park during his time working as a park ranger. “They were probably P. edulis, and they were most likely not harvested in Texas but from nearby in the Lincoln National Forest around Carlsbad, New Mexico,” he says. “That would be the best place for most Texans to legally collect pine nuts on public land.”

Native Americans of the Southwest knew the value of the protein in the nut, and went to great, communal lengths to extract the wild nut seed from the cone. One traditional technique involved collecting the almost-opened cones, roasting them over a fire until they were about to pop open, placing them in another container to separate out the shelled seeds and then roasting them again to make it easier to remove the outer black shell. I recommend using an oven.

The Coast
If fishing or crabbing isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty to harvest and eat along the Texas coast. Merriwether the Adventurer, one of Texas’s resident wild-edible-plant experts who forages primarily around Houston and Galveston, enjoys collecting and eating sea rocket (cakile spp.), a member of the mustard family and a tasty, spicy addition to salads or soups. The succulent sea rocket grows like most other plants in the mustard family, producing a white or yellow flower, though it varies in spiciness. Found growing in the sand dunes or along the edge of the highest tides, it is a sturdy, bushy plant that looks a bit like it just emerged from an underwater reef and planted itself right in the sand.

The ecological diversity of Texas not only promises some pretty incredible scenery, but also tasty wild plants to enjoy along the way. I hope you forage and eat well on your next adventure.