By Amy Crowell
Photography by Andy Sams
If you’re not interested in fussing over a vegetable garden, you can still eat fresh from your yard. In fact, you probably already have plenty of wild edible plants lurking in your lawn. An average urban lot often harbors many more microclimates than larger plots of land and can support unique populations of wild edible plants, labor-free! Wood sorrel (Oxalis spp.), lamb’s-quarter (Chenopodium spp.), amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), thistle (Cirsium spp.), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and plantain (Plantago spp.) tend to colonize yards and are delicious.
When we bought our South Austin home, we were lucky to inherit a lawn complete with over 10 species of wild edible plants—including one of our staples, wild onions. Over the years, I encouraged these plants by not mowing, or mowing strategically to spread seed, and by giving them a bit of extra water during droughts. By doing so, I was able to harvest something wild to eat every day of the year. So, before heading out into the forest or prairie or hills to forage, you might want to pick through your grass first to find something unique and tasty for your table.
What if your lawn is landscaped? Do you have any prickly-pear cactus, Turk’s cap or redbud trees? How about agaritas or spiderwort flowers? Many native Texas plants that are commonly found in a landscape actually have edible parts and, when managed organically, are great candidates for dinner. Use your Turk’s cap leaves for dolmas, or the gorgeous red flowers to spice up your salad. Throw redbud flowers into a salad or sandwich for a sweet, pea-like flavor, or sauté the young bean pods for tacos. Young spiderwort leaves are an excellent substitute for lettuce, and agaritas make a delicious jelly or sauce. Your young prickly-pear cactus pads will make a wonderful vegetable side dish, and the fruits are traditionally used to make a tasty agua fresca (among other things).
If you’re not already blessed with a wild yard, you can easily and affordably establish wild edibles. Collect some seeds or dig up a small plant from the wild and transfer it to your yard, and you’ll have an instant, easy-to-maintain edible garden. You can also take cuttings from certain plants such as wild grapes, and re-root them, but be sure to read up on this propagation technique, as it is a bit involved. Of course, always harvest responsibly and legally!
A few, easy-to-find, wild edible plants that are good candidates for spreading in your yard include dandelions, wood sorrel, lamb’s-quarter, plantain, amaranth and chili pequins (Capsicum annum). When you see these plants go to seed in the wild, collect as many seeds as you can find, leaving several seed heads so that they can regenerate there. Spread your seeds in an area in your own yard that gets enough water and sunlight to support plant growth. Don’t worry about spreading too much—only a few seeds will actually germinate, which is also the case in the wild. This is why one plant produces so many seeds. So be generous when spreading the seeds, and make sure the seeds make contact with the soil. Raking the seeds gently into the soil and watering them will increase your chances for successful germination. You may not see the plants present themselves for six months to a year, so be patient.
Acorns and pecans can be collected and sprouted in pots for transplanting, but be sure you have enough room for an oak tree (yes, acorns themselves are edible) and our beloved native pecan, as they will end up being large, sprawling focal points.
When transplanting, choose a young plant so you can dig up as much of the root system as possible. Transplanting in late winter or early spring is ideal, as the plant will have time to adapt and grow during the spring season, before the hot, dry summer sets in. You’ll need a good shovel and a way to transport the plant so that the roots stay moist; a plastic pot already full of wet potting soil would be great, but if that’s too heavy to haul around, a plastic bag full of wet newspapers to wrap the root ball and roots will do. Try to dig up the plant when the soil is wet, as this will help keep the root ball intact. Once you get back to your yard, quickly find a good spot that mimics the wild place where you found the plant (was it sunny, shady, rocky, wet or high and dry?), and plant it. Make sure to keep it watered for the first few weeks until it gets established.
Wild blackberries or dewberries (Rubus spp.), chili pequins, Turk’s cap, spiderworts, dayflowers, wild onions and prickly pears are easy to find in the wild and to transplant. For wild onions, be sure to dig up the underground bulbs, and prickly pears will easily regenerate if you simply grab a pad or two, stick them an inch or two into the ground where you want them, and allow them to re-root.
Using some basic landscape-design principles will help your wild edibles look more complete, if that’s what you desire. Sketching a design for your entire yard will help with appropriate plant placing. Be sure to pay attention to scale—the size of mature plants in relation to each other and to your house. Planting in repeating patterns is often pleasing to the eye, especially if you plant in odd numbers. And, of course, balance—though not necessarily symmetry—should be considered so that there is equal or complementary weight on all sides of a focal point, such as your house or a large tree. Begin thinking about placing bigger trees or shrubs first, as each will be an axis in your yard. Always consider the plant’s mature form, colors and textures when planting.
Once your wild edibles are established, you might be sorry you introduced anything! Wild plants survive and multiply much better than cultivated plants, as they have adapted to grow and reproduce in our challenging soils and climate. So be persistent when getting things established, and then be prepared to share the tasty, wild and bountiful treats you’ve encouraged with your friends and neighbors.