Finding Your Food In the Woods

You too, can eat delicious weeds! A lesson in edible plants for every taste

You too, can eat delicious weeds! A lesson in edible plants for every taste

In an effort to keep our landscaped surroundings perfectly manicured, we do everything we can to eradicate anything that could be considered unsightly. Weeds are unwelcome, uninvited, forbidden.

But what if these same native weeds are indeed, delicious? Nutritious? Abundant and free?

For help on identifying these "happy weeds" and any other wild edible plants, we headed to the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center — a serene 155-acre nature sanctuary in the midst of the hustle and bustle or urban life — to partake in an educational odyssey to discover what exists in the Texas terrain. There, we chatted with Mark Vorderbruggen, aka "Merriwether the Adventurer," who was more than eager to share his expertise on the subject.

A research chemist in the oil industry by day morphed into a nature eco junkie at night (and on weekends), Vorderbruggen spends almost all his leisure time being at one with the elements. Whether he's hiking, canoeing, camping or snoozing under the stars, there isn't a week that goes by without a plate of wild Texas green something on his family's menu, mixing local taste with green goodness. 

Almost every month, Vorderbruggen visits the Arboretum where he leads a four-hour class during which guests learn all the tricks of the trade including how to pick out good eats, the process of harvesting them responsibly, cooking techniques and of course, how to spot dangerous or poisonous species.

We caught up with the busy and good natured outdoorsman prior to one of his tutorials and received a private guided tour during which we shot a video. 

What we learned was fascinating. Let's run down some edible plants:

Turk's Cap

Related to the hibiscus and okra — but much tastier — the flowers can be eaten raw. They are rich in vitamin C, phytochemicals and flavonoids which are good for your cardiovascular system and brain. When the leaves are young, the tender greens can be sautéed just like spinach. 

Turk's Cap is generally found in transition areas, where light meets shade. 

Spiderwort

The beautiful blue-color, mouse ear-shaped flowers are the main identifying physical characteristic of Spiderwort. The flower can be eaten raw. But when cooked, its mucus, slimy interior serves as a thickening agent perfect for stews, soups and gravies. 

The stamen hairs turn pink when exposed to radiation. The perennial plant was a favored tool to detect neutron radiation. 

Smartweed

The plant can be identified by a cluster of white flowers and the way the leaves grab onto the stem. Just like hot peppers, the leaves are loaded with capsium and can be used in any recipe — Vorderbruggen prefers fajitas or quesadillas — where a kick is in order.

Capsium is great for lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, speeding up metabolism and warding off colds and fevers.

Prickly Ash, Hercules Club or Toothache Tree

Toothache tree?

According to Vorderbruggen, the bark and the leaves contain a topical anesthetic that Native Americans and pioneers used to treat dental pain. The berries are what gives Schezuan cuisine its distinctive flavor and feel. Hot to the taste, yet numbing to the senses, and it grows all over Texas.

Mark Vorderbruggen
Mark Vorderbruggen is by day a research chemist and by night — and weekends — he turns into "Merriwether the Explorer," a lover of all things natural, including wild edible plants.  Photo by Joel Luks
Turk's Cap
The leaves of the Turk's Cap plant can be cooked just like spinach, sauteed with a little butter and garlic. The flower can be eaten raw.  Photo by Joel Luks
Spiderwort
Texas Spiderwort can be identified by its flowers. It's perfect in stews where it acts as a thickening agent.  Photo by Joel Luks
Hercules Club
The Hercules Club is also known as the toothache tree because of the spike's anesthetic properties. The berries are what gives Szechuan cooking its distinctive taste and feel.  Photo by Joel Luks
Mark Vorderbruggen
Turk's Cap
Spiderwort
Hercules Club
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