By Amy Crowell
As you read this, chances are I’m out in the woods looking for the wild foods so abundant this time of year. Many trees share their tastiest fruits and nuts in the hope that you or some other critter will spread their seed far and wide before the winter sets in.
Here are some mouth-watering wild edibles of this season.
Pecans (Carya illinoinensis)—My grandparents were firmly rooted in the Depression-era tradition of frugality. They saved everything, wasted nothing, ate from their garden and foraged before the concept became hip. Every year they spent hours walking around their South Texas property with an orange-colored metal pecan picker-upper, filling a Slinky-like wire basket with pecans. They taught me that a bowl of pecans and a nutcracker should sit at the center of every coffee table.
Towering pecan trees can be found on almost every Austin corner, in every park, and lining our river bottomlands. They’re easily identified by clusters of nuts or leftover husks poised at the tips of their branches. I always pick lots of these sweet, distinctly Southern nuts—they’re packed with protein, antioxidants and calcium, and are easy to store throughout the winter.
Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)—Despite some frustrated ranchers who consider this tree to be useless, the thorny medium-sized mesquite is not only native to our region, but was one of the most important food plants to Native Americans here. Mesquite is a legume or bean tree producing elongated, yellowish-tan pods that provide protein, carbohydrates, sucrose, fiber, calcium, iron and many other trace minerals. Mesquite provides more protein per acre than wheat! Mesquite bean pods can be chewed raw, or ground up to make a sweet flour for baked treats. But make sure to taste the pods before picking, as sweetness varies from tree to tree.
Wild Plums (Prunus spp.)—Many species of medium-size plum trees, commonly known as Mexican or hog plums, can be found along fence lines or stream banks, and are distinguishable by their dark-grey bark speckled with small white spots. Walking along Turkey Creek in Northwest Austin a few years ago, I found piles and piles of the small, round pinkish-red plums covering the ground. Looking up through the canopy, I discovered they’d fallen from a 50-foot plum tree—one of the largest I’d ever seen! My husband and I made wine from those plums and were pleasantly surprised by its earthy, fragrant taste.
Texas Persimmons (Diospyros texana)—Texas persimmon trees are small-to-medium-size, with smooth, light-grey bark. The small, round Texas persimmons turn a deep blackish-purple when ripe. Each fruit contains several large seeds, but eating the prune-flavored flesh is an autumn pleasure you won’t forget.