Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Edible and Medicinal Botanicals of the Florida Trail

Wise Man traversing around flooded road in Plum Creek Timberlands - we were not always so lucky to walk around, instead having to wade right on thru!

We are over 500 miles in and nearly half way through our hike on this exceptionally beautiful and challenging trail. Since I last posted we have traversed Ocala National Forest traveling through Long Leaf Pine forests filled with blonde grasses and heaps of golden sand, evidence of the pocket gophers that call this land home. Here we also walked tunnels of Scrub forest, home to the Scrub Jay, a threatened species that resides amidst the Wild Rosemary and scrubby Oaks. In the Plum Creek Timberlands we slogged down miles of flooded forest road where the road and the cypress swamps were often indiscernable from each other. After wading through a thigh-high roadside culvert, we sloshed our way into Rice Creek Conservation Area traversing Nine Mile Swamp, where the beauty made up for the high waters as we were surrounded by a Florida jungle of towering Cypress and lush Palms. And all along this trail we have had the company of botanicals both edible and medicinal. I would like to take this blog, marking our halfway point, to fill you in on some of the plants that we have been appreciating along this trail.

Viola with heart-shaped leaves - any Violets that are blue and/or white with heart-shaped leaves have edible flowers and leaves
Lance-leaf Violet (Viola lanceolata) - questionable if edible due to lance-shaped leaves

I was thrilled when we began seeing the five-petaled faces of the Violets (Viola) in the prairie lands, reminding me of those that I know from home. However, these were different species, one in particular with grass-like leaves, Viola lanceolata, which we would never see up north. I have always been taught that all true Violets, except those with yellow flowers are edible. Some have a sweet flavor, whereas others may be minty or even spicy. However I have never encountered a violet with lance shaped leaves. Typically the leaves of Violet are heart-shaped. I have done some research and cannot find  anything confirming or denying the edibility of Viola lanceolata, therefore the jury is still out, eat at your own risk. The heart-shaped leaves of white and/or blue Violets may be enjoyed raw in a salad or tossed into a stir-fry or soup. They are a versatile green that never grows bitter – very unusual in the wild plant world. These violets have since persisted as we have hiked north and we have nibbled them here and there.

The colorful seeds of Coontie (Zamia pumila) which can be found near the base of the plant.
The Coontie (Zamia pumila) on the other hand, has been much more infrequent to see and we did not spot our first wild one until Ocala National Forest. This plant, endemic to Florida, used to grow in abundance but was overharvested and now found only sporadically or planted for ornamental purposes. All parts of the plant are toxic, containing cycasin, so not a plant to harvest while hiking. However the Seminole Indians employed it, carefully leaching this toxin from the roots, then making a flour and bread from the starch that they called sofkee. It was Coontie that provided nourishment as the US soldiers drove them deeper into the Everglades. We, Americans, later decided this might be a good money-maker and actually made an industry out of Coontie root, hence how it was nearly wiped clean from the Pinelands and Oak Hammocks.

The saw-tooth teeth of Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) found along petiole (leaf stem)
Fronds of Saw Palmetto - one of these is actually considered a whole leaf
Another plant that has been employed commercially however continues to proliferate throughout Florida, the Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens). We have walked through vast prairies of these palm fronds with their saw-toothed petioles. The berries can be pulverized and ingested in a capsule or submerged in alcohol and tinctured, useful as an adaptogen – to support and nourish the body – as well as an alterative – to cleanse the body of excess waste. Herbalists regularly use it to treat prostate inflammation and disorders of the urinary tract. The Native Americans regularly ate the berries, but I have heard that they taste like soap. There are no berries to be found this time of year, so will have to be sure to sample a few later in the season.

Spring Coral Root (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

This unusual parasitic plant, Spring Coral Root (Corallorhiza wisteriana), was quite the find beside a pond in Ocala. It is the only place that we have spotted it yet and it was enjoying a blanket of wet leaves and the shade of Cabbage Palm fronds. Spring Coral Root is indeed medicinal however because it is infrequent, not one to forage but rather revere. It is reportedly one of our best herbs for increasing the body’s temperature (diaphoretic), breaking up a cold, and alleviating pulmonary ailments, however it must be used regularly for several weeks to fully restore health.

Wise Man hiking through Long Leaf Pine (Pinus palustris) and Saw Palmetto savanna in Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area
Long Leaf Pine Cone with open scales - nuts already gone
Long Leaf Pine sapling

Most anyone who has spent time on the Florida Trail through Central Florida knows of this towering slender tree, Long Leaf Pine. If shared space with Saw Palmetto through Three Lakes Wildlife Management area and reached for the sky in Ocala National Forest. Pluck some long needles from one of the stubby saplings and steep in hot water as we did for a Vitamin C rich tea that is also highly antimicrobial. Pine nuts may also be harvested from the large unopened cones. If you wait until the scales open up, the critters will have already found them, but put some closed cones by a fire to release the seeds. Hence, one of the reasons why the park service prescribes burns to perpetuate the life of these trees. We have yet to try this method as we rarely build fires but seems as though it would work.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Here are two greenies that we know and love from our grassy areas back home in the northeast, Cleavers and Chickweed. We were pleased to finally see them here along the unpaved Palatka Lake Butler Trail. Cleavers are a considered a Bedstraw, however this species, Galium aparine, is one of the very few to bear many tiny velcro-like hairs. Throw it at your fellow hiker and it will literally cleave to their clothing. Chickweed, this species very small and unassuming, Stellaria media, is sweet and crisp with a taste reminiscent of corn. Chickweed can be enjoyed raw like sprouts in a sandwich or in a salad. Cleavers is better cooked to dissolve those rough hairs. Both are excellent pureed in a pesto. A retired railroad bed is never a good place to forage due to contaminated soil and foot traffic…but the next time we see it along grassy trail…it is going in our lunchtime cheese sandwiches! Every thru-hiker needs their greens!

Usnea, aka Old Man's Beard, growing on Sand Pine cone - Usnea is an epiphyte, therefore it does not harm the organism it grows on but rather uses it as a substrate

Have you spied this lichen clinging to the Live Oaks, Sand Pines, and Wild Rosemary? Meet Usnea, aka Old Man’s Beard. There are dozens of species of Usnea and each rather difficult to tell apart, however all are highly medicinal. This organism is the closest thing to anti-biotics one can find in a forest and it had been employed as such for centuries. Modern day herbalists use it as an anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-viral, especially good for urinary tract infections and pulmonary conditions. However field medics back in World War I, would pulverize this lichen and pack it into men’s wounds to both prevent infection and staunch bleeding. Steep it in hot water or tincture in alcohol to ingest. To be certain you have Usnea and not another genus of lichen or Spanish Moss, gently break a piece and look for a very slender white or light pink thread running inside.

There are so many more that I would love to feature but they will have wait until the next posts for surely you would be better outside seeing these plants for yourself than reading them here! From here we continue to hike north, into parts of Florida of which we know only what we have been told. This is the magic of a thru-hike…to wander.and to wander slowly into places which we could not even conjure visions of in our wildest imagination…and to enter them without expectations but rather wonder, sure feet, and open hearts. It’s gone from real dry out here to real wet seemingly overnight as we near flooded rivers and deep swamps. Here’s to the Suwannee River and whatever you bring our way!


  1. Y'all will love the Suwannee! Hopefully it isn't too flooded and roadwalks won't be necessary. Loved reading about the edibles in this post!

    1. We had to do some roadwalks from White Springs to Suwannee Springs but we are looking forward to walking along this beautiful river tomorrow on our way to Holton!

  2. Cool cool cool! Welcome to North Fl - the place I call home. I hope you love it as much as I do!

    1. Thank you for the welcoming Kathy - your region is simply breath-taking :)