Nuts About Florida Produce
by Cindy Conard
Walk through your backyard or a vacant lot and you may find free food. Florida has an abundance of luscious and nutritious fruits and nuts that are native to the state and require little or no care.
Native Americans took nothing for granted and ate many things that grow naturally in your own yard.
Oaks (Quercus spp.) provided acorns which American Indians used as a basic food staple. Collected when they ripened in fall, the Indians dried them in the sun and stored them in large baskets. They can be boiled, roasted, ground into a meal and used as flour (often with wheat flour) and made into breads and pancakes. Dried acorns dipped in clarified sugar can be used as a snack. Roasted acorns have also been used as a coffee substitute.
Oak trees are divided into two categories: the white and the red (or black).
White oaks have sweet acorns that mature the same year they are formed. They only need to be shelled and roasted. Chapman's oak (Q. chapmanii), sand post oak (Q. margaretta), swamp chestnut oak (Q. michauxii), and live oak (Q. virginiana), are some examples of white oaks. Red oaks have bitter acorns that mature the second year after forming. They can be made more palatable by shelling and boiling for two or more hours (changing the water when it turns light brown) until they turn the color of chocolate. This will rid them of tannin. Bluejack oak (Q. incana), laurel oak (Q. laurifolia) and water oak (Q. nigra) are a few examples of red oaks. Since identifying oaks can be difficult, the cup of the acorn can help determine if the oak is of the white variety or the red. White acorn cups are smooth on the inside and red acorn cups have wooly hairs on the inside.
Hickory trees (Carya spp.) are all similar in appearance. Many species often have characteristics of another, making field identification a challenge. Since they grow quite large, it is nearly impossible to examine their characteristic crown leaves. Key factors for identifying hickories are they way the fruit husk splits when mature, how many leaflets per leaf and the type of pubescence on the surface of the leaves.
Mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa) is a medium to large deciduous tree growing to a height of 40 to 80 feet. Typical of most hickories, the trunk has diamond shaped bark. The leaves are alternate, compound, odd-pinnate with seven to nine leaflets. Tufted hairs are found on all leaf parts. Male flowers are borne in catkins and are light green. The nut is enclosed in a thin, reddish brown husk that is extremely hard. The kernel is small and sweet. It is generally found in well-drained upland woods in north and central Florida.
Pignut hickory (Carya glabra) is a large deciduous tree reaching a height of approximately 80 feet. It has diamond patterned bark and is one of the most widespread hickories. Found in dry to moist woods, it occurs naturally in north and central Florida. The leaves are alternate, compound and odd-pinnate with five to seven leaflets. These leaflets are elliptic with toothed edges. All leaf parts are usually glabrous (lacking hairs) with occasional tufts on the undersides of some leaflets. The male flowers are borne in nearly three inch long catkins. The sweet nut is enclosed in a smooth, thin husk that does not split to the base upon maturity.
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is a large deciduous tree reaching between 60 and 80 feet tall. The leaves are alternate, oblong with a pointed tip, finely toothed and are three to five inches long. They are shiny, dark green and provide good fall color turning yellow and red. In spring, small white flowers appear in drooping clusters about four to five inches long. Dark purple to black fruit ripen in the summer. The 1/4 inch, round fruit is edible and quite popular raw. It is bittersweet and often used in wines, jellies, sauces, sherbets and pies. The pulp of the fruit is edible, but the other parts of the tree (including the pit) are poisonous. Birds love the cherries and distribute the seeds widely. Black cherry is found along fence rows, powerlines, in upland mixed forests and hammocks in north and central Florida.
Red mulberry (Morus rubra) is a small deciduous tree growing to a height of 30 to 40 feet. The large leaves are alternate, toothed, heart shaped and occasionally divided into lobes with no more than three lobes per leaf. On top, the leaves are dull green and have deeply sunken veins. The undersides are usually pale. Because of stiff hairs, the leaves are rough to the touch. Greenish white flowers in hanging clusters are formed in the spring. Resembling blackberries, the 1 1/2 inch fruit ripens in late spring. The fruit is good raw and is used in jams, jellies, pies, cakes and drinks. Songbirds and other wildlife are attracted to the fruit. Red mulberry is found throughout the state in pinelands, uplands, hammocks and floodplains.
Flatwoods plum (Prunus umbellata) is a small deciduous tree about 20 feet tall. The leaves are alternate, elliptic with toothed edges and have sharply pointed tips. Small white flowers appear in spring usually before the leaves. The fruit is a red or yellow drupe that turns black when mature. It is often used in jellies. This plum is typically found in dry pinewoods, upland mixed forests and hammocks in north and central Florida.
Tallowwood plum (Ximenia americana) is a small evergreen tree growing to a height of 20 feet. It has crooked branches and many branchlets all with sharp spines. The yellowish green leaves are alternate, leathery and have smooth edges. Upper surfaces of the leaves are shiny green and the undersides are often pale. Blooming from spring until fall are small, yellowish white, fragrant flowers with four hairy petals. The fruit is a yellow rounded drupe, about one inch long, with a candy-like flavor. They are often used in jellies. The Tallowwood plum is native to pinelands, hammocks and scrubs in central and south Florida.
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a large, multi-stemmed, shrub or small tree reaching a height of 15 feet. The leaves are opposite, glossy and pinnate with five to nine leaflets. These leaflets are lanceolate in shape with pointed tips and toothed edges. Blooming year round are small, fragrant, white flowers that are arranged in flat clusters. Shiny, purplish black, 1/4 inch berries form in clusters. The berries are edible, once cooked, and can be canned, dried, frozen and made into wine, jams, jellies and pies. They are rich in vitamin C having more than citrus fruit and tomatoes. The hardy elderberry attracts many songbirds that help with its distribution. It is found throughout the state in moist open fields, along ponds and canals and disturbed areas.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a deciduous shrub about five to six feet tall. The light green leaves are opposite, ovate, pointed and have rounded teeth. Young leaves are covered with hairs and older leaves have hairs on their lowers surfaces. Clusters of small lavender flowers form in spring along arching branches. In fall, clustered all along the stems, are small, purple, rounded drupes. Callicarpa is Greek for "bearing beautiful fruit". Beauty-berries are often used in making jellies and jams. This shrub grows in sun or shade and tolerates cold and drought. It attract butterflies during spring and summer and birds during fall and winter. Growing in open hammocks, along roadsides and in pinewoods, it is found in every county in the state.
Native plants can survive and produce a bounty without human interference. That means more produce and less work. Before eating any part of a plant, make sure it has been properly identified. Be extremely careful. Even if the fruit is edible, that doesn't mean the entire plant is.
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