Home & Garden

Edible Miami: Foraging for something to eat in the South Florida landscape

It’s a muggy day with enough gray clouds overhead and choppy waves on Biscayne Bay to make us think we could get a downpour at any moment. But that doesn’t stop Tiffany Noé, 31, and her friend George Echevarria, 32, from leading a foraging expedition through an historic upper east side neighborhood.

The two have spent the past year-and-a-half-working on their book, Forager: A subjective guide to Miami’s edible plants, which will be released Tuesday.

Forget about the search for survival food that has made foraging shows popular on cable television. Instead, this duo considers themselves to be “urban foragers” looking for tasty edibles among the weeds, wildflowers and even invasive plants found in deserted lots, parking lots, swales and medians throughout Miami-Dade County.

“That’s the thing about Miami. Once you start looking, there are fruit and other plants to eat everywhere,” Noé says.

This book got its start when Noé and Echevarria met “randomly” in 2012. Noé had just returned to Miami after living abroad and then traveling around the United States for six months before deciding she wanted to settle in her home town.

Echevarria, a freelance graphic designer, had also grown up here and returned after traveling the United States and living in New York for a year.

“We immediately got along because we inspired each other,” says Noé, who is gainfully occupied with gardening. She sells her crops from her urban farm to restaurants and her seeds and baby edible plants at the Saturday farmers market in Legion Park on Miami’s Upper East Side.

Getting to know each other, the two spent a lot of time outdoors riding bikes, going to the beach and taking photographs. They soon realized their pictures were often of foods that they had found by foraging.

That’s when they talked about turning their discoveries into a quarterly zine – and that’s until friends, who were starting a publishing company, got wind of their work. “They saw our photographs and saw that we were really into it,” Echevarria says. With their encouragement, the book “just sort of happened.”

They like to forage because not only does it provide free food for their vegetarian meals, but “it changes your experience of Miami.”

After all, keeping an eye out for food makes you aware of your environment whether you are commuting to work or going to the beach. “Even an errand like going to the DMV is fun when you are foraging along the way,” Noé says.

It also makes you more aware of South Florida’s subtle change of seasons as you watch mango trees blossom and ackee ripen and open. And it can build a sense of community as you ask a neighbor if you can pick a mango from his historic 70-year-old tree or share your bounty.

“We consider ourselves friendly foragers willing to share our knowledge and finds,” Noé says.

With a machete and a stash of plastic bags recycled from the supermarket in the trunk of his car, Echevarria and Noé lead us on a hunt down neighborhood streets.

Bending down, she points to green leaves on pale red stems that she identifies as pursulane. As she talks, we learn that it, like other greens, is less bitter if eaten before it flowers. She also tells us that doing research she and Echevarria learned pursulane is popular with people in the Mediterranean and was an ingredient, along with tomatoes and feta cheese, in the original Greek salad.

Next to it she points to the Spanish needle that she says was an important food crop for the Seminole Indians. We pick a green leaf and taste its pleasantly acidic flavor.

Here, too, there’s amaranth she can recognize by its heart-shaped leaves touched with purple. The book tells us it’s the main ingredient in that Caribbean dish called callaloo.

Then she leads us to a bush covered with small berries. When the duo asked for other’s opinions about what to include in the book, people in the know cringed at their wanting to write about Brazilian pepper. After all, it’s very invasive.

“But that’s not the point,” Noé says. “We aren’t telling you to plant the pepper; just eat its berries and seeds.” And that just might keep them from spreading.

She welcomes us to pluck and taste the tiny bright pink orbs that have a fruity but peppery taste. Believe it or not, McCormick uses the peppercorns from this invasive in its Peppercorn Medley that you find in the spice aisle of the supermarket.

Of course in South Florida, you have to be very careful where and what you harvest. The duo warns you shouldn’t eat anything you can’t positively identify — it could be poisonous. “If in doubt, don’t eat it,” they advise.

And it’s important to get permission if you want to take fruit from trees and bushes that are clearly on private property. With Miami being so built up, there is little that isn’t owned by somebody.

But that doesn’t stop Noé and Echevarria, who will go onto a piece of private land that clearly is not inhabited if there’s something good going to waste. But for others, she acknowledges this may be a gray area.

As we pass a dilapidated house with a “For Sale” sign in the front yard, she sees a Surinam cherry bush full of fruit and sapodillas ripening on a tall tree in back of the property. Noé knows that taking the fruit from the bush or tree may be stealing.

“But I don’t feel like I’m stealing if no one is using the fruit and it’s all over the ground. I feel like I am taking advantage of something that is being discarded. It’s like dumpster diving but a lot more fun,” she says.

On another street, she searches the median and swales that have been “rogue planted” by those in the neighborhood. She points out a moringa tree spreading its nutritious leaves for all to take. Nearby, a tamarind tree has dropped many of its brown pods that look like strung beads. As Echevarria collects those that are intact, Noé cracks one open and shows us how to remove a seed and extract the gummy brown fruit that surrounds it. The flavor is very sour yet refreshing — what the book describes as “burnt apricot and lemon.”

When you start looking for these edibles in the “wild” you’ll discover there are a surprising number of tamarind trees on public property as well as cocoplums with their purple grape-like fruits. The cocoplum is often used as a landscape plant around homes and parking lots.

These are just some of the edible plants Forager helps you identify through its many photographs and drawings. Botanic drawings illustrate fruits such as prickly pear, lychee and guava that weren’t in season before their manuscript was due at the publisher.

The book, which fills a niche, includes 39 plant entries. These are made up of useful descriptions including taste, fruiting season and where each is most likely to grow; plenty of references and suggested readings.

“We think of it as a hip field guide that will get people excited about living in Miami,” Noé says.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at debhartz@att.net.