If you’re like many cajuns, your summertime foraging consists mainly of blackberries and honeysuckles.
But if that’s all your shopping for when you go into the woods, you’re missing out on some of the best produce that Louisiana has to offer. Next time you’re out on a summer hike, keep a keen eye for these native edibles:
Note about responsible foraging: Follow the rule of one-fourth. There's an old saying, possibly Native American in origin, about ethical foraging: take 1/4 for yourself, and leave 1/4 for your brother (the next person), 1/4 for wildlife, and 1/4 for the plant to reproduce.
Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius)
The perfect mushrooms for those who like earthy flavors but hate squishy textures, the firm chanterelle mushrooms can be found in abundance in summer months. For some southerners, chanterelle season is almost as exciting as crawfish season.
The mushroom's slightly leathery texture holds well when cooked. For this reason, chanterelles are often used in sauces, and also combines well with meats (chanterelle and ground beef burgers are amazing).
It’s easy to find the bright orange mushroom clusters if you can stand a hot and humid Louisiana summer hike. They usually grow underneath oak trees, where they emerge in damp ground after downpours. Since the mushrooms don’t have a long shelf life, they aren’t usually found in stores or restaurants, so getting out and picking your own may be your only way to taste them.
Maypops (Passiflora incarnata)
There’s much to appreciate about a plant that not only has beautiful flowers . . .
. . . but that also have a delicious nectar-like fruit. Maypop, also known as purple passion flower, ripens in late summer. The green outer rind, which tears easily, contains seeds that have a papery flesh soaked in a saccharine jelly.
To find maypops, look for the bright purple flower along the forest edges. The climbing plant will often frill woodlands with its ornamental flower and sweet berries.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
If you like gumbo made from scratch, then be on the lookout for Sassafras — the plant’s ground leaves are where filé powder comes from.
But the goodness doesn’t stop with the leaves — roots from young sassafras trees are heavy and earthy, and make for delicious teas. In fact, for many years, Sassafras was the main ingredient in root beer.
Sassafras can be found in fields, in woods, and along fences, typically where the soil is moist. The trees are evergreen, and so can be harvested year-round. But if you’re making tea or rootbeer, your best foraging will be in winter or early spring, when the roots of young trees are full of sweet sap.
Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia)
The muscadine is like a grape but with a little more character.
Most people compare the fruit to grapes, but ripe muscadines have a plum-like skin and are sweeter. They also have a large seed within, and although many practiced foragers can practically inhale bunches of muscadines, newbies should practice wedging the fruit between the teeth and carefully biting down to release the juices. Of course, you could always opt to make a jelly instead.
Look for muscadines along fences and forest edges. You won’t be the only one looking — birds and mammals also love the sweet fruits, so sometimes wild muscadine can be hard to find.
By John Nettles
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