By Julie Etra
Huatulco, with its tropical climate, is an incredible to place to grow not just fruits and common garden vegetables (if the iguanas don’t get them first), but also other edible plants that are easy to grow from seed or gather in the wild, and just as easy to harvest and prepare. Some of these plants have a fairly wide range of occurrence and are grown and prepared throughout Mexico. Although some are natives, others may be considered as ‘weeds’ or maleza when they out-compete other plants for space, water, and nutrients, or when they become mature and too tough to digest. Although we have equivalents in the northern part of North America, in many cases we no longer use these plants due to the labor entailed in their harvest, and their use is overlooked or forgotten. Some obvious examples are dandelions (Taraxacum arvense), a non-native weed that used to be collected to make a fermented drink (dandelion wine). Its leaves, when harvested young, were used in salads. Another commonly harvested plant was lambsquarter (Chenopodium alba) whose leaves can also be eaten when young.
My friends Adam and Lucy Boulton of La Bocana, and Juan from Copalita, have been graciously teaching me about the local plants, their propagation, and preparation. Last spring they gave me seeds of several plants, so I now have my own garden and am slowly learning how to prepare them. In addition to the three I am growing, I have also listed several other edible wild plants that I have discovered through my friends.
Quintonil. This plant (Amaranthus hybridus) also known as quelite, can be considered to be weedy but is quite tasty when harvested young. It is also known as bledo (Yucatan), quelite, quelite blanco and quelite de cochino (Coahuila), quiltonil (Hidalgo and Mexico). It is found throughout Mexico, is very easy to grow and rapidly produces large leaves. To make a quintonil caldo or soup, gently simmer onion and garlic for 5 minutes, add salt to taste. Add young leaves and bring to a rolling simmer for about another 5 minutes. Add lime and chili to taste. For a tasty egg dish, sauté the quintonil with onions and salt; add eggs. Or sauté the quintonil with onions, garlic, tomato and salt then add eggs.
Bishate is a Zapotec word and refers to Solanum nigrum, also known as hierba mora and black nightshade in English. It is in the same family as eggplant, tomato, potatoes, and chilies. Its origin is South America. Its use and properties were th recorded as early as the 16 century by Francisco Hernandez. Its leaves are used in soups. Another popular recipes uses two branches of bishate, ½ onion, two cloves garlic, two ripe tomatoes, salt to taste, 1 kg meat for the grill, and of course fresh tortillas.
Chepil. The scientific name for this plant is Crotalaria longirostrata, also known as chipilín. It is in the pea family and has the additional characteristic of naturally improving soil fertility, like other members of this family. It is high in iron, calcium, and beta carotenoids. Its leaves can be used in caldos but is very popular addition to the masa or dough in tamales, dumplings, etc. Other tamale ingredients will vary with the region such as fillings of shredded meat, or in Chiapas with cheese. Also in Chiapas for caldos, the chepil in used as an herb broth with dried shrimp and fried dumplings. slightly sour taste and both the stems and leaves and flowers are edible. It can be eaten fresh in a salad, or cooked in soups and sauces. Another option is to sauté with onions, add beaten eggs and other condiments, and serve on a tortilla with salsa al gusto. For a salad, mix with crushed garlic and lemon juice, salt to taste.
Verdolaga. This succulent plant is in the purslane family. The scientific name is portulaca oleracea. Although native to India, it is found in many habitats world wide, and although often considered to be a weed in the United States, it is a popular vegetable in Asia, Europe, and Mexico. It has a Maguey petals. These plants are in the agave family and are abundant, with over 152 species found in Mexico. Adam and Lucy gave a bag of these to me, although I am not sure which species. While I pondered over how to cook them, I simply used them in a salad; add a little oil and vinegar or lime juice and chili powder, whatever combination you like. They have a similar texture to radicchio.
Pochote fruits. Outside our bedroom window is a beautiful pochote tree, Ceiba aesculifolia. The tree blooms in the dry season and the flowers have large, fleshy petals. The petals and the sweet nectar attract numerous species of birds as well as squirrels and the large, pod-shaped fruits are loaded with seeds having the texture and flavor of corn kernels. These tasty seeds can be eaten raw before they harden and before the fruit naturally matures, dries out, and disperses the seed. Juan says don’t try to cook them.
Happy gathering and buen provecho.