Plant Foraging in Arizona

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Wild plants can be a part of your diet. Mark Lewis, who travels to areas near state parks in Arizona to find indigenous foods, will talk about where and how to look for edible plants in our state.

Ted Simons: Arizona can be a treasure trove of edible wild plants, and foraging for those can lead to a healthier, more vitamin rich diet, so says mark Lewis, who travels around the state to forage for wild foods and we welcome you to Arizona Horizon. Good to see you. Give me a definition here.

Mark Lewis: If you are doing it in the city, you are looking for things that are growing and not being used. For shoots, berries, all kinds of things. In the wild, you have got all kinds of things all over the state, about 2000 different things, that you could go for. And I know it's kind of incredible. There is -- there are so many different things. You collect them. You process them. And then you create recipes, and you eat them.

Ted Simons: Is Arizona a good place for plant foraging?

Mark Lewis: It's an incredible place for foraging.

Ted Simons: How come?

Mark Lewis: Well, we have got all different kinds of, they call them biomes, so different elevations and different habitats, and things, and we have got rivers, and the state is, basically, three different watersheds, and different elevations and desert, and mountains, and with the largest pine forest outside of Alaska in North America, so all kinds of habitats, lots of different kinds of plants.

Ted Simons: And all those areas, they have their own, their own menu, if you will?

Mark Lewis: Right.

Mark Lewis: And when you go out, and you are usually shooting for two or three different things, and then whatever else unusual that you did not expect to find, that you do find.

Ted Simons: So, before we get to this, we have about a half dozen goods to look at, and how do you know this is indigenous and that it's a safe thing to eat?

Mark Lewis: Some of them are not indigenous. Some of them are Ferrell. Some of them have been here since the Spanish, you know, Conquistadors have been here, a long time. Knowing whether something is safe or not is a matter of studying the plants, but also, you have to think, an apple, the seeds of an apple have cyanide in them. They are poisonous, you don't eat that, you eat the fruit part, so it is a matter of, a lot of times people say that's poisonous, but it's not. One part of it may be.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Mark Lewis: And that's the things that you learn as you get familiar with the different plants.

Ted Simons: All right, let's get to some of these, I want to start with something that I didn't know was -- I have heard of plantains, right, and these are in Arizona.

Mark Lewis: Yeah, you might have been -- a lot of people when they hear that, they think of the banana relative, over in the Caribbean.

Ted Simons: Yes.

Mark Lewis: Over in the care -- Caribbean, and plantago, the Latin, and we have three native species and one from Europe, the one with the broad leaves is from Europe. You can eat -- there is the narrow, one of the narrow ones.

Ted Simons: All right.

Mark Lewis: And you can eat the seeds, which is known as cilium. A lot of people know what that is, filled with incredibly vitamin d, plants don't usually have vitamin d. And omega 3s, omega 6 and 9s, like a salmon sitting there. The Greens on the other hand, lots of vitamin actual and lots of vitamin c, and b series vitamins. All kinds. There is a lot of good stuff out there.

Ted Simons: And let's talk about something that we have all seen in a certain way, shape or form, the Mesquite tree.

Mark Lewis: That is the really, the giving tree. It's, almost every part of this is food. The flowers, that will be coming up in April and May, lemonade, you can make out of them. Kind of a little licoricey flavor to it. And obviously, most people know about the pods that have the seeds in them, that you would grind up to make the flour. There is sap. There is also when the plant is wounded, there is another kind of sap. The roots are usable. The bark, almost everything on that thing is something that you can use.

Ted Simons: I know that there is Chilean Mesquite?

Mark Lewis: Chilean Mesquite is kind of not so good, but -- well, it's kind of a bitter flavor.

Ted Simons: Ok.

Mark Lewis: Compared to the others. And the sap on the Chilean is really good and they also -- their flowers make the nice lemonade, so it's just a matter of knowing what are you dealing with here? And we have, right here, in the Phoenix area, we have the velvet Mesquite, but also, the -- I'm sorry, I keep getting stuck on the Latin. But the Mesquite and then the honey Mesquite, and then there is a third one that, more down in Mexico but planted up here a lot, so they are slightly different, and also with Mesquite, you have to pay attention because a plant here can, actually, taste different than a plant about five feet away. So, you always, when you are collecting, you want to taste what it is, do I like that? Different people, different tastes.

Ted Simons: A little sampling, and the next one is percaline, and I think I've planed percaline in pots before.

Mark Lewis: And it grows as a weed on the golf courses. It looks -- you see it in vacant lots here.

Ted Simons: Yeah.

Mark Lewis: The seeds, again, have omega 3, 6, and 9. And the flowers are edible, the vegetation is what we usually go for, and it's being planted now in fields, and the Spanish name. And you can see it at the farmer's maretss for sale. It's incredibly high in vitamin c, when it is fresh. The seeds, vitamin b series, they have vitamin b12, and a lot of vegans are told that they can only get it supplementally or by eating meat. But a lot of these plants that we're going to look at, actually, have b12 in them.

Ted Simons: And these are -- this is the the kind that you can get at the nursery. They sell them all the time, and they are pretty flowers.

Mark Lewis: Pretty flowers and grow almost wild now. They are everywhere.

Ted Simons: Palo Verde seems like it's almost everywhere. Good for you?

Mark Lewis: Yes, it is a relative of Mesquite, both beans. So, you are getting the same kinds of vitamins that, you know, and the potassium and the calcium. These, all these plants, really, love people, and if you see them out in the wild, you know that it's because there were people there. Ok. These, almost every one of these, that we're looking at, are indicators of previous populations of people. So, if you think you are out in the wild foraging, you know, blazing new ground, no, no, no. These are plants that love people, and love disturbed grounds.

Ted Simons: And has sustained people in the past.

Mark Lewis: Exactly, and still do. The indigenous communities are using them, different tribes are still using these.

Ted Simons: And another one that I know that I planted this plant, and I know that you can find this plant at the nurseries, as well, amaranth.

Mark Lewis: Amaranth, the new super food you pay a fortune for in the store, and we have that at the - I do the Old Town Scottsdale farmer's market and in the alley, all it is oil and garbage, and it's growing there.

Ted Simons: Yeah.

Mark Lewis: And it is tough, and they have tons and tons of seeds on them, and individual plants can have up to 2,000 seeds.

Ted Simons: And they are gorgeous. I know that they are tough because I keep them -- they don't die when I put them in the pot.

Mark Lewis: Right.

Ted Simons: I can keep them alive, and they are gorgeous, those stalks are beautiful.

Mark Lewis: And they come in a variety of colors, and you have a black seeded one and white seeded one. The Greens are edible. Lots of calcium, and they are relatives of broccoli and spinach.

Ted Simons: And a couple of cactus, prickly pear and barrel cactus.

Mark Lewis: Ok, very different kinds - prickly pear and cholla are together. Barrel, saguaro, and and the little mammillaris are a different kind. The chemistry is slightly different.

Ted Simons: Ok.

Mark Lewis: The prickly pear, beautiful, beautiful fruit. The color in there shows you that they are related to the beets. People used to -- scientists used to think that cacti were related to Roses because of the structure of the flower, but it turns out chemistry-wise they are neck and neck with beets and Shard and all those guys.

Ted Simons: And as far as now the barrel cactus?

Mark Lewis: Saguaro and barrel cactus, their seeds, again, linoleic acid, the salmon of the desert, the fruit is what you are going for not the, not the trunk of it, that's just a waste and all alkaloid filled and you cannot eat it. But, the fruit.

Ted Simons: We have a minute left here.

Mark Lewis: Ok.

Ted Simons: And this is -- absolutely fascinating. What got you interested in this?

Mark Lewis: I don't know. I've been doing it for a long time. We've -- when we are out there, it's like hunting, like gardening. You really feel more about the things when you go out there and get them. I don't want to say it's religious, but it's -- when you hunt and you bring and you bring that home for your family, right.

Ted Simons: Right.

Mark Lewis: It's delicious, good for you, and you are interacting with the land and you are local and you are really local when you use the things that are here, so --

Ted Simons: It must be awfully rewarding. Congratulations, and talk to you after the show about other stuff, but I should be planting them in my garden. Thanks for joining us.

Mark Lewis: Nice to meet you.

Ted Simons: Thank you.

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