Blackberry

Scientific name: Rubus spp.
Abundance: plentiful
What: flowers, berries
How: open mouth, insert flower/fruit, then chew
Where: Sunny wastelands, borders between woods and fields, blackberry plants grow as tall, vertical canes.
When: Spring
Nutritional Value: Vitamins K, E & C, folate, magnesium, manganese, potassium, copper, calories from sugar
Other uses: wine, jelly, tea
Dangers: sharp thorns

Blackberry flowers
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Close-up of Blackberry flowers.
Blackberry

Close-up of unripe Blackberries.
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Blackberries in various stages of ripeness.
Blackberry

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A thick Blackberry cane.
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Close-up of the tip leaves of a Blackberry cane. Dried, they make excellent tea.

Texas distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture. The marked counties are guidelines only. Plants may appear in other counties, especially if used in landscaping.
BlackberryTX

North American distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Blackberry

Blackberry brambles seem to line every roadside, abandoned wasteland, field edge and stream bank in East, Central, and Gulf Coast region of Texas. Other Texas regions also have them if enough water is present. The thorny blackberry canes makes passing through these plants a painful experience. Even the petioles of the leaves can have these spines. The canes begin producing new leaves in late winter, followed by many white flowers in March-April. The appearance of these flowers in Houston tell me it's time to do my taxes! The berries appear 6-10 weeks after the flowers. By mid-summer the blackberry canes will be brown and dried, seemingly dead though if the summer is mild the'll last into the fall.

A delicious tea can be made from blackberry flowers and/or its young leaves. I recommend using the leaves rather than flowers so as to not reduce the amount of fruit produced. For tea, pick young healthy leaves in late morning after any dew has dried but before the sun has had a chance to evaporate the volatile flavoring oils out of the leaves. Dry the leaves before use for a richer flavor. Keep the pot or mug covered so the volatile flavors stay in the tea rather than float out into your kitchen. The combination of blackberry and yaupon holly leaves makes a most excellent and vitamin-rich tea rich.

The more sun and water the berries get the bigger and sweeter they will be. In dry or cloudy years or if growing in shady areas the berries will be small and tart. Blackberries will be at maximum ripeness when they are swollen and flat black. Shine black fruit are not quiet ripe yet and so won’t be at their maximum sweetness. These berries are fantastic raw, made into jelly, jam, or wine, boiled down into a syrup, made into cobbler or mixed into ice cream. Seriously, any dessert you have in mind can be made with blackberries!

An individual cane will only bear fruit in its second year. Once you've harvested the cane’s berries cut and dispose of the cane to make next year’s berry harvest easier. Beware of snakes and fire ant mounds hidden by the thick brambles as you pick the berries.

The technical name for this type of plant structure is a "cane" but I put it under "Vine" to make it easier to find by beginners.

Black Walnut

Scientific name: Juglans nigra
Abundance: common
What: nuts
How: raw, cooked
Where: forests, fields
When: fall
Nutritional Value: fats, protein, some minerals
Other uses: dye, fish poison
Dangers: shell juice stains objects and poisons fish

Black Walnut trees at a roadside rest area in east Texas.
Black Walnut

Almost ripe nuts. They are a little larger than golf balls when ripe.
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Blackwalnut

Green ones picked from the tree are better than brown ones from the ground.
Black Walnut Nut Harvest

The compound leaves of Black Walnut contain an even number of leaflets.
Black Walnut

Close-up of the leaves, front and back.
Black Walnut

Branch tips with new, young leaves.
Black Walnut

Craggy, grayish bark of a Black Walnut tree.
Black Walnut Trunk IGFB12

Texas distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture. The marked counties are guidelines only. Plants may appear in other counties, especially if used in landscaping.
BlackWalnutTX

North American distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture.
BlackWalnut

Standing up to 125’ tall with a rounded crown, black walnut trees cut an impressive figure across the fields of Texas. They prefer open, sunny locations but can also be found in forests. Black walnut leaves are compound with an even number of leaflets and being deciduous, drop off in the fall. The bark is grayish, dark and deeply furrowed/rough. The round nuts of this tree are contained in a thick, green cover which begins to splits open when ripe. The juice of this green coat smells like iodine and will stain skin and cotton fabric brown. Black walnut tree leaves, bark, and nut husks contain a poison which kills most other non-grass plants so do not add these materials to compost piles. The wood of black walnut trees is treasured by woodworkers and commands a premium price. This has led to many incidents of “tree rustling” where huge, old trees are cut down and stolen.

The nuts become ripe in the fall. Peeling the green husk is staining so wear gloves and avoid letting the peels come in contact with anything you don’t want turned brown. The thick shell of the walnut is very hard and most standard nut crackers can’t crack them. Waiting a few weeks after removing the husk allows the nuts to dry some, making shelling them slightly easier. The usual method of shelling black walnuts is to run over the nuts with a car followed by picking apart the shell with a nutpick. If you only have a few nuts they can be broken open with a hammer. If you have a lot of nuts it may be worthwhile to invest in a manual cracker specifically designed for black walnuts. Black walnuts have a stronger flavor than English walnuts so most people reduce the amount of nut meat used by one half in recipes.

The crushed green husks were used by Native Americans as a fish poison. Several large, woven bags of these husks were placed in a still pond or weir and the chemical juglones would seep out and stun the fish, causing them to float to the surface.

Never plants a Black Walnut near a garden as the roots, twigs, and leaves all produce a toxin which kills many other plants. Native grasses seem to resist this poison better than domesticated, decorative or food plants. My mom still nags me about the black walnut seedling I planted at the edge of her garden which eventually grew tall and wiped out a quarter of her crops even though this happens 30 years ago.

Bottlebrush Tree

Scientific Name(s): Callistemon spp.
Abundance: common
What: leaves, flowers
How: tea, seasoning
Where: dry sunny yards, landscaping
When: all year
Nutritional Value: flavanoids

Bottlebrush tree
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Close-up of opened flowers.
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Close-up of closed flowers.
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Close-up of leaves.
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Close-up of branch with woody fruit.
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Bottlebrush branch.
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North American distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Bottlebrush

Used often as a decorative landscaping tree, the striking red blossoms of the bottlebrush tree offer more than visual beauty. Their aroma is invigorating, somewhat minty or menthol in nature. The trees are small, rarely more than 15' tall and equally as wide. The leaves are evergreen and the blossoms also last can be found on the tree almost all year round. These flowers really explode vigorously in mid-spring and are often swarmed with bees who know a good thing when they smell it!

Both the flowers and leaves can be used to make an aromatic tea. The fresh blossoms do give a sweeter flavor than leaves. Aging the harvested leaves for two weeks helps as this breaks down the cell walls, allowing more of the flavorful compounds to escape into the tea. Flowers, being more delicate, do not benefit any from being aged and ideally are used fresh off the tree.

You can also use the leaves and flowers of the bottlebrush tree similar in manner to bay or rosemary leaves. Add several to a sauce, stew, or roasting meat to add an exotic flavor.

Mashed bottlebrush leaves rubbed on the skin is reported to keep away insects. This property may also be used to keep clothes, bedding, and houses bug free by laying sprigs of the leaves around whatever you want protected.

Box Elder

Scientific Name: Acer negundo
Abundance: common
What: sap, seeds, young sprout, inner bark
How: sap is boiled to syrup; young sprouts raw or cooked; inner bark boiled; seeds are roasted
Where: lowland & moist areas; often along water; windbreaks
When: spring, summer, fall, winter
Nutritional Value: carbohydrates, protein, fiber
Dangers: none, though young seedlings may look like Poison Ivy


A young Box Elder tree.
Box Elder

Close-up of young Box Elder bark. When mature the ridges and furrows will be much larger and craggier.
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Unripe Box Elder "helicopters". The seeds will be opposite the "fin". They'll be twice this size, dry, and tan when ripe.
BoxElderSeeds

Mature seeds.
Box Elder IGFB

Box Elder compound leaf (top). They have five leaflets.
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Box Elder compound leaf (bottom). The top section may look tri-lobed in this picture but it is three separate leaflets.
BoxElderLeafBottom

The trunk of a Box Elder sapling. Note the rich, green color.
Box Elder

Texas distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture. The marked counties are guidelines only. Plants may appear in other counties, especially if used in landscaping.
BoxElderTX

North American distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture.
BoxElder

A large part of my childhood was spent up among the branches of the giant Box Elder tree in our backyard. Well, it seemed like a giant tree when I was a kid. These amazingly fast-growing trees max out around 70 feet tall and 30 feet wide. The wood is weak and any big winds will cause branches to drop including those greater than one foot in diameter. Never park under a Box Elder in a storm! These damaged areas quickly lead to the inner heartwood rotting away, making it popular with assorted birds, mammals, and bugs. They do not handle the full Texas sun well, preferring to grow in the partial shade of other trees. They fairly common in East Texas, much less common in the Hill Country and North Texas, and rare to non-existent in West Texas

Box Elders have thick, coarse bark when mature and compound leaves. Both these features hide the fact that they are in the maple (Acer) family. Being maples, they can be tapped for sugary sap in the late winter. Complete directions for tapping maples for syrup can be found here: Making Maple Syrup & Sugar.

Come the warmth of spring, many Box Elder seedlings will sprout up. These are tasty treats to deer, rabbits, and humans! Get them when they are still tender and under eight inches tall. It will have a green, smooth bark and three-part leaves. Actually, the young seedlings look a bit like Poison Ivy to the untrained eye so make sure you know what you are eating. The first set of side leaves of Box Elder are symmetrical whereas Poison Ivy side leaves are asymmetrical with "thumbs" pointing away from the center leaf. The second set of Box Elder leaves will have asymmetrical "thumbs", similar to Poison Ivy.

The inner bark of these trees, like other maples, are edible and contain a fair amount of carbohydrates. Finely chop this inner bark then boil it. Be sure to drink the water to get all the calories. This boiled bark will be a bit sweeter than most other non-maple barks but a flavoring agent will help improve its taste. This inner bark is available all year long though its sugar-content will be highest in the later winter when the sap is flowing.

Box Elder seeds are, in my opinion, the best part of the tree. They grow in "helicopter" shells with two joined together at the stem. Come fall, the ripe shells will break apart and fall spinning to the ground. This fluttering motion will send them a small distance from the mother tree. Treat these seeds like pumpkin seeds except they must be freed from their helicopter shell before boiling them for ten minutes in salt water then salting and roasting them at 400F for 10-20 minutes. Cooking time depends on how crisp you want the final product.

Buffalo Gourd

Scientific Name(s): Cucurbita foetidissima
Abundance: common
What: flower, seeds, root
How: flowers raw or fried; seeds roasted or boiled; root as tea
Where: dry fields
When: summer, fall, winter
Nutritional Value: calories and protein in the seeds
Dangers: flesh of the gourd is extremely bitter and can be poisonous in large doses due to saponins.

Buffalo Gourd plant when young.
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Mature Buffalo Gourd vine.
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Buffalo Gourd fruit.
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Buffalo Gourd root.
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Texas distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture. The marked counties are guidelines only. Plants may appear in other counties, especially if used in landscaping.
BuffaloGourdTX

North American distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture.
BuffaloGourd

Nose and eye find this plant at nearly the same time. The large, heart-shaped leaves and yellow, 5-petaled flowers of Buffalo Gourd give off an unpleasant smell which reminds me of nasty gym socks. Starting in mid-summer the fruit appear. Looking first like small, round watermelons these fruit eventually turn more yellow as they mature but never grow bigger than a baseball. Buffalo Gourd vines can stretch many yards from a central taproot and the beings perennials, show up in the same spot year after year. It's large taproot makes the plant very drought resistant and it grows best in the drier areas of Texas, especially in the Hill country and westward.

The flowers, similar to squash blossom, can be eaten both raw and fried. They do have a bad odor and are somewhat bitter when raw.

Buffalo gourd seeds were a staple food of early Texas Native Americans. The seeds must be completely cleaned of any gourd flesh or else they will be extremely bitter. Once completely cleaned they can be boiled and mashed into a porridge or roasted like pumpkin seeds and have a similar flavor. These seeds do contain a large amount of calories in the form of oil (25-42%) as well as a significant concentration of protein (22-35%).

The large taproot of Buffalo Gourds were to be strong medicine by Native Americans. These roots were used internally as a tea and also externally in poultices. Due to the high concentration of saponins and other potent chemicals healing with this root should only be tried under the direction of a trained herbalist!

Saponins are found in both the plant's root and in the skin of the gourds and are capable of producing a lather when vigorously combined with water. Because of this they were used as a soap substitute.

Bull Nettle

Scientific Name(s): Cnidoscolus stimulosus, Cnidoscolus texanus
Abundance: common
What: seeds, taproot
How: seeds raw, roasted; root baked
Where: sunny fields
When: summer, fall
Nutritional Value: protein, calories
Dangers: entire plant is covered in stinging hairs similar to stinging nettle.

Bull nettle flower and leaves.
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Bull nettle seed pod which hold the tasty seeds.
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Bull nettle plant.
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Digging up a Bull Nettle root.
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Holy crap!!
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Texas distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture. The marked counties are guidelines only. Plants may appear in other counties, especially if used in landscaping.
BullNettleTX

North American distribution, attributed to U. S. Department of Agriculture.
BullNettle

Usually found in sunny, loose-soiled fields and other disturbed areas, these small, leggy bushes rarely grow more than two feet tall. The stinging hairs which cover bull nettle stems, leaves, and fruit offer a great protection against man and beast. While the pain they inflict is fierce, it often lasts less than an hour. The white blooms begin appearing in early spring and continue on through mid-summer. The green seed pods track the flowers by about a month.

Strangely enough, bull nettles are often commonly found growing near sassafras trees in Central and East Texas woods such as the Sam Houston National Forest. Bull nettles prefer full sun so finding them in the woods is odd, especially only in the presence of sassafras. Perhaps the sassafras root system both loosens the soil and releases some chemical which aids the bull nettles growth.

Harvesting the delicious seeds is best done using BBQ tongs or thick leather gloves to remove the seed pods from the plant. Then place these pods in a brown paper bag and wait a while (days). The pods will dry and then rupture, releasing the seeds which can then be toasted for a wonderful treat. The roasted seeds can also be pounded/ground into something similar to cornmeal and used in the same manner.

Digging up the taproot can be tricky. First, carefully cut away the top part of the plant with a machete or other long blade, then dig a hole 18" deep approximately one foot away from the stem of the plant. Carefully shave away the soil on the plant-side of the hole until you see the earth-colored root. At this point carefully remove the dirt from around the fragile root until you can lift it from the soil. Peel the root and then either roast or boil it like a potato. It will retain a bit of firmness rather than turning as soft as a potato. Through the root’s center runs a strong fiber core which needs to be discarded.

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