Eating native: In the Valley, wild edibles are on the menu

Christina Mild, a Texas Master Naturalist and an expert on native Rio Grande Valley plants, points out the purple-black berries on holly brush at Hugh Ramsey Nature Park.

HARLINGEN — Hugh Ramsey Nature Park isn’t your usual lunch spot, but with Texas Master Naturalist Christina Mild, dining al fresco is always a possibility.

“This is one that has some fruit on it right now,” she says. “These fruits should become a little bit larger. See the one that is turning dark? When they’re almost black they will be very tasty. That’s brush holly.

“This one naturally occurs around resaca banks,” she adds. “Well, there are almost no wild resaca banks left because people love living on them, and immediately take all the vegetation off and put in turf grass. We can grow these things in our yards because we can give them a lot of water. They’re pretty much disappearing in the wild.”

Mild is an expert on native plants, especially edible native plants. She will be one of the presenters on the subject at the upcoming five-day Winter Outdoor Wildlife Expo at South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

If Mild has a home park, it’s here at Hugh Ramsey. Along with other Texas Master Naturalist volunteers, she comes weekly to work on pruning and clearing to keep the place attractive and accessible.

She can be a little protective.

“My idea about telling people about edible plants is not to have them come out here and eat everything, these are plants for the animals,” she says. “We have problems with people coming here to harvest the chilies. They typically pull up the whole bush and take off with it.”

A lunch-time trek through the park reveals a surprisingly varied menu.

Mesquite?

“You can eat the beans when they, I guess, have a little reddish color on them, because there is sugar inside there,” she says. “But it leaves a terrible aftertaste which I really dislike. It hangs on.”

There are small ground-hugging cactus called mammillaria, which produce small scarlet berries, and “they make an edible, too. And most people would not even see these.”

There are Texas persimmons, and then wolf berry or even Mexican olive, if one is hungry enough.

“One of my reasons for wanting people to know about these edible plants comes from my daughter,” Mild says. “She did not like fruit as a child. We moved to New Mexico and she saw the berries on the juniper, so she would pick those juniper berries and I would let her eat them. The Indians used them for vitamin C, right? So I figured OK, she won’t eat the food I give her but she loves these juniper berries, so all is good.”

In her tours Mild says she often lets children take some berries from the plants she knows are not just edible, but tasty.

“Kids love this idea of being able to harvest something for themselves that’s edible,” she says.

Widespread admiration for native Rio Grande Valley flora has not always been the case when it comes to garden plots. After all, in the early 1900s almost the entire Valley was cleared of its dense thorn scrub to usher in a new agricultural age.

But the mood is changing, and there is a growing acknowledgment of the importance of planting and nurturing the old plants when it comes to gardening, at least if one hopes to attract native bird and butterfly species.

“Thank God there is,” Mild says. “When I started talking about native plants and writing about native plants, people were just saying ‘this is ridiculous, you’re crazy, these are just weeds.’”

The first day of the WOWE expo on South Padre Island is devoted to plants and pollinators. In addition to Mild, experts Mike Heep (native plants), Ethel Cantu (landscaping with native plants), John Yocum (butterflies), Chuck Malloy (palm trees) and Jennifer Herrera and Janet Schofield (composting) all will be leading seminars on their specialties from 9:30 a.m. to about 3:45 p.m.

For Mild, those willing to propagate native plants in home gardens are bringing a welcome change in philosophy to the Valley.

“We’ve destroyed what, 97 percent of our native habitat?” she said. “So I feel it’s our responsibility to replace some of that in the places where we live, instead of being so very, very selfish. The world doesn’t need to be covered with turf grass.”