Monday, April 30, 2012

Sweet! An unexpected treat!

Surinam cherries turn from a bright red to a deep maroon when ripe.

Simply Living
April 30, 2012

I may be beginning my sixth decade but I felt the giddy excitement of a 6-year-old the other day when I made a foraged food discovery along a rural stretch of a west Orange County road.

I was driving along through the small town of Oakland on my way home from the Winter Garden Farmer's Market. That particular stretch of two-lane is especially scenic. Interesting looking older homes line the street flanked by mature landscapes and huge shade trees.

As usual when traveling this road, my eyes scanned the yards in search of foliage. Over the years, I've found that older neighborhoods are the best places to find uncommon plants, especially those with edible fruit. I've discovered a wide array of edible and floral displays by driving slowly through lesser-traveled neighborhoods. I've also learned that when politely asked, homeowners are usually kind enough to let me pick my fill of fresh-off-the-tree-or-bush treats.

Although I've taken the route from my south Lake home to Winter Garden almost weekly for several years now, I had yet to discover any fruit-laden gems.

That changed one recent day.

I was moseying along at a sedate 35 mph when a shock of yellow Mexican sunflowers caught my eye.

"Darn," I thought to myself, "My Mexican sunflowers got completely killed back by last winter's cold snap while this plant was untouched."

The farther I drove, the more I noticed plants that had made it through last winter unscathed. Hibiscus, shell gingers and loquat trees stood flush with flower, fruit and greenery. I wondered how a mere 20 miles could make such a difference. At home, frost damage had stunted growth on those plants and others.

As I approached a stop sign, I glanced to my right and caught a glimpse of what I thought might be a fruit-covered Surinam cherry bush. Surinam cherries were on my mind because the previous day — for the first time since 2008 — I noticed a handful of unripe berries on the one remaining bush in my yard. Of my half-dozen original plants, only one made it through the past few winter freezes.

Surinam cherry (Eugenia uniflora) is a South American native also known as Brazilian cherry, cayenne cherry, Florida cherry or by the exotic moniker, pitanga. The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council considers Eugenia uniflora a Category I invasive species because it has spread out of control in South Florida. However, in the central and northern parts of the state it doesn't exhibit the same kind of invasive behavior because of its sensitivity to cold temperatures. When the thermometer dips below 30 degrees (as it does most winters), Surinam cherry bushes either suffer or, like the ones in my yard, give up the fight and die.

Since I wasn't sure if the plant I passed was a Surinam cherry or not, I decided to loop around the block to check it out again. As I returned to the spot where the bush stood, I slowed down to a crawl. Sure enough, it was a pitanga — a big sprawling bush filled with ripe fruit!

While I like the taste of Surinam cherries, the fruit of this shrub are not on everyone's favorite food list. The somewhat acidic, tart taste of these marble-sized maroon-colored berries is subtle at best. While I can honestly say Surinam cherries are neither particularly flavorful nor sweet, they are undeniably juicy. Yet, despite its lack of culinary distinctiveness, something about these small blood-red orbs appeals to my taste buds.

Although called a cherry, Eugenia uniflora is actually in the Myrtle family and is more closely related to guavas, cloves, allspice, feijoa and eucalyptus plants than it is to the familiar Bing cherry, which is in the Rose family. However, it is similar in size and color to cherries and like them, its soft flesh does surround a large pit (or occasionally two pits). It also shares a cherry's round shape except it has a flat base and ribbed sides.
Since the bush I discovered was alongside the road in a commercial location, permission to pick seemed unnecessary. Searching through the car, I uncovered a relatively clean pint-size container and proceeded to fill it with fruit. In less than 10 minutes, I was back on the road, the juicy, sweet-tart tang of foraged fruit flavoring my ride home.

I went to the Winter Garden Farmer's Market to stock up for the week on fresh produce but returned home with more than I purchased. I left with the realization that there's no age restriction on experiencing unexpected pleasure nor is there a limit to the amount of joy gleaned from discovering roadside treats. I also came back with the reaffirmation that one person's exotic plant pest is another's foraged delight.

That's what I call a successful outing.

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