12 May 2013

Exploring the Many Uses of Our Local Plants - Turk's Cap


Seeking out Plants for Gardens, Permaculture and Food Forests

It's getting easier to find more information on plants in general for Texas and for our area specifically.  We reside in the Austin/Hill Country region. But to get past general and into the more nitty-gritty, it takes some diving into books and finding multiple sources to confirm the edible, the raw material, the medicinal and the other many wonderful uses of plants. It also takes a bit of care. Closely related plants don't necessarily have the same qualities.  While some are edible and nutritious, their close cousins are poisonous. Not all websites and books give the necessary specifics.  Always check numerous references and learn how to test plants for toxicity even when you think you have properly identified a "safe" plant to eat. 

I've found a few wonderful resources, so I thought I'd share specific native plants of this region (as well as those that are well-adapted to thrive here) and what I've learned about them. I'm starting with a plant that, while it plants itself just fine, is planted in abundance by home and business owners en mass, as well.

Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii)

Turk's cap is a native plant with edible flowers, leaves and berries.
Several nurseries in Austin sell Turk's Cap.
The image above is from Countryside Nursery

This marvelously resilient plant is beloved for many reasons, not the least of which is its small, hibiscus-like red bloom that hummingbirds and butterflies flock to. There's so much sweet nectar waiting at the end of the flower that they're a treat for people as well.  Just pluck off the flower and munch away or sip the nectar from the plucked end. If you've ever had a tasty hibiscus tea, you'll appreciate the similar qualities of a Turk's Cap tea. It blooms most of the year and even in partial shade--it's just a super-handy plant!

The young leaves are touted by both Mark "Merriwether" Vorderbruggen (from Merriwether's Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Texas and the Southwest) and Delena Tull (author of the wildly useful book Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest) as being great fresh, especially mixed in salads. Turk's Cap leaves also stand up well to similar treatment as spinach: steaming, cooking into quiches and frittatas and dressing up familiar dishes such as pastas and pizzas. The tender leaves are in greatest abundance in Spring, but any new flush of leaf growth will have some tender nibbles.

While the Merriweather's guide recommends making a tea from the edible, red-ripe berries, Tull gives a full recipe for Turk's Cap Jelly. While the berries are edible fresh, the seeds dominate the berries, so you get more flavor and food from making something out of the berries instead of just munching them raw. In the Austin and Hill Country area, berries ripen primarily in summer and fall.

So even if you're not ready to commit to a full permaculture or food forest landscape, you won't get fuss from the neighbors for adding this lovely, well-known and versatile native plant to your garden!

A note for those following outside of Texas: Turk's Cap is found growing natively from Texas East to South Carolina and on down to Florida.

Resources and further reading

Information on Turk's Cap used for this article can also be found here:

"Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest" by Delena Tull.
Foraging Texas: Turk's Cap
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database: Turk's Cap
USDA Plants Database: Malvaviscus arboreus Dill. 

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