Foraging Miami’s edibles

If you grew up in Miami, you probably have some kind of experience with foraging the native fruits and vegetables that grow in our lushly tropical city. Maybe you bought a bag of mamoncillos from a Hialeah street corner vendor, or watched your grandmother pick the bitter oranges in her backyard to make some mojo for her weekly pork roast ritual. Or perhaps you’ve merely seen tiny berries shaped like peppers and always wondered what those could be, or asked yourself whether the seaweed that washes up on the shore of Key Biscayne is in fact edible.

Tiffany Noe foraging for tree spinach. (Courtesy of Tiffany Noe)

“Once you talk to someone in Miami about their relationship with wild food, it becomes clear that they didn’t even think of themselves a someone who’s gone foraging, but everyone in Miami has their own little story,” said Tiffany Noe, the co-owner of the Little River Cooperative and one of the authors of Forager: A Subjective Guide to Miami’s Edible Plants. “For example, when I was a kid, I was really into collecting suriname cherries, those tiny red fruits shaped like pumpkins,” she says. “I was foraging but I didn’t even know it.”

When Noe returned to her native Miami after almost a decade of living abroad, she was both delighted and somewhat surprised at the amount of forage ripe for picking along every median and neighborhood street corner. “On a drive through the country, when I first came back to the U.S., I learned about everything you could forage in other states and climates,” she said. “And when I came back here I thought ‘Wow, Miami has a lot of really cool stuff to forage for here.’”

The idea for creating a book about foraging in Miami came during frequent trips exploring Miami’s edible flora. “I was biking around a lot with my friend, taking pictures and just feeling really inspired,” she said.

A trained photographer, Noe received her B.A. in photography from the University of Florida, and spent years working in an art gallery in Berlin before turning her sights to farming and agriculture. Inspired by what she saw in Miami, Noe began indexing and photographing the native edible plants she and coauthor George Echevarria found on bike rides through the city. “We had this idea to create a little zine, and the concept eventually turned into a book that was published by O, Miami.”

It was a passion project for the two authors, not just because of their interest in plant life, but because they saw foraging as a way to engage Miamians with the lushness of their neighborhoods, their daily commutes, or their favorite beach. “Miami has a rich agricultural past,” Noe says. “For example, Little Haiti used to be a pineapple and citrus grove, and Hialeah used to be a mango farm.”

Over the years, the influx of migration from Caribbean and Latin American countries only diversified the plant landscape. Immigrants from farming-centric cultures moved to Miami and filled their backyards with pieces of home, planting mango and banana trees in their backyards or hedging streets with elderberries bushes and citrus plants.

Though it may be tempting to forage in abandoned backyards or among neighbor’s lawns, Noe recommends that you stick to foraging in public areas, unless you have permission from a neighbor to take as you please. “Always ask for permission before picking, and don’t take very much,” she says. “If you ravage someone’s yard, he’ll probably be less likely to let you or anyone else forage in the future.”

While some of Miami’s forage bounty is obvious – think the mangoes and avocadoes that fall from in droves every summer – there are many others that are less so, like elderberries, cocoplum, and moringa. According to Noe, it’s the unusual suspects that prove the most delicious – and sometimes, dangerous.

“My favorite plant to forage is the tamarind, because it’s so unsuspecting,” she said. “When you think of fruit hanging off a tree, it’s usually a shiny colorful orb. Tamarind looks like little cat poos dangling in clusters of brown suede, but their flavor is sweet and sour and totally delicious.” She also enjoys foraging sea purslane, a native beach plant found in dune habitats on Key Biscayne, which “tastes like a potato chip” when cooked.

On the other hand, some of Miami’s native fruits can be dangerous, in some cases fatal, if picked at the wrong time. “The ackee fruit, which is used widely in Jamaican cooking, can kill you if you eat it before it’s ripe,” she said. “You have to wait until its pink outer shell yawns open, revealing the large black seeds inside. And you should never eat the seeds — that’s the poisonous part of the fruit.”

Noe maintains that while foraging can be fun, you should never eat something unless you’re sure you’ve got all the facts. Through her work at the Little River Cooperative, an urban farm she operates alongside her partner Muriel Olivares, Noe works with local chefs who turn to the Cooperative for farm-to-table ingredients like fresh heart of palm, loquats, and amaranth. Many of her clients are often curious about what she’s foraged to add something extra to a creative plate. “I’ll drive by a tree and I’ll text Roel [Alcudia, executive chef at the Design District’s Cypress Room] and be like, “Look what I found!” and he’ll ask me to bring some to him,” she said. “For a lot of local chefs that we have a relationship with, the attitude is that they’ll cook with anything. It’s exciting for them to work with foraged ingredients.”

And the prospect of free wild food is just as exciting for Noe, who spends an exorbitant amount of time tending and caring for farmed crops. “When you’re a farmer and you grow a lot of your own food, you realize the extreme value of eating something you didn’t have to grow,” she said. “It’s fun to go and pick something that you didn’t have to put all this time money and energy into growing – it’s just there, it’s a bonus.”

So we screwed up. We were completely unaware of the historical connotations and have changed the title of this article. We sincerely apologize for our error.

By Nicole Martinez
Nicole is a freelance writer and crop top enthusiast based in Miami Beach. A lifelong 305-er, she loves finding new stuff to love in her city everyday.