Short Incursion: The Wonderland of Edible Parasites

Learn more about edible parasites with this fascinating look into the "vampires" of the plant world, including where they grow and how to use them.

Sand Food

Sand food is a parasite, a vampire of the plant world.

Photo courtesy Joseph Simcox

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Nature’s palette of wonders often challenges me and leaves me speechless. There are many plants, which are so unusual, so amazing, so beautiful that they simply defy logic and expectations. For this issue of Heirloom Gardener I’d like to take you on a journey of discovery, with some of the most bizarre plants on the planet … parasites that are themselves eaten by man!

Sand food sounds like something from Mars, and it is almost as bizarre. It is one of the most mysterious plants of North America. It is found in the giant rolling sand dunes of the Sonoran desert. If you are extremely lucky and keen of eye, you may be fortunate enough to observe them in habitat. They look like “flowering mushrooms” or flying saucers resting on the desert sands. I myself remember, all too well, my first encounter with one. I was traveling with Botanical Explorer Joseph Simcox when he suddenly decided it was time to search them out. We drove almost 1,000 miles straight without stopping. I was exhausted when he finally returned to the car, shouting and cheering about his find. Perhaps I did not give the first specimens I saw the due that they deserved. After being in a car for 16 hours, even this mystery plant was not enough to revive me!

Sand food is a parasite. The part above the ground looks very similar to a sandy-silvery mushroom, with a crown of tiny purple flowers disposed in an almost perfect circle. As we say about icebergs, that is only the tip of it; the plant’s bulk remains under the sand, and it forms a long, scaly, succulent stem, which leads to its host. Sand food and the plants that follow are vampires of the plant world. Sand food cannot be detached from its host, which is why its “point of attachment” is so important. Scientifically speaking, the special “vampire stem” is a “sucking” tool, called the haustorial connection, or haustorium. This is the channel through which all the nutrients needed by the parasite plant are “sucked” from the host. Sand food is relatively selective as to which plants it will “suck” from, and only a few species have been recorded as host plants.

The stems are the edible delight that attracted the Pima Indians and other indigenous people to indulge in them. Seeing as I have eaten sand food, I can give the following first hand account: it tastes like a cooked carrot, while being crunchy, succulent and juicy. Its confusing aroma fascinates me; it has a spicy scent, not unlike that of pepperoni pizza! Traditionally, the stems of sand food were eaten raw, although there are accounts of their being roasted. According to some indications, certain desert dwellers feasted so heavily on these stems that the sand residue on the stems wore down and damaged their teeth. There are a few inspired researchers who believe that sand food could be cultivated. Seeing that cultivation is possible with other similar parasites, it may be worth the attempt. Sand food is potentially endangered because of land use issues and a relatively small range. I’m hoping that someone starts trying to grow it soon.

The Maltese mushroom is another fascinating parasite that thrives in saline conditions and uses various shrubs as hosts. It is native to the Mediterranean area, as well as the Arabian Peninsula, but it has been introduced to other parts of the world because of its impressive qualities.

The story of this plant is absolutely fascinating and full of intrigue. As its common name (the Maltese mushroom) suggests, this plant’s history of use is vividly tied to the tiny country of Malta. Here it grew in abundance on the General’s Rock, one of the small islands that compose the Maltese Archipelago. It was so prized for its medicinal and aphrodisiacal potential that it required permanent guarding; the people of Malta did not want to share it easily, or much less, have it stolen.

For the great part of the year the Maltese mushroom is unnoticeable because it stays completely underground, in the form of a rhizome. However, as the rainy season comes, a stem starts emerging and it continues to grow in an upright fashion until reaching approximately 11 inches. It is quite a treat for the eye; with no leaves on it, this dark red succulent piece is completely covered by a profusion of small, densely disposed flowers. Its color is a dark maroon, so dark that it appears black from a distance. To add to the magic, if you peel it and eat it raw it is an astringent, with a fruity note — definitely strong, but fresh and pleasant. Joseph Simcox, the Botanical Explorer, tried Maltese mushrooms and described the flavor as unique: astringent with an extremely mild wintergreen nuance. He harvested them on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi in February of 2014 and described them as addictive. The staff at the airport hotel where he was staying were completely fascinated that he had even found one, let alone that he was eating and photographing them! Traditionally, the stems were dried and used as a condiment in a variety of dishes. The intense magenta/red pigment makes a great dye for clothing and has been used as such in parts of Africa. When peeling the emergent stem, Joseph noticed that it did indeed stain the hands magenta pink.

The plant has also been highly prized for its medicinal applications and was used to treat a wide spectrum of conditions, from inflammations and bleeding, to hepatitis, to disorders of the digestive tract. In some parts of the world it was also employed as an anti-aging and anti-stress remedy. In the deserts of Arabia, the Bedouins valued tarthuth (Maltese mushroom) for both its edible and medicinal applications and, in season, it was obtainable in the local markets (bazaars), where it was commercialized as a prized delicacy.

With all the numerous, time-tested medical benefits, this plant continues to intrigue health practitioners. In a research study conducted on dogs, the juice extracted from the fresh plant was found to have a positive effect in reducing high blood pressure. This is another plant which should receive some horticultural attention in an attempt to cultivate it.

Hydnora africana is an unusual parasite that grows in the dry regions of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. One of the striking aspects is that the plant consists of only roots and flowers, and presents no stems or leaves. It has no green parts and no chlorophyll! The roots connect and feed off the hosts, which are mostly in the Euphorbia family. Hydnora “knows” how to wait for the proper flowering time; in lack of sufficient rain, it can remain underground for years. Because of this, locating plants in habitat requires a certain skill. In many parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Africa the old folk in the country are the most savvy when it comes to tracking them down. The fortunate visitor occasionally stumbles upon one, but that is rare. A good friend of mine, culinary expert Steven Facciola, went on an expedition with Joseph Simcox to the Dhofar region in Oman. One of the plants on the list of “must find” was Hydnora. Despite endless inquiries and almost a week searching in the “right” habitat, they both came back empty handed.

Hydnora has two “show” periods; the first one is when it flowers. The flower is utterly bizarre; it looks like a fantastic creation executed by the Murano glass blowers. The flower is a three-segmented open orb with rough, bumpy brown speckled skin and flares that open like flame-orange lips. Although it has a very intriguing aspect, it is hardly a flower of the dainty sort due to its putrid smell. That putridity attracts flies, which pollinate the flower. After several months, a large fruit (as big as a small grapefruit) develops below the soil.

This “underground berry” has been likened to a giant fig, with edible and delicious flesh. Those who know the fruit, and seek it out, eat it raw or cooked and consider it a delicacy. It is sweet and also used in various desserts. Men have to compete with the beasts because they, too, seek out the fruit. In many places, the plants are staked out months in advance and checked regularly for mature fruit. In late February 2012, Joseph Simcox and his team, led by Sean Spender, visited a “patch” of Hydnora not far from the seashore east of Cape Town, South Africa. The pictures in this article pertain to this expedition group. The fruits were only partially mature, but as you can see, they were already about as large as a tennis ball. According to Sean, the plants were flowering in October, suggesting the fruits take at least 6 months to mature.

Aside from being a culinary treasure, Hydnora has many interesting medicinal and cosmetic applications. A decoction of the fruit is made in Africa to treat skin problems and, in particular, acne.

As is the case with the other two plants described above, Hydnora is a wholly dependent parasite, connecting via the haustorium to host plants. Many years ago, biologist Sherwin Carlquist of California “planted” some seeds on the upper roots of an Euphorbia sp. About five years went by without any activity, and then one day, Sherwin was floored to see Hydnora flowers popping up around his inoculated Euphorbia. Sherwin’s casual hunch suggests that cultivation may not be so difficult and that one day these amazing plants may become actual garden denizens. I think we will all be excited to see that!