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 is a parasite, a vampire of the plant world.
    Photo courtesy Joseph Simcox
  • Maltese mushroom, also known as Tarthuth (Cynomorium coccineum).
    Photo courtesy Joseph Simcox
  • Irina Stoenescu poses in a street market.
    Photo courtesy Joseph Simcox
  • Jackal fruit (Hydnora africana).
    Photo courtesy Joseph Simcox
  • Botanical explorer Joseph Simcox with a parasitic treasure.
    Photo courtesy Jason Piper

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.



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