As the first long hunters and early settlers explored and tamed this country, they fit the very definition of the term, “hunter-gatherer.” Absent were cultivated crops or convenient trading posts at which a person could obtain needed supplies. These early settlers killed and foraged for just about all the food they consumed.
Although we no longer have to forage for our meals, the same wild foods our ancestors loved are still out there for the taking.
There is no more natural meal than one you gathered yourself while walking in our natural wild areas. Of course, there are some safety concerns when gathering wild food. Everyone has heard tales of poisonous mushrooms, but there are a few other plants out there that can put you in the hospital— or worse.
So, how do you learn what is safe and what isn’t?
📗 Find a Guide
One of the best ways is to find an experienced forager to guide you on your search. Foragers can be local folks who have been searching for edible plants for years.
Alternatively, you can attend schools designed to teach people how to live off the land. One such program is the Nature Reliance School in Winchester, Kentucky. Owners Craig and Jennifer Caudill are experts in wild food and survival situations and, along with their team of instructors, teach survival classes nationwide.
For anyone interested in gathering wild food, Craig suggests a smart approach: “Start with at least three written resources on wild food. Over the years, there have been many books written on the subject, and several of them don’t agree with one another on any given plant. By cross-referencing at least three sources, you can be sure that the plant you are looking at is safe.”
👴 Ask a Local
Next, find someone local to guide you on your quest for wild food. Ask them what plants are common in your area and when they are at their prime. I had eaten wild foods in southwestern Tennessee weeks before those same plants were ready in my home area of north-central Kentucky. By having a local guide, you know what to look for and when.
🐢 Start Slow
Finally, avoid trying to identify every plant you see. Pick one edible plant and go find it. Search all day or even for several days until you can recognize that plant right away. Once you know what the plant looks like and where it is likely to be found, you can move on to the next plant.
“By searching for, and trying to identify, several plants simultaneously, most people get frustrated and don’t commit individual plants to memory,” Caudill points out.
Where will most edible plants be found?
Often, people think of foraging as a deep-woods activity. And, with the case of nut mast and certain mushrooms, that is correct.
However, according to Caudill, the vast majority of edibles will be found along edge habitat. There is a season wildlife tends to congregate in edge-style habitat: The combination of sunlight and less competition from large tree root masses for water and nutrients means smaller, edible plants grow well along such areas.
🍃 The Seasons—A Foraging Overview
Each season of the year offers a different bounty of edible plants. Weather, temperature, and rainfall amounts dictate the exact time each plant is ready to eat, but the general seasons are a good guide to what is available and when (for the purposes of this article) across the Midwest.
Spring is the season for green and soft plants. A few of Caudill’s favorites for salads and greens are available this time of year. In the spring, think salad.
A common weed in many a subdivision landscape, wild chickweed is a tasty green in its own right. Chickweed is a small plant of intertwined stems lined with small, green, oval leaves. Its white flowers are made up of five double-lobed petals.
Add chickweed leaves directly to salads or sandwiches or boil the leaves, stems, and flowers in a soup or stew. Chickweed tastes mild and fresh, lacking much of the bitterness of some wild plants.
Related reading: Knowing What Plants to Eat in the Bush
Yellow wood sorrel is another common weed that is actually a great edible green. With a sharp and lemony flavor, wood sorrel can be wilted in hot oil or butter or served fresh with a salad. Wood sorrel has small, heart-shaped leaves and tiny, yellow flowers on thin stems. The plants also exhibit small seeds that look like tiny okra.
Not to be confused with white violets—which are inedible and can cause serious medical issues— purple violets are not only edible, they are also a great addition to wild salads. Its leaves are edible, and its flowers are a tasty, almost sweet, treat. The blooms can be coated in a light egg wash and dipped in sugar for a beautiful garnish.
Purple violets have soft, heart-shaped leaves. Look for a purple tint to the leaves to ensure you have the correct variety.
Not really wild at all, asparagus has spread over most of the Midwest to grow uncultivated. It is the same asparagus as modern, cultivated varieties and can be used the same in cooking. Look along field edges and around old homestead areas. Cut the stems near the ground with a sharp knife and leave a bit for seed. Wild asparagus will grow in the same area each spring.
Late spring into summer yields one of the tastiest wild treats: berries.
Berries of several varieties are at their peaks in June and July. Blackberries, raspberries, and mulberries are also ripening. Blackberries and raspberries grow on thorn-covered vines along field openings. Look for mulberries on small trees along forest edges. Any of these berries make great jelly, jam, pies, or cobblers.
Yep, cattails! One of the most-available wild edibles on a year-round basis, cattails are at their prime this time of year. The tender, green shoots are edible by themselves, but the real cattail treats during the summer are their tight, green heads. The coating on the brown heads actually comprises tiny cattail seeds. Roasted on hot rocks, an open fire, or even in the oven, roasted cattail heads can be eaten just like an ear of corn.
Another green salad common in turf lawns, dandelions are perfect this time of year. Young dandelion leaves can be eaten raw, crushed with nuts into a pesto, wilted in hot oil, or even boiled. The greens of the dandelion are on the bitter side, so they often get mixed with other greens to round out the flavor of a wild green salad.
Dandelion flowers are also edible. Lacking the bitterness associated with the leaves, the flowers are often pickled, fried in fritters, or just eaten as is.
Fall is the time for nuts. Many Midwestern mast trees produce edible nuts. In areas lacking a heavy wildlife population, this mast can be found year-round beneath the producing tree, but fall is the prime time for freshly fallen nuts and acorns.
Most acorns are edible, but not without some preparation. Acorns contain tannic acid, which must be leached from the meat of the nuts before they are edible.
White oaks contain less tannic acid than reds, but the preparation methods are the same for both. Start by shelling the acorns. Native Americans would leach the tannins from the acorns by placing the nuts in a basket and submerging them in clean, running water. After a few days in the water, the tannic acid would be leached from the acorns.
If you don’t have a source for clean, running water, you can boil acorns in a large pot until the water turns brown with leached tannins. Transfer the acorns to a pot of clean water and boil again until the water turns brown a second time. Continue the process until the water remains clear while boiling.
Once the acorns are prepped, dry them in the sun and grind them into a powder for very usable flour. Cleaned and dried acorns can also be eaten as is, like any nut variety.
Walnuts, hickories, and pecans:
These traditional mast trees start to drop their nuts in midfall. Crack the shells with a heavy rock or nutcracker and pick the meat from the shell. Many of these nuts benefit from some aging before cracking and eating.
A must-read: 6 Wild Plants You Could Turn Into Flour
Lamb’s Quarters always looks dusty from a distance. The leaves are covered with fine white hairs. Lamb’s Quarters is best eaten either steamed or boiled. Its leaves, stems, and flowers are all edible.
Sunflowers have been found in Native-American caves more than 200 years old, so they have been around for quite a while. Treat wild sunflowers as you would their cultivated counterparts. Roast the seeds and remove the shells before eating plain or adding to salads for a bit of toasty crunch.
Wild daylily blooms:
These are another autumn treat. Use daylily blossoms just as you would the purple-violet flowers. Brush with an egg wash and dip in sugar. Use them in salads, as a garnish, or just munch on them as is.
Dogwood fruits are turning red this time of year. When squirrels start hitting the dogwoods, you know the fruit is just about ready. Be quick, though—it doesn’t take squirrels long to clean up a tree. Dogwood fruit contains tiny seeds that are also edible. Dogwood fruit texture is creamy, and the flavor is floral and mildly sweet. It makes great jelly, pies, or cobblers.
Late fall also yields a couple of my favorite wild foods:
Pawpaws and persimmons, both of which ripen this time of year. Persimmons are more widely known than pawpaws.
With a custardy or soft, banana-like texture and a flavor that has been described as a cross between an apple and a mango, pawpaws might just be the best fruit you have never heard of. To tell if they are ripe, look for soft fruit that shakes easily from the tree. The pawpaw season lasts only a few weeks in late fall—and wildlife likes them, too—so be vigilant and check any known trees often for ripe fruit.
Cook them in pies, custards, cookies, breads, or cakes. There is no wrong way to enjoy a pawpaw.
Persimmons are best after a hard frost or light freeze. They soften and lose much of the bitter pucker factor they have when green. Persimmon jelly is a treat you won’t soon forget.
Winter in the wild doesn’t have the “panache” of other seasons, but there are still a few good things to eat.
Concentrate on mast this time of year; tree nuts of all types are on the ground and at their prime.
Caudill says winter is the time for roots. Unlike the other seasons, when plants are storing their energy in green stalks and leaves, winter sees all those stores head to the root system. Cattail roots are prime this time of year; treat them like potatoes and roast or boil and mash them.
An interesting winter treat is greenbrier plants. Craig says he enjoys stripping the thorns from a section of greenbrier stem and chewing it like gum. The stored sugars in the stem give it a sweet taste. Caudill recommends chewing the juice and flavor from the stem piece and then tossing the remainder.
The stem is very fibrous and can lead to digestive issues if a large amount is consumed.
Mushrooms can be found in spring, summer, fall, and even into early winter. For the purpose of this article, I have set aside a separate section for mushrooms due to safety concerns.
While most mushrooms are edible, a few can be deadly. For this reason, new mushroom foragers, in particular, should team up with someone who understands the difference.
Joe Lacefield, a private lands biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, shared a few of his favorite varieties.
“In the spring, I look for morels,” says Lacefield. Morels are easy to spot and an excellent mushroom for beginners because there aren’t many lookalikes. Morels have a Christmas tree shape and a honeycomb-type texture.
A bit later in the year, Lacefield looks for chanterelle mushrooms. Chanterelles are yellow or orange in color and generally funnel-shaped, with gill-like ridges along their underside.
There are some poisonous mushrooms with a similar appearance, so this is one you should learn about with an experienced guide.
Moving into fall, Lacefield looks for oyster mushrooms, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, and puffballs.
Oyster mushrooms actually grow throughout most of the year but tend to be hosts for bugs during the hot summer months, making fall and spring better times for collecting.
Caudill offered up one more important tip: “Each person is different and reacts to wild plants in different ways. At Nature Reliance, we recommend that people try new things in a gradual progression. Try a small amount of a new wild edible and give it some time—up to a day or two—to work through your entire digestive system.
Recommended reading: The Universal Edibility Test – The 9 Critical and Lifesaving Steps
Often, a plant that tastes good going down can have a major effect on your system once digested. Make sure new foods agree with you before consuming larger quantities.”
Foraging can be done throughout the year without any major issues as long as you know what to look for. Our ancestors were, for the most part, gatherers since such activity was less dangerous than hunting. Each season can reward you with wild edible plants, so make sure you learn about such plants as early as possible since you never know when you might have to put your knowledge to the test.
Useful resources to check out: