Foraging Habits Of The Pioneers

The concept of “self-sufficiency” evokes a sense of fundamental independence. We often romanticize an era when modest cabins served as the primary abode for individuals resisting what they perceived as government intrusion or those simply seeking solitude despite enduring considerable challenges.

In reality, sustaining oneself without external support extended beyond romantic notions. Essential possessions were crucial for this lifestyle: a lengthy flintlock rifle, gunpowder, lead, bullet molds, a hunting knife, an axe, tools for stitching moccasins, iron cooking pots, and more. Life in this setting was far from facile. Acquiring these necessities often relied on bartering with animal hides, particularly from deer, as manufacturing such items was beyond the means of frontier dwellers.

Back in the day

If we were to cultivate our gardens like the backwoodsmen and their families once did, we would quickly develop a profound appreciation for our contemporary tools and take meticulous care of them. Gardens were situated in clearings around the cabins and primarily worked with rudimentary tools crafted from improvised materials and sturdy tree limbs. Metal components, like hoe blades, had to be acquired through barter.

Options for seeds were limited, with corn, beans, and squash being among the more commonly cultivated plants. Seed preservation was crucial. Fortunately, numerous native food plants thrived—various berries, diverse greens, Jerusalem artichokes, cat-tails, mushrooms, ferns, wild fruit, nuts, and more. Friendly interactions with indigenous people occasionally provided valuable insights into the use of native plants; otherwise, knowledge was acquired through trial and error.

Unlike today, where we often overlook native plants, the frontier people valued wild food plants as integral to their survival, serving purposes such as medicine, dyes, and soap. For example, blackberry plants produced berries for culinary use and wine making, while leaves and roots were dried for medicinal purposes, aiding in cases of diarrhea and dysentery.

In the face of challenges like marauding Indians, losing a food garden or even an entire homestead was disheartening for the pioneers. Today’s gardeners may grumble about slugs, cutworms, plant diseases, and neighborly cats, but it pales in comparison.

In the past, when soil fertility waned or game became scarce, pioneers relocated to areas offering better survival prospects. Present-day constraints limit our whimsical movement, and survival is not a constant struggle, depending on one’s perspective.

While our connection to the land may not mirror that of our forefathers, the land remains, and our choices shape its use. Unlike the past, where shooting a turkey or deer from the back door supplied meat, today, local markets and diverse suppliers meet our needs. Food gardening has become a top-rated recreation for those desiring a personal food supply and deriving satisfaction from living off their land, whether it’s a small backyard plot or a half-acre garden.

Some gardeners prioritize aesthetics over vegetables, adorning their landscapes with flower pots and plots, reveling in garden clubs. As tillers of the soil, our roots stretch deep into history.

Although our gardens still harbor descendants of plants that sustained pioneers, modern varieties have undergone significant improvement through hybridization and selective breeding. Greens, for instance, now include superior tasting varieties like Tokyo Cross and White Lady, with roots surpassing the quality of older turnip types—perfect for salads or cooked dishes.


turnips foraged by the pioneers

Thankfully, the majority of vegetable seeds are compact and convenient for transportation. As people migrated from Europe to the New World, they frequently carried seeds with them, contributing to the cultivation of various crops in their new surroundings. Among these crops, turnips are believed to have originated in northeastern Europe, a region from which many immigrants originated.

Turnips prove to be resilient, thriving in the cooler periods of spring and fall. The plants yield a bountiful crop of seeds as they bolt with the arrival of warmer weather. Storing turnips is a practical affair, and they maintain their freshness when kept in a cool location. In today’s era, we rely on refrigerators for such purposes, but pioneers employed root cellars for similar preservation needs.


Another European import, mustard, has found a home in various places, becoming somewhat naturalized due to its prolific seed production. Beyond its appeal for flavorful leaves, mustard’s dried seeds offer the opportunity to create dry mustard.

To ensure a successful harvest, it’s recommended to collect the seed pods before they reach full dryness, preventing scattering as the pods split. Clipping the stems and hanging them upside down in cloth or paper bags proves effective in containing the seeds that might otherwise disperse. Once thoroughly dry, the pods can be “threshed” within the bags, separating seeds from pods and debris, and leaving them ready for use. For convenient storage, an electric blender comes in handy to grind the seeds into a powder, preserving them indefinitely in airtight jars.

A contemporary favorite among mustard plants is the Florida Broadleaf, recognized for its ease of cultivation and ability to withstand milder winters. This variety provides tangy leaves throughout the cold season. Crafting a delightful sandwich involves spreading butter or mayonnaise on bread and generously filling it with fresh mustard leaves.


Numerous wild members of the mustard family played a crucial role in providing sustenance for early settlers, and one such plant is peppergrass (also known as pepperweed or poor man’s pepper). This resilient plant thrives in dry soils, commonly found along roadsides, fields, and clearings throughout the United States and southern Canada. Noteworthy for its peppery-tasting leaves, peppergrass can be enjoyed both raw and cooked, with the best harvest occurring before the formation of seed pods in early summer.

The seeds, however, are equally valuable, featuring a hot, spicy taste that adds zest to soups, stews, or salads. Similar to regular mustard seeds, these can be dried, with the most effective method of separating seed pods from stems being to rub the dry stems between your hands. No further action is required, as the seeds are not easily separated from the pods. Keep them stored in airtight containers for future use.

Recalling my childhood, peppergrass stands out as a vivid memory. In those challenging times, we would gather a substantial quantity of peppergrass to mix with other greens. Crafting a pot of greens required a generous amount of peppergrass alone, and it’s essential to cook only the tender leaves, as the stalks tend to be tough.


Sheep sorrel

Those fortunate enough to have spent their early years in the countryside likely recall strolling along paths where sheep sorrel thrived abundantly. I fondly remember plucking a sorrel stem and relishing the sour taste of both the stem and the arrow-shaped leaves. This plant makes a noteworthy contribution when its leaves are mixed and cooked with other greens or used in salads.

In our garden, we cultivate French sorrel, an enhanced version of sheep sorrel with larger leaves, making it less cumbersome to gather and rinse. Both the native and improved varieties of sorrel are perennials, with the native ones distributed throughout almost all regions of the United States.

The array of useful native greens is vast, making it impossible to mention them all. Lambs quarters, purslane, poke salad, plantain, dandelion, dock, and more are among these beneficial plants. Many of them are perennials, resurfacing year after year if left undisturbed.

Most can be found across the United States and southern Canada, with some extending into Mexico. For those unable to forage for the natives, cultivating them in gardens is a viable option, with the caveat of preventing them from becoming invasive.

Jerusalem artichoke

Certain plants produce nutritious tubers, typically harvested after the plants have entered dormancy. One well-known example is the Jerusalem artichoke, a crop long cultivated by Native Americans and now thriving throughout almost all regions of the United States.

These artichokes yield small, potato-like tubers with knobby textures and a delightful nutty flavor. When harvesting, it’s advisable to only dig up what is immediately needed, leaving the remaining tubers either in the ground or dug and covered with soil in a convenient spot near the kitchen. Jerusalem artichokes maintain better freshness when covered with soil rather than being cleaned and refrigerated.

These versatile tubers can be enjoyed raw as a snack or in salads, and they make for excellent fried, boiled, or scalloped dishes. Simply wash and scrub them with a vegetable brush before cooking, with no need for peeling. An added benefit of Jerusalem artichokes is their lack of starch, as they contain the carbohydrate inulin, making them a safe option for diabetics.

From our gardening experience, we’ve discovered that growing Jerusalem artichokes alongside a fence is ideal. These plants can reach heights of six to eight feet and may topple over other plants during strong winds if not properly supported. Loosely tying them to the fence helps prevent frustration and ensures a more organized garden. While Jerusalem artichokes can thrive in various soils, they seem to perform best in poorer soil conditions.

Wild garlic & onion

wild garlic forage

Frontiersmen were not deprived of plants to enhance the flavor of their meat and vegetable dishes. Among the most prevalent were members of the Allium genus, which encompassed wild onions, wild garlic, leeks, and chives.

Identification doubts could be easily dispelled by relying on your sense of smell, as these plants emit a distinct onion or garlic aroma. While all these plants are relatively easy to cultivate, like some others, they may exhibit a tendency to overtake a garden.

Recognizing that these plants tend to go dormant with the onset of hot weather, it’s advisable to trim and freeze the tops when young and tender. Bulbs can be dug up during their dormant phase and left to dry in a shaded area. Once thoroughly dried, brush off any dirt and store the bulbs in cheesecloth bags hung in a cool room, ready for use whenever needed.

Fruits and nuts

Native fruits and nuts were integral components of the pioneers’ diet, offering a diverse array of flavors. Wild plum thickets, for instance, yielded tart fruits perfect for crafting jams and jellies. The pioneers enjoyed a variety of desirable wild foods, including blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, dewberries, pawpaws, muscadines, wild grapes, crab apples, persimmons, hickory nuts, native pecans, butternuts, American chestnuts, black walnuts, and chinquapins—the list goes on and on.

While many of these native species are still available today, their abundance doesn’t match the quantities found in frontier days. Modern challenges such as careless logging, urban and highway expansion, and land clearing for agriculture make it difficult to locate descendants of the wild plants on which the pioneers relied, unless one has access to large wooded or wilderness areas.

Though foraging for treasures from the land is still possible, much of the terrain is fenced or privately owned, and landowners may frown upon trespassing. It is advisable to seek permission from property owners before climbing over fences or exploring open fields or woodlands.

Poke salad

the bestforever foodsthat never spoil v2Assuming all is well with the landowner, foraging for food plants can be an enjoyable experience. In our region (southwestern Arkansas), one reliable native plant is poke salad. Poke is a perennial that emerges early in the spring. While some individuals may cut young shoots at ground level, this practice is discouraged, as cutting the main stem can harm the plant. It’s preferable to clip leaves from the plant, leaving the stem intact.

Cleaning poke leaves is a breeze, as insects like aphids generally leave them untouched. Simply swish the leaves in clean water to remove any dust particles, then parboil—bring the leaves to a boil for about three minutes in a small amount of water and drain. (Use plenty of leaves, as they significantly cook down.) Add fresh water, season as you would any greens, boil until tender, and voilà—a delectable pot of poke salad is ready. Pour off the water and serve, perhaps topping your dish with sliced hard-boiled eggs.

As the plant matures, it produces small greenish-white flowers that develop into berries, turning purple-black when mature. It’s advisable to cease harvesting leaves when small flower heads appear, as poke becomes toxic at a certain stage of growth when leaves and stems turn red, indicating an increase in phytolaccic acid content. For those interested in ink-making or dyeing, mature poke berries yield a deep royal purple color. Birds enjoy the berries and may leave their mark on the nearest clothesline after indulging.

Poke salad is easy to cultivate in a garden, but its tall stature requires planting along a fence to avoid shading shorter plants. Sturdy and resistant to strong winds, poke berries appear in the fall on mature plants, and collecting some seeds for planting in the spring is recommended. Thin the seedlings to stand about 18 inches apart, and it’s advisable to wait until the second spring before harvesting some leaves. Once established, poke serves as a reliable perennial, showing resilience in various soil types, although it thrives best in rich barnyard soil.


If delving into foraging or cultivating your own native plants intrigues you, consider acquiring a book on native food plants or seeking guidance from someone experienced in foraging. Practical, hands-on experience remains the most effective teacher.

Pricey books covering the entire United States may not necessarily be the best, so take the time to explore options and find a book that provides ample information about plants in your specific area, along with recipes for utilizing the treasures you intend to harvest.

Embarking on a journey to forage useful native food plants promises to unveil a whole new world, much like it did for the early settlers. Many of the plants that served them well are still available, offering the opportunity to enjoy a connection to the past while discovering the richness of local flora.

This article was submitted by Mary Sowerby.

Recommended resources for preppers and homesteaders:

How to build an underground cellar for less than $400

Food Storage Plan For The Long Run

How To make an air fountain to obtain water from the air

Survival Foods of the Native Americans

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