Foraging is often thought of as a backwoods pursuit that requires bushwhacking and long treks into the forest. But the truth is, wild edibles are all around us, even in the most densely populated urban areas.
Urban foraging is a great way to harvest significant quantities of fresh, locally grown food. The following five species are found nationwide, versatile in the kitchen, and quite common. Chances are, you won’t have to look far for them. In fact, you might even find some in your own backyard.
More importantly, these species are easy to identify—you probably know a few already—and several can be collected in bulk. This makes them important survival foods. In a pinch, one of them could even save your life.
Five plants for urban foraging
One of the most recognizable tree species, oaks, are found nationwide, and all produce acorns. Once a staple of many American Indian tribes, acorns are highly nutritious, and they can be collected in great numbers, making them valuable survival food.
When harvesting acorns, only collect whole, unblemished nuts and remove any that float, as they likely contain grubs or are otherwise undesirable. Because they contain tannin, a chemical compound that makes them bitter (and toxic in large amounts), you need to remove the tannin before eating the acorns.
There are a number of ways to do this, but I prefer the method Euell Gibbons mentions in his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. He suggests discarding the cap of the acorn when preparing, then boiling the kernels for two hours, changing the water every time it turns tea-brown.
For convenience, it’s often handy to have an extra pot of water going. When the water no longer turns brown, the tannins have been leached out, and the acorns are ready to dry.
You can dry them at room temperature by spreading them out into a single layer on a baking tray, or you can dry them in an oven at a low temperature, with the oven door cracked. Once they are dry, you can eat them whole or pound them into bits.
Many Native American tribes used acorns, and acorn flour was one of their staple foods. Native Americans sometimes collected enough acorns to store for two years as insurance against poor acorn production years. Despite this history as survival food, acorns rarely form a large part of modern diets and are not currently cultivated on scales approaching that of many other nuts.
To make acorn flour, you first have to get rid of the tannins content we mentioned earlier, which gives acorns a very astringent taste. You need to process them correctly to make sure you obtain the desired flavor. Start by removing the shells and crush the acorns with a rock or an axe. Place the crushed acorns in a bowl of water to separate the meat from the shells.
You will notice that the meat will sink while the shells will float. Toss the shells and prepare to process the meat. Boil the batch of meat until the water becomes brown. Place the batch in a second pot of boiling water and repeat the process until the water will remain clean.
After removing the tannins, use your mortar and pestle to grind the meat into flour. Afterward, you could use it as a bread ingredient or store it for later use.
Sumac (Staghorn Sumac and Smooth Sumac)
Readily identifiable thanks to its clusters of reddish fruits that often persist through winter, several sumac species are easy to find for urban foragers. The fruits are the primary target, as they can be used to make sumac-ade, a refreshing drink high in vitamin C.
There are many variants of sumac-ade, but the basic principles are essentially the same. Immerse half a dozen or so clusters of fruits in a pitcher of water, then mash them. Let the resulting mixture stand overnight, then filter the water with a cheesecloth. This will produce a refreshing lemonade-like drink.
Be sure to collect sumac berries early in the season; they lose flavor the longer they are exposed to the elements. Also, make sure you’re collecting ripe berries.
Safety note: Poison sumac is common throughout the eastern U.S. Thankfully, poison sumac is fairly easy to differentiate from staghorn sumac and smooth sumac. It has whitish-yellow berries that droop; staghorn sumac and smooth sumac have reddish berries and upright clusters. Before harvesting any variety of sumac, be sure you can identify poison sumac so that you can stay away from it.
The bane of U.S. homeowners, the dandelion is actually one of the more useful wild plants. Easy to collect in bulk, dandelions are rich in vitamins and minerals, and you can use the whole plant.
The leaves are edible raw or can be boiled; young leaves are good in salads and can also be sautéed. The roots can be roasted, then ground, and used as a coffee substitute. The flowers are used for the famous dandelion wine, which is often considered one of the better country wines. Better yet, there are no toxic lookalikes.
A safety note: It’s best not to collect dandelions from areas that have been treated with pesticides, so if you spray your front lawn, collect your dandelions elsewhere.
Even more, dandelion is an incredible medicinal plant that has been used for centuries in Europe. Here’s why you should collect dandelions:
Dandelion is a natural diuretic
It is a powerful diuretic, cleanses the blood and digestive system, and helps eliminate heavy metals from tissues. Dandelion roots washed and boiled in tea have a diuretic effect, eliminating constipation, profuse sweating, helping to dissolve kidney stones, and most importantly, thins the blood.
Dandelion improves digestion and prevents bloating
Dandelion tea is a natural treatment to prevent constipation but also intestinal fermentation, according to various studies. Thus, consumed regularly, tea helps prevent the feeling of bloating or feeling uncomfortably full after meals.
It regulates blood pressure and has a hepatoprotective role
Dandelions contain a lot of potassium, and it helps regulate blood pressure. Also, due to the detoxifying effect, dandelion preparations promote bile and liver secretions and help improve liver function and the liver affected by alcohol consumption.
Dandelion is an energizing tonic for the body
Dandelion stems help to revitalize people who are tired and get sick quickly. Once in the stomach, these stems improve gastric juice secretion and are cleansing the stomach of substances that are deposited over time that hinder proper functioning. All these stems consumed over a period of 30-40 days, when they are tender and juicy, are an effective remedy for those suffering from arthritis and rheumatism.
It helps strengthen the immune system
Several studies have shown dandelion’s antimicrobial and antiviral properties, so the plant can contribute to the body’s ability to fight infections.
Dandelion tea helps reduce stress
Dandelion leaf tea significantly reduces stress and treats inflammation of the liver. A cure of 10-14 days, with dandelion leaves, put in the salad with stems, can detoxify the liver much faster than over-the-counter medicine.
If you grow roses in your garden, you’ll recognize rosehips. When rose flowers are pollinated and allowed to remain on the plant, they produce rose hips—bright red bulbous fruits containing many seeds.
Long used in herbal medicine, rosehips form in late summer and fall and can persist through winter. Even if you don’t grow roses, it’s usually not difficult to find rosehips, thanks to the prevalence of many wild rose species across the country.
Remarkably high in vitamin C, they can be eaten raw or used in everything from tea and soup to jellies and glazes for wild game.
Note: As the hips can be bitter, it’s often best to sample some first, as bitterness varies from plant to plant. Keep in mind that the seeds can be an irritant for some, so be sure to only try a small amount before eating quite a few.
Cattails are one of the most conspicuous plants. In the summer, cattails look like hot dogs on a stick. In the fall and winter, they are often still quite recognizable.
Several parts of the plant are edible, but their starchy, potato-like rhizomes (underground stems) make them one of the better survival foods.
High in carbohydrates, the rhizomes are easy to collect in bulk, and they can be eaten raw or cooked or ground to produce a flour-like substance. There’s only one downside: You have to get wet as cattails live near (or in) water.
To collect them, simply find the cattail’s “hot dog” and follow the stem downward, where it terminates in the rhizome. Cut the rhizome free with a knife and head to the next plant.
When foraging for cattails, it’s not difficult to collect quite a few in one trip, more than enough to help survive in an emergency situation. If you’re planning on eating raw rhizomes, be sure to avoid the rhizome’s fibers (some sources say they can cause an upset stomach). Instead, suck out the white starch, which is quite nutritious.
Safety tips for the urban forager:
Before consuming any wild edibles, consult a field guide and be positively sure you know what you’ve found. If not, don’t eat it. (It often helps to go with an experienced forager first.)
When consuming wild edibles, consume only a little at first to ensure you don’t have an adverse reaction.
Respect private and protected property.
Avoid areas (like manicured lawns) where pesticides have been sprayed, or polluted areas, like ditches near high-traffic roads, and always be sure to wash your finds.
There you have it, my top 5 plants for a backyard feast. These plants are not hard to find and can be easily identified by anyone, and as an added bonus, some of them can be used for medicinal purposes as well. Hopefully, this article will draw you more to the art of urban foraging, and you will go out there and pick the plants we listed. Stay safe and stay wild!
Robert Graff has written this article for Prepper’s Will.