You can’t walk through a field, forest, swamp, or even your own backyard without passing by (or stepping) on wild edible plants. There are various types of wild edibles all around us, and the trick for a meal on the go is to know what to look for.
Uninhabited areas, and even urban locations, contain nutritious wild food that’s free for the taking—if you know how to spot these wild edibles. The same plant foods that sustained our ancestors are still out there growing as they always have. Learn what those things are, and you’ll gain a backup food supply that’s available year-round.
Remember these tips before you gather your next meal
Before you start foraging, understand that there are some deadly plants out there that you should avoid. Poison hemlock, fool’s parsley, water hemlock, pokeberry fruits, and many other plants and plant parts are capable of killing the careless and unobservant wild food enthusiast.
With that in mind, consider these guidelines:
- Carefully identify the edible plant with a good book, like Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Alternately, you can take a wild edible plant class or go foraging with someone who is well versed in this area.
- Learn which poisonous plants are in your region, and avoid them like the plague.
- Learn how to use the plants, which parts to use and when they are available.
- Wash your wild edibles to avoid pathogens deposited on them by birds and bugs.
- Don’t collect near areas that could be contaminated with pesticides, pollution, or chemicals. Avoid harvesting near conventional farm fields, roads, landfills, power lines, train tracks, or drainage ponds.
- Don’t use the “Universal Edibility Test.” This is the test where you expose yourself to a mystery plant in increasingly greater doses over time. This test could get you killed.
- Just try one new wild food at a time, after determining edibility, so you can tell which plant doesn’t agree with you—in case of allergic reaction to a new food.
- Just because an animal ate it doesn’t mean that you can. Even other mammals can eat plants that would kill a person. Every creature metabolizes plants differently.
- And last but definitely not least— if you’re in doubt of the plant’s identity, don’t eat it.
So, how do you learn what is safe and what isn’t?
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. Owners of such schools are experts in wild food and survival situations and teach survival classes nationwide along with their team of instructors.
I suggest a smart approach for anyone interested in gathering wild food by starting 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.
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.
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.
Acorns for the taking
The nuts produced by any oak tree (trees in the genus Quercus) are a plentiful, high-calorie wild food crop around the Northern Hemisphere. Coming in at just over 2,000 calories per pound, acorns are too valuable to ignore, despite their bitter flavor and previous misinformation.
All you have to do is make sure you can tell the difference between an acorn and a buckeye, because buckeyes (and the very similar-looking horse chestnut) are poisonous. To prepare your acorns, crack them out of their shells and break any large nut pieces into smaller bits. Then soak the acorn chunks in water to remove the bitter and irritating tannic acid.
Don’t boil acorns because it locks in some of the bitterness permanently. Just soak the acorns in a few changes of water for a few hours per soaking. If the water was safe to drink, taste a piece of acorn to see if it’s still bitter. If it’s not to your liking, you can dump off the water (which should look brown after a few hours of soaking), add fresh water and soak the acorn pieces again for a few hours.
Repeat this as needed, depending on the acorn’s bitterness. Once they taste acceptable, let the acorns dry out for a few hours. After the acorns have dried completely, then you can run them through a grain grinder, blender, or flour mill to make acorn flour. Then you can add this flour to existing recipes or try making traditional acorn porridge by simmering acorn flour, water, and maple syrup.
Focus on other tree nuts as well
The walnut family gives us the highest-calorie wild food available. Black walnut, butternut walnut, pecan, and hickory are all in this family, and the shelled-out nut meats of these trees can provide you with a high-fat food that’s almost 200 calories per ounce.
Beechnut, hazelnut, and even pine nuts can also be eaten, after picking the nut meats from shattered shells, assuming you can beat the squirrels to them.
Spring brings salads
With all the fresh green growth, you’d think spring would provide you with a lot of food, and it does—but it’s all very watery, low-calorie food. Most of the leaves, shoots, and other spring vegetables provide only 20- 30 calories per plateful.
However, spring makes up for this low-calorie situation by offering us a great variety of tasty wild salads, flowers, shoots, tubers, and roots.
Among the tastiest spring edibles are dandelion greens and flowers, watercress in a salad, spring beauty bulbs, fresh chickweed, redbud tree flowers, and sassafras roots, which I use for tea and homemade root beer.
Summer is for the berries and fruits
Blackberries and all of their kin (raspberries, dewberries, thimbleberries, etc.) provide a great-tasting summertime berry. The vitamin- and mineral-rich berries provide about 50 calories per cup and can be squeezed for their juice to provide safe hydration, a pleasant juice, or even a winemaking ingredient.
Other summer treats include milkweed pods (boiled in changes of water to remove toxins), blueberries, wild cherries, burdock leaf and root, and paw paw fruit.
Fall foraging will keep you full
While you can get your highest calories of the year by foraging tree nuts in the fall, you can also get your highest source of vitamin C this time of year. One cup of wild rose hips contains 162 calories and seven times your daily allowance of vitamin C. Rose hips also provide vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K, calcium, manganese, and magnesium.
In the plant kingdom, red berries are just as likely to be good or bad (you have about a 50/50 shot at either), so to avoid getting the wrong fruit or berry, look for semi-evergreen compound leaves and thorns on your wild rose bushes.
Other fall favorites include the persimmon fruit (which is one of the best-tasting edibles in late fall), Jerusalem artichoke tubers, cattail rootstocks, barberries, curly dock seeds (which I grind into flour), and wild grapes.
Don’t ignore winter foods
Even though winter seems like a bleak season to scavenge for food, it still provides a great number of edible plants. Pine needles are a vitamin C powerhouse in winter.
Once you positively identify a pine tree, you can chop up a tablespoon of needles and soak them in boiling water for 10 minutes to get four to five times your daily requirement of vitamin C.
Just skip the loblolly pine on the east coast and the ponderosa pine, as these may have toxins in the needles. And for women who may be or are pregnant, don’t consume pine needle tea at all.
If you have an abundance of pine and a shortage of food, you can eat the inner pine bark as well. Shave off the inner layer, dry it and grind it into flour that provides 600 calories per pound.
Other winter wild foods can include leftover tree nuts from the fall and tenacious wild salad plants like dandelion, plantain, clover, and winter cress.
Every season has something to offer to the keen forager and survivalist, and you can gather your next lunch easily when you’re in the backcountry. However, to be on the safe side, stick to the plants you can easily identify and those plants that you’ve used before.
There may be many other edibles around you in the wilderness, but you must be certain the plant you’ve picked is the one you’ve been searching for since certain mistakes can end up being deadly in no time.
Useful resources to check out: