Our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived for generations by gathering the food that nature provided. Some of those plants contain natural remedies to many common problems, and in fact are where many modern pharmaceuticals come from.
In this article we will be discussing various edible plants mostly found in the north east United States, as well as a few others.
Provisos: Before getting started you should be warned that some plants can be highly toxic. We will cover some common look-a-likes, but you should never eat a plant unless you are one hundred percent sure of what you’re eating. Wild poisonous plants often resemble non-poisonous varieties, and also often grow side by side. Some edible plants can have non-edible parts. It is up to you to make the right decisions when applying this information in the wilderness. With that in mind, once you can identify wild edibles accurately you will find that natures garden is full of delicious and healthy food, fresh and at your finger tips. Also, I’ve included a few definitions at the end of this article you may find helpful.
AKA: Lions Tooth, Priest Crown, Swine’s Snout
How To Spot It: One yellow flower on a hollow, hairless stem,or spherical cluster of white “parachute” seeds, no leaves other than basal leaves with large teeth pointing toward the base. There are no poisonous look-alikes, however other edible relative can look similar when young.
Cautions: Dandelion root should be avoided for those with an irritable bowels or stomach.
Uses: Use young leaves or flower tops in salads. The taste can be slightly bitter, so use sparingly. Light cooking will increase the bitterness, however further cooking (about twenty minutes) will make the taste almost disappear, especially when combined with a sauce or spices.
Notes: Dandelion root contains a substance called inulin. Inulin has very little impact on blood sugar levels, and—unlike fructose—is not insulemic and does not raise triglycerides making it increasingly popular among diabetics and potentially helpful in managing blood sugar-related illnesses ; Dandelion has also been known to be especially beneficial for treating chronic hepatitis and gall stones.
AKA: Monkeyweed, Hancock’s Curse, Water Weeds, Elephant Ears, Donkey Rhubarb, Japanese Bamboo, Pea Shooters, Fleeceflower, American Bamboo
How To Spot It: Tall, bushy plant with a bamboo like sheathed stalk. Alternating triangular leaves, green and/or red-ish in color. Hundreds of tiny white flowers grow on long lacy spikes in the spring and summer. Mature plants can grow to be nine to twelve feet tall. It’s interconnected root system often creates a dense bamboo like thicket. There are no poisonous look-alikes, however it could be confused with Giant Knotweed, which is used the same way except it is much less common, or wild Asparagus or Rhubarb (a relative), which of course are also edible.
Cautions: Do not eat large quantities of Knotweed raw. It contains substantially more oxalic acid than cooked Knotweed which could potentially cause problems in a survival situation. Smaller portions, however, are fine.
Uses: Collect the young shoots, discard the leaves, discard the rinds of older shoots and chop or slice the stalks.Has a nice sour flavor. Use in fruit dishes or pies just as you would Rhubarb. Also excellent addition to soups, stews, jams, or applesauce.
Notes: The large hollow stalks contain some fresh drinking water. To collect it chop the plant at the base the hold it upside down. Take a stick and poke through the inner wall of the joint, opening the ‘chambers’ one at a time, then simply pour the water into your mouth. ; Larger quantities can act as a laxative, breaking down fats and stimulating digestion, which of course, could possibly be fatal in a survival situation. ; Extracts of this plant are currently being tested to help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, dely the onset of Alzheimer’s or slow its progression, and to help treat or lower the risk of certain types of cancers.
Poor Man’s Pepper
AKA: Virginia Pepperweed, Peppergrass
How To Spot It: The small spicy annual grows six inches to three feet tall, beginning with a ‘basal rosette’ in early spring. The narrow stalked basal leaves grow two to five inches long and soon the lobes become deep, sharp teeth that usually point toward the leaf tips. A long, wiry, branching flower stalk grows from the plants center mid-spring to fall with similar, but smaller, lance shaped toothed leaves tapering toward the base. From spring to fall the plant is covered in tiny, white four petaled flowers at the tips. In summer and fall the flowers are replaced with flat, circular seed pods, slightly notched at the tip, and containing many yellow-brown seeds. There in no no colored sap when you break open the stem, and the plant has a short, white taproot. There are no poisonous look-alikes, however it could be confused with other edible species.
Cautions: It should not be given to very young children, or others that may be sensitive to spicy foods.
Uses: The leaves, seeds, pods, flowers, tender part of the top of the stem, and taproot are all edible raw or cooked, and make excellent addition to salads, stews, soups, ground as a seasoning for meats, etc. The flavor can be compared to horseradish or wasabe. They tend to lose a little of the kick when cooked.
Notes: The Poor Man’s Pepper is actually not a pepper at all, rather a member of the mustard family. ; The leaves contain notable levels of vitamin c, calcium, iron, and potassium. ; A ‘tea’ made from the leaves has been used historically for diabetes, to expel intentional worms, as a diuretic, and to ease arthritis. The seed pods have been used to treat coughs and colds, to help break up and expel fluid built up in the chest.
WARNING: THIS PLANT HAS A POISONOUS LOOK-ALIKE
AKA: Wild Onion, Meadow Leek, Onion Grass, Wild Garlic
How To Spot It: Long, unbranched, hollow, rounded basal leaves six inches to two feet tall, with a strong onion /garlic smell, growing from an onion like bulb. In late spring consisting of stalkless, green or red-ish bulblets grow on top of a single long leafless stem, one to three feet tall. Each bulb has a curved side and a straight side, project a tiny green shoot upward, and lilac colored, six petaled flowers bloom from them. Later the bulb falls to the ground as the plant dies and turn into new plants next year.
Cautions: Field Garlic should not be confused with the highly toxic plant ‘Star of Bethlehem’, which also has a long linear leaf resembling various wild onions, except it has no odor, a white stripe running down the length of each leaf, and the six-tepaled white flowers don’t resemble that of any other edible plant.
Uses: Collect the leaves in early spring or fall, when the young plants are most tender. Consume them raw or cooked just as you would chives or scallions. The underground bulbs are more onion tasting in seasons with cold weather, and more garlic-like in seasons with warmer weather. Use them accordingly raw or cooked. The Young bulbs growing from the plants have an almost spicy taste and should be used when still young, before the skin toughens.
Notes: Field Garlic is a blood purifier, diuretic, and expectorant. Raw bulbs can help to lower blood pressure. It is also used to prevent worms in children and animals.
WARNING: THIS PLANT HAS A POISONOUS LOOK-ALIKE
AKA: Tiger Daylily, Orange daylily, Ditch Daylily
How To Spot It: This perennial produces large, showy flower yellow-orange in color above a basal rosette of long, sword shaped leaves. Six to fifteen short stemmed, upward facing, funnel shaped flowers stem from a slender, unbranched , smooth stem, three to four feet tall. During flowering, buds grow on the same branch as the flowers, which wither and die the same day they bloom. Other species while still edible, are not as tasty.
Cautions: This is not to be confused with Daffodil or Iris, which are both toxic to humans. By identifying the plant by its flowers, you can avoid confusion, as Daffodils and Iris look nothing like the orange Daylily.
Uses: The flowers and buds are a good source of beta caratine, vitamin c, and iron. Cook the larger, unopened flower pods in recipes that call for green beans, as the flavor is similar. They cook in about fifteen minutes. Be sure not to eat the green base of the flower, as the taste is rather unpleasant. Flowers and the pods can also be batter dipped and deep fried for a delicious side dish or snack.
Notes: The Daylily is an important herb in ancient Chinese medicine. An infusion is made from the flowers is used to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a sedative, to reduce fever, as a pain killer, and to ease childbirth. The rhizomes and tuber has shown antimicrobial and antiparasitic properties. Research is also being done one how to use the Daylily to treat cancer.
AKA: Buttonweed, Cheeseplant, Dwarf Mallow, Roundleaf Mallow
How To Spot It: The plant, which arises from a long, slender taproot, can creep along the ground or grow upright. The crinkled, rounded to heart-shaped, toothed, slightly hairy basal leaves grow up to three inches across, with five to seven shallow lobes. The leaf stalks can grow up to seven inches long, and the leaf is notched where it connects to the stalk. Flowers are white to pale-pink with five petals, have a bushy column of many stamens surrounding one pistil, and are under one inch across. Pink lines run through the petals, which are notched at the tip. At a quarter-inch across, the tiny, flattened, segmented fruits resemble a wheel of cheese. There are no poisonous look-alikes.
Cautions: Common Mallow could possibly be confused with various ivies if only ID’ed by the leaves, so be sure to look for the distinctive fruits and flowers.
Uses: A good source of vitamin c, iron, and calcium. The leaves, flowers, and fruits are good cooked for about 10 minutes as you would cook okra. The fruits are also excellent raw.
Notes: Tea made by boiling the root is said to be internally soothing. It has been used by natives to treat skin sores, stomach and dental ulcers, digestive irritations, as well as sore throats and coughs, Although thorough medical testing has yet to be done and results are not confirmed.
AKA: Jack-by-the-hedge, Garlic Root, Hedge Garlic, Penny Hedge, Poor Man’s Mustard
How To Spot It: This common, highly invasive woodland biennial has a distinct garlic smell when crushed. The sprouts of new plants resemble alfalfa sprouts, each with a singular red-ish stalk about two inches tall, and a single strap shaped leaf about half an inch tall. The thin white taproot smells and tastes like horseradish. By mid-spring plants grow to be one to the and a half feet tall, slightly hairy, with more pointed, alternate, deeply veined triangular leaves. A flower bud resembling broccoli gives way to clusters of white four-petaled flowers. The flowers are replaced with long, green, four-parted seedpods curving upwards, about an inch long.
Cautions: Not to be confused with the Common Blue Violet or Henbit Deadnettle which can look similar when young, as always ID the plant through multiple means and be sure of what you are eating.
Uses: The leaves taste like garlic. Young leaves near the flowers are better tasting than the basal leaves, although both are pretty good. Cooking can add a bitter taste, some lightly sauté them for 5 minutes at most. The seeds have a wonderful spicy flavor and don t need cooked or crushed (cooking actually ruins the flavor, so ad them to your dish near the end). The root is used just like horseradish, and again, should only be cooked lightly if at all.
Notes: Crushed Garlic Mustard is a good topical treatment for bug bite, as well as bug repellent, and as a disinfectant.
AKA: Mother’s Heart, Lady’s Purse, Pickpocket, Rattle Purse
How To Spot It: Shepard’s Purse begins with a basal rosette of stalked, lobed-to-deeply toothed, lance shaped leaves up to nine inches long, and broader towards the tip, coming from a slender white taproot. Unlike similar plants, the leaves point outward and the is no white sap when broken. In mid-spring long, wiry stalks branching from the base grow from eight inches to two feet tall. Smaller, alternate lance shaped leaves, sometimes with teeth, meet the stem with two small pointed lobes at their base. Tiny stalked flowers grow inside four oval sepals, with four white petals. The flowers eventually form long-stalked, flattened, heart or triangular shaped seedpods.
Cautions: Because of possible effects on the blood, this plant is not recommended for women who are nursing or pregnant.
Uses: Mid-spring the flowers, buds, and tops of the stems are all edible and similar in taste to broccoli. Leaves can be cooked ten to fifteen minutes and are great additions to salad soups and stews. It provides vitamins a,c,k,b1, b2, b3, choline, inositol, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. The also contain fumaric acid, which may help inhibit cancer.
Notes: There is little evidence of any beneficial medicinal use, however historically it has been used to ease childbirth, lower blood pressure, and as an astringent.
AKA: Persicaria, Redleg, Gambetta, Adam’s Plaster
How To Spot It: Growing with slender branching stems, it usually reaches a height of one to two feet tall and can create a dense brush.The pointed, lance shaped leaves grow from one to four inches long. A darkened triangular spot often appears toward the leaf’s center. Tiny white or pink flowers form in dense clusters about two inches long. This plant has both fibrous roots and a tap root. There are no poisonous look-alikes.
Cautions: Don’t confuse this with Smartweed, which can look similar and while non-toxic, has a horrible taste.
Uses: The leaves are the best parts, although the flowers and stems are also edible but can be unpleasant. They taste similar to lettuce, and can be used raw in salads and on sandwiches, as well as added to soups, casseroles, and stews.
Notes: This plant is rarely used in herbal medicine.
AKA: Yazhicao, Duckfoot Herb, Tsuyukusa, Dew Herb
How To Spot It: This hairless plant with distinct blue flowers grows from one to three feet tall. The simple, smooth edged leaves resemble grass grow three to five inches long. Their stalkless bases wrap around the stem to form a sheath. It has two upper blue petals, and a lower, smaller translucent-white petal. Two short sepals fuse to partially enclose two small yellow-green elongated seeds.
Cautions: It could possibly be confused with Virginia Dayflower which is also edible but larger, and grows more towards the south. Also similar is Spiderwort, which has three blue petals, not two, and is much larger. The leaves of Spiderwort are also edible.
Uses: Strip off the leaves, flowers, seeds, and tops of the stems. Add to salads or other vegetable dishes. The taste can be compared to string beans
Notes: It has been used in ancient China as an anti-inflammatory, and also to sooth a sore throat. It can also be used as a pigment or dye.
- Basal Leaves – Leaves at the plant’s base
- Basal Rosette – A circular arrangement of leaves, with all the leaves at the base of the plant, near the soil
- Diuretic – A substance that increases the rate or urination
- Expectorant – A substance that helps bring up mucus and other liquid from the lungs, bronchi, and trachea
- Iris – The female fertilization organ of a flower
- Rhizome – A horizontal stem, usually underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes, also called rootstock
- Sepals – Modified leaves that lie under the more conspicuous petals of a flower
- Stamen – The male fertilizing organ of a flower
- Taproot – A straight tapering root growing downward and forming a base from which other roots spring
Have a good time in the wilderness and remember to always be safe!