If it ever really comes down to it, you can easily find food in your backyard. I remember reading a survival book when I was younger that mentioned how absolutely ludicrous it is to die of starvation in the wild. The book mentioned the sheer number of times that starved lost hikers’ bodies are found lying in a patch of edible plant life.
After reading that, I agreed with the author and set out to educate myself on the edible plants I walk by every day. The end result is that I can now take a hike through the woods and readily identify plant after plant that I can eat along the way. If I’m ever on a dayhike and find my food is running low and I’m hungry, I know which plants I can munch on that’ll allow me to enjoy my hike much longer. It’s pretty fun.
I think plants are pretty neat. The tiny little red clover lives in its own little world, while the massive oak will fill you with a sense of awe.
With a little bit of training, those plants can fill your belly with food as well!
Here are seven very common and very easy to identify edible plants that you most likely have in your backyard already.
- Red Clover
This is your typical three leaf clover, just with red-ish flowers. If you live in an area with rabbits, sooner or later you’ll see them munching on red clover flowers. The cool thing is that those red flowers are edible for you as well.
The central stalk can be kind of tough, but if you have the time and desire to strip all of the little red florets off of the main stalk, then you’ll be in for a real treat. You can eat the little flowers raw or use the dried florets to make tea.
I’m a big fan of this pretty little blue/purple flower. The leaves make an excellent addition to salads, and you’ve probably eaten them before without ever really realizing it. They’re a very popular addition to mixed green salad bags that you can buy at the grocery store.
You can actually buy seeds for these little guys at your local hardware store as well, which I find funny since I consider it a weed. However, this weed is incredibly tasty and versatile. When harvesting, try to pick the younger leaves, as they’ll be less bitter.
The taproot can be used as well. If you dry, roast, and grind them, you can use them as a coffee substitute, just like you’ll find in New Orleans.
You know these little guys as the notorious blobs that end up all over your sidewalk every fall. Well, give them a piece of your mind this year by fighting back with your stomach. That’s right, you can eat these little fruits as well. I’ll give you fair warning though, they’re extremely tart.
Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of Granny Smith apples. However, if you do like Granny Smiths, there’s a good chance that you’ll like these as well. They have roughly the same taste and probably a bit more of the tartness. You can cook with them, just like you would a Granny Smith though, and they make pretty good applesauce.
Here’s another little green that I’m a pretty big fan of because of how great of an addition it makes to salads. The leaves get more bitter as they grow larger (read: extremely bitter), but if you can get them while they’re young they’re fantastic.
I find eating dandelion leaves is very similar to drinking coffee. Nobody drinks straight up black coffee and likes it the first time. It’s an acquired taste. The same can be said of dandelion as well. Once you develop a taste for the bitterness, you won’t be able to get enough.
Like chicory, you can use the roots of dandelions for a coffee substitute as well. Dry, roast, and grind the roots, and you’ll be on your way to a beverage that’s at the midway point between a coffee and a tea.
The only way I’ve ever eaten these are as nuts, but you can use them to make flour like the Indians used to as well. The key to making acorns edible is to get rid of all of the tannins inside of them.
Tannins make the acorn incredibly bitter. The key to removing tannins is water, and lots of it. By boiling acorns in several changes of water, until the acorns taste decent, you will safely dispose of the tannins. When you boil them, make sure to remove the outer shells first too. Otherwise, you end up with a mess. After you boil them, you end up with a pretty pleasant nut meat that can easily fill some bellies.
If you use cold water to leach out the tannins, THEN you can use acorns as a source of flour to make breads and such. Tying up your acorns in a bag with holes in it, and placing them in a flowing stream will leach out the tannins over a period of time (potentially three days). Then, you’ll want to dry the acorns out, and peel off the thin little papery skin around each one before grinding them down to use as a source of flour.
- Wild Garlic
These are very easy to identify little boogers that you’ll see popping up all over your yard from spring to fall. We always called them wild onions growing up, but wild garlic is the proper name. They send up long, green, tube-ish stalks that are hollow inside and tend to tower over the surrounding grasses.
You can use the green part chopped up like chives. The teeny little onion at the base you can use, well, like an onion. I think they taste pretty good too. Some people say that the taste is too powerful though, so be wary of that before you substitute them in recipes in the same proportions as regular onions.
- Kousa Dogwood
If you live in the South, you’ll find these things all over the place. Dogwoods are incredibly popular down here, and the Kousa variety is just as common. Kousa dogwoods are recognized by their pinkish-red globular fruits. They kind of look like bumpy soccer balls.
What most people don’t know about this tree is that those little soccer balls are edible. Personally, I find them kind of mealy, but if you’re truly hungry you probably won’t mind. The fruits ripen in late summer, and turn from yellow to pink-red when they are fully ripe. The skin is pretty bitter, so they’re gonna taste better if you can avoid that part.
Should something crazy ever happen, such as a loss of power, flooding of your community, or storms that leave roads impassable, you may find yourself marooned at your house for a period of time. I don’t consider my current residence out in the boondocks by any means, yet we’re faced with at least one of those problems every year.
Should such an event come to your doorstep, the ability to forage food out of your own backyard will make your life much less miserable. Think about the peace of mind that comes from knowing that there are plants out in your lawn that you know your kids can safely eat should your food stores run out.
It’s a good feeling knowing that you can do that.
If you want to know more about foraging for your own food, there are a couple of resources out there that I rely on and have found to be a great source of information.
- Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America by Lee Allen Peterson
This is the most comprehensive book on edible plants as far as I’m concerned. I carry this book with me everywhere. Not only does book do an excellent job of telling you what part of the plant to eat, but it also shows you poisonous look-alikes. The only negative is that most of the pictures are hand drawn.
- Backyard Foraging by Ellen Zachos
Another great foraging book that goes in depth into the wild edibles growing in your own backyard. The pictures are fantastic, it tells you what parts to harvest, and tells you how to prepare the food to eat as well.
- Southeast Foraging by Chris Bennett
I use this book mainly for verification issues. If I’m not 100% positive about what I’m about to eat, I pull out this book as a last resort just to make sure. It’s got a number of lesser-known wild edibles within it, and I like the extra perspective regarding how to eat different plants.
If you’ve ever watched Fat Guys in the Woods, then you know who Creek Stewart is. This is the website of his survival business that he runs out in Indiana. His blog has some great posts on lesser known edible plants.