In light of the impending economic and social crisis, a knowledge of edible wild plants is essential. I have included a list of seven easily recognized plants in this discussion, but keep in mind there are hundreds of edible species. These seven are common throughout much of North America.
When foraging, one must remember that if you need a field guide to identify a plant, you are not ready to eat that plant. However, field guides with color photographs are necessary for anyone interested in this activity. In my opinion, the best field guide on the market today is The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer. Although it only covers 32 plants, it does so in amazing detail. Unlike other authors, Thayer has eaten all the plants he discusses. He also notes important errors found in other field guides.
Before listing my seven choices, please keep these facts in mind: (1) an individual may be allergic (or develop an allergy to) any of these plants. Initially consume them in moderation. (2) although a plant may be easily recognized during its flowering stage, this is often NOT the time they are collected for food. Use sources with color photos (not drawings) of a plant at various stages of its life cycle to aid identification. (3) In addition to field guides and on-line sources, consult a botany reference to become familiar with botanical terms.
At the end of this discussion, I have included both on-line references as well as field guides from my own personal collection. While you may not be initially familiar with some of the plants on this list, once you see color photographs of these wild edibles you will be able to recognize many of them on your front lawn.
(1) Plantain- broadleaf plantain is found on lawns throughout the continent. It has broadly elliptical leaves that rise directly from the root in a formation known as a basal rosette; these leaves remain close to the ground. This plant can be eaten as a salad or boiled in soups (the latter is preferred when the plant gets older-at this point the leaves become stringy). Plantain leaves are rich in vitamins A and C, and minerals. Narrow-leaf plantain is also edible and is similar in appearance except for the shape of the leaves. Fresh leaves can also be mashed and applied to minor wounds.
(2) Common Purslane- Purslane is also found on lawns throughout North America. This plant barely reaches an inch off the ground. It has fleshy, jointed stems (purplish- green with a reddish tinge), and narrow, thick leaves about two inches long growing in opposite directions. The stems contain a clear fluid (Spurge, a poisonous plant that looks similar to Purslane, has milky sap). The best way to harvest this plant is to cut off only the leafy tips; it will rapidly sprout again and provide greens from May until the first frost. It can be used in soups or salads.
(3) White Oak Acorns- The leaves of a typical white oak have rounded lobes which are never bristle tipped (as opposed to red or black oak). After shelling acorns, they must be boiled to leech out tannins (in high concentrations, tannins damage the kidneys—tannins are also found in tea). The yellowish-brown water left over from leeching is a good topical remedy for poison ivy rashes; it is also styptic—it will stop bleeding. Leeching takes several hours—change the water each time it becomes yellowish-brown. After leeching, the acorns can be dried in a slow oven. They can be eaten or ground into a fine meal. This meal can be mixed with flour to extend your supply; acorn meal lacks gluten and will not make dough rise. The acorns of other oaks, while requiring a longer leeching period, are also edible.
(4) Maple Trees- people think of maple syrup, but the liquid extracted from a tapped maple tree is potable. The “keys” (winged seeds) can be boiled or roasted, while the leaves can be used in salads. In emergencies, the inner bark can also be consumed.
(5) Wild Rose- this plant is widely distributed throughout the continent. Few foods have a higher vitamin C content. The rose-hips (seed pods) can be used to make jams or dried and used for soups or teas. They remain on the plant throughout winter and can be picked when other food is not available. The seeds within rose-hips can be ground and boiled in water to provide a rich source of vitamin E. Rose flowers and leaves can also be used to make tea.
(6) Lamb’s Quarter- this plant, which thrives throughout most of the U.S., is regarded as among the most delicious of wild edibles (similar to spinach). It is available from
spring to the first frost. This plant is generally 3-5 feet tall with diamond shaped leaves; the leaves have irregular teeth or shallow lobes when mature (immature plants have spade
shaped, toothless leaves). The undersides of the leaves are often coated with a thick whitish-gray powder. Before cooking, water will not wet these leaves.
(7) Cattails- this is an easily recognizable plant of swamps and marshes throughout the world. It is a year round food source. The leaf bases can be harvested from mid spring to early summer. The immature spikes can be boiled and served with butter like corn on the cob during early and mid summer. Cattail pollen requires little processing once gathered (except for sifting) and can be combined with flour stores; it is collected during June and July. The cores of the underground rootstocks are a valuable source of starch (especially during winter)- waders or a wetsuit would be a good investment for winter harvesting. Finally, small sprouts begin to form at the tip of the rootstocks between early summer and early fall
Use the following listed sources for more information about these wild edibles. Also keep in mind that this is only the tip of the iceberg; there are hundreds of wild edibles waiting to be utilized—good luck!
Thayer, Samuel. The Forager’s Harvest. Ogema, Wisconsin: Forager’s Harvest, 2006
Angier, Bradford. Feasting Free on Wild Edibles. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1969
Kinsey and Fernald. Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America. New York: Dover Publications, 1943
Peterson, Lee. Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1977
Heyl and Burt. Edible and Poisonous Plants of the Eastern States. (A card deck with color photos!) Lake Oswego, Oregon: Plant Deck, Inc., 1973