Wild Plants You Can Eat: Nature’s Sustainable Food

Wild Plants You Can Eat
Written by Dennis Owens

Nature has given us an abundance of wild plants you can eat. From berries to greens and nuts to fungus, there are plenty of plants you can eat in the wild. The trick is to know how to identify them, find them and harvest them at the appropriate times.

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This article will review a variety of edible wild plants and hopefully encourage you to try some.

Before we continue I want to issue a warning as well – if you are not 100% sure of what you are about to eat, do not eat it. It is better to be safe than sorry.

How to Find Edible Plants in The Wilderness

One of the best ways to find wild edible plants is to hook up with someone who already forages for wild plants. Their expertise and experience are invaluable. They can point you in the right direction of where local wild plants are growing. It would be best to tag along and see where and how they choose wild plants you can eat.

Find edible plants in the wilderness

You can also start in your own backyard. Many weeds are edible: dandelion, clover, wild onion, violets, and more. Even your grass is edible if less than 6” long.

There are also many books that have descriptions and drawings or pictures that can help you identify the plants. Check the library to see if there are some books about local sources.

If you are serious about learning this way of life, there are actually courses and colleges that offer wilderness training including identifying and harvesting wild edible plants.

What Nature Can Fill Your Stomach with

Wild edible food can fulfill some of the basic food groups: grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, and fats. The types of food include berries, fruits, wild greens, mushrooms, roots, vegetables, nuts, flowers, as well as medicinal and other useful plants. It will take some education and practice but you could find enough to keep yourself from starving and maybe even prepare a nice salad for your family. See more tips on how to have the best camping food to feed you and your family.

Rainbow of Berries: Orange, Red, Blue, Black

We start off with berries because they are usually easy to find and most people love berries. It is always fun to be walking a trail and come upon a stand of wild raspberries – so delicious.

Collect wild berries

Berries grow everywhere and come in an array of species, colors, and flavors. Let us examine some of these tasty berries.

  • Blackberry: this berry grows wild in the ditches and roadsides throughout the Northwest and in the Midwest as well. This berry is dark blue/black in color. The flavors range from sweet/tart to sweet depending on ripeness. Blackberries grow in a thicket or bramble. It is best to wear long sleeves when picking. The blackberry promotes digestive health. They can be eaten fresh from the plant or can be cooked in jams, jellies, cobblers, pies and such. They do have a lot of seeds, but for me, the flavor overrules the seeds.
  • Blueberry: there are many species of this little berry and all of them are edible. The colors range from a reddish blue to a dark blue. They are a meaty berry that offers a lot of antioxidants to help you regain your energy and ward off chronic diseases. They aid in brain and heart health. These berries freeze well because they contain less water than cultivated berries.
    Wild blueberries grow low to the ground, so prepare to stoop to pick them. The easiest place to pick is on a mountainside where you stand leaning into the mountain and pick in front of you so there is no bending. These berries can be eaten raw or cooked in things such as pies, jellies, cobblers, and used in muffins and other quick bread.
  • Huckleberry: there are high- and low-bush varieties that also come in blue and red colored berries. These berries are very juicy and flavorful. Huckleberry cobbler is a favorite. But of course, if you are in the wilderness your recipes will be quite different. They can be eaten from the plant or cooked similar to the other berries mentioned.
  • Raspberry: this berry is much smaller than the typical raspberry in the stores, but it really packs a punch of flavor. These berries are fragile and it is best to place them in a flat tray as you pick them so they stay in their little bowl shape. Eaten fresh is the best way; especially sprinkled on top of your morning pancakes.
  • Salmonberry: has a look similar to the raspberry but the colors range from yellow to orange-red. They are found mostly in the Northwest along the coast from Alaska to California. They grow in large thickets in moist forests along streams. The salmonberry does not have a strong flavor; in fact, you might say they are bland. They are good eaten raw and prepared in jams or jellies. The salmonberry was a staple for the First Nation peoples of the Northwest.
  • Strawberry: Wild strawberries are tiny but pack a big rush of flavor; very sweet and juicy. Strawberries boost your immune system and contain cancer-fighting compounds. Wild strawberries grow in the sun and close to the ground. They can be eaten fresh or prepared in jams, jellies, and syrups.

Greens, Greens, and More Greens

Possibly the next prolific wild edible plant falls in the greens category. There are a lot of these goodies right in your neighborhood or backyard that pack a lot of nutrients and vitamins; violets, lamb’s quarter, and watercress just to name a few.

Watercress in the wild

Greens grow in cooler moist climates, but also in dry, arid climates. It is best to become familiar with the types of greens that grow in your area.

  • Violets: Most people recognize the violet with its heart-shaped leaves and delicate flowers. You can eat both the flower and the leaves. The leaves are best when picked earlier in the spring; more mature leaves can be bitter. You can eat them raw in salads or they can be infused with tea. The benefits of violet leaves are many the most notable are blood purifying, lymphatic stimulating and skin clearing qualities.
  • Watercress: Growing in small streams or ponds, this plant is delicious. It packs a spicy flavor; when mixed with other greens and served fresh it really adds some zing to your salad. It can be eaten fresh or steamed. It is very nutritious and has been known to suppress certain types of tumors.
  • Lamb’s Quarter: Know as wild spinach, this plant grows up to 6 feet high and is abundant in moderate climates. It is related the grain quinoa and you can gather seeds and cook them similar to rice or quinoa. The leaves can be eaten raw or steamed. Eat them raw in moderation due to oxalic acid, which has a corrosive toxic nature when consumed in high amounts. This acid is also present in common green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach.
  • North American Pine Tree: Most of us have a pine tree nearby. The thought of eating pine tree leaves is not inviting. However, when the green leaves are steeped, they make a tasty tea that has a variety of nutrients; the best is vitamin C.

Back to the Roots

  • Dandelion Root: This plant grows in abundance and is very recognizable and versatile. In fact, the whole dandelion plant can be eaten. This root looks similar to a carrot in shape and size. Full of vitamins A, B, and C, this root can help you fight common illnesses and strengthen your immune system.
  • Burdock: As kids, we called this plant cocklebur as our dogs would come home from a romp in the woods full of them. Little did I know the plant was edible? This interesting plant consists primarily of carbohydrates, volatile oils, plant sterols, tannins, and fatty oils. This plant offers anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects. Should peel the root and boil for 20 minutes before eating.
  • Evening primrose: the root of this plant is fleshy and sweet with a hint of pepper. The roots can grow very long and resemble parsnips except they are reddish in color. The root can only be eaten in the first year of growth. The way to tell is the second year growth blooms, where the first does not. This root may be eaten raw or cooked. The primrose has anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties. It is also helpful with dry skin conditions and brittle nails.
  • Bitterroot: this root is common in the western states from Montana to Arizona. In fact, it is the Montana State Flower.

Bitterroot is harvested in the spring before it blooms and the blackish bark is scraped off. It should be cooked.

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The root has a starchy makeup and a bitter taste that most say is unpalatable. It has served many First Nation people, so in a pinch, I think I would try it.

Nuts About Nuts

Nuts are abundant across America. Walnuts, hickory nuts, and acorns are some of your choices.

Hazelnuts in the wild

All nuts have a shell that needs to be cracked. Once inside the meat of the nut is tasty and a good source of protein.

  • Acorns: These nuts are plentiful and very easily identified. Years ago we were told by our mother that acorns were poisonous. My friend and I disregarded her warning and gathered acorns. We cracked them open, ground them to moist “flour” that we fashioned into pancakes and cooked on the stove. Our acorn pancakes were great and we are still here to tell about it. Acorns contain complete vegetable protein, which will be a very useful food while you are in the wild.
  • Hickory nuts: these nuts grow in hardwood forests. The meat is very nutritious in antioxidants and healthy oils. They have a mild nutty flavor. They have a very hard shell so you may need to crack them with a rock in the wild.
  • Walnuts: ripe walnuts will be found on the ground. They are in a green husk which can be removed by stepping on it and rolling it with your foot. Then there is the shell which is also very hard. The meat of the walnut is rather strong and bitter. Not everyone likes the taste of walnuts, but if you are in a survival situation walnuts will definitely be better than nothing. Packed with nutrients the walnut is a good choice despite the strong, bitter taste.
  • Hazelnuts: These nuts grow in a bush or hedge rather than a tree. They grow abundantly. Often referred to as filberts, these nuts have a great, mild flavor.

The Humungous Fungus

Mushrooms are delicious, but the thought of picking the wrong one makes me nervous. This is where it might be very advantageous to tag along with someone well versed in wild mushrooms.

King Bolete edible

It seems there is quite a market for wild mushrooms and chefs are buying them for big dollars from mushroom hunters. Let us look at a few favorites.

  • Hen of the Woods: this fungus can be very large – up to 40-50 pounds! It has a great flavor and texture. It can easily complement any dish. It has immune boosting and cancer-fighting properties. This mushroom can vary in color from white to brown and everything in between. It grows in a huge cluster of overlapping fronds or leaves. They are usually found from September to October mostly in dead or dying oak.
  • King Bolete: When hunting this mushroom you are looking for a large cap on a white stem. The cap resembles a hamburger bun and is reddish-brown to light tan in color. The cap can grow as big as 10” across. You can find them in late summer to early fall. They can grow as just a single or in small groups. They have a smooth, earthy taste. If it tastes bitter it is not a King Bolete.
  • Morel Mushrooms: One of the tastiest mushrooms around is the morel mushroom. It is easily identified as well. They grow in a variety of habitats, but it appears moist sandy soils may be one of their favorites. They appear in late spring and last for about one month. It has a coned shaped cap that is honeycombed.
  • Golden Chanterelles: Found in mixed woods, the golden chanterelles are easy to find because of their bright yellow-orange coloring. The growing season is broad and dependent on the spring season of your area. They can be found from June to September. They have a fruity smell similar to apricots. The stem is firm and the ribs run part way down the stem. The flesh is firm and white with a hint of yellow. There are look-alike mushrooms that look very similar, but they have smaller ribs and the flesh will have a more yellowish color – avoid these.
  • Black Trumpets: The black trumpet is also a chanterelle with a fragrant apricot scent. They are liked because of the unique texture and flavor. The cap is trumpet shaped coming out of the stem. The color can range from brownish salmon to gray to black. They grow in deciduous forests and the ground. They do not grow on trees. The season is also from June to September.

Plants You Should Avoid

While there is an abundance of good, nutritious, wild plants to eat there are also many you should avoid. These plants are sometimes toxic and can make you sick or can be fatal. The following you can easily find in your yard or community.

Lilly of the Valley

The best rule to follow: if you cannot positively identify the plant, do not eat it. It is better to go hungry than to risk death.

  • Castor bean: Everything about this plant is poisonous. In Missouri, they plant them to control the mole population who dig up and eat the roots. This plant grows tall and has broad leaves jagged leaves. They also grow a bean pod which can be mistaken as other beans.
  • Lilly of the Valley: Just a pretty little plant, but the broad beautiful leaves will cause irregular heart rhythms and confusion. Enjoy this plant with your eyes and not your mouth.
  • Rhubarb: I grew up eating rhubarb pie, crisp, and sauce; as a kid, we ate it raw dipped in sugar. However, the leaves of this plant are not only toxic – they are deadly. Avoid rhubarb leaves, but enjoy the tart stems in your next strawberry/rhubarb pie.

Here is a generic list of types of plants to avoid in the wild:

  • Plants with milky sap
  • Plants with fine hairs, or thorns
  • Plants with bulbs or seed pods
  • Plants with a bitter taste
  • Plants with a foliage such as parsley, carrot, dill, or parsnip
  • Leaves of three, let them be.

Where The Wild Things Grow

Foraging for wild edible plants can be fun. Get some education first – either through a foraging mentor or through detailed guide books. Make it a part of your day. If you take a walk in the park daily, bring along a small basket – you may find something yummy to harvest.

See also: Wilderness Survival: Effective Skills to Shape Your Attitude

These plants grow in deep wilderness or city parks. There is a PBS documentary about a woman who lives in New York City and she forages through Central Park every day.

Edible wild plants- Henbit

If you are interested in wild plants, do not discount your own city parks or backyard. Foraging for wild edibles is growing in the United States.

Some areas have clubs that meet and discuss the wild edibles and where they are found and what you can do with them. Check your area to see if a club exists which you could attend to gain more information.

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If on a wilderness adventure and something happens that you need to find wild foods to survive – plan ahead. What I mean by that is find a small pocket sized guide book of edible plants and always have it in your pack just in case you need it. Hopefully, you never will.

Foraging for wild edible plants is more of a passion than a survival tip. Whatever your reason for harvesting wild plants, remember to enjoy where the wild things grow.

To find out more tips on how to live in the wilderness, check out our earlier piece that explores on this topic in detail.


Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.