When foraging for wild edibles there are a few things you should keep in mind.
First, make sure you always know the plants you are harvesting. Some plants have poisonous look-alikes, so be sure you know not only what the plant looks like, but also where it grows. For example, wild carrots don’t grow in marshy lands, but their poisonous look-alike, water hemlocks, do.
Second, avoid harvesting from the sides of roadways and other areas with high exposure to exhaust, dust, and harmful chemicals. If you can, make sure the plants have not been sprayed with herbicide or chemical fertilizers. Backyards and parks that are rarely sprayed are a safer bet.
Third, if you’re not sure about a plant, use the universal edibility test to make sure it’s safe to eat. Now on to the list. Here are 19 wild edibles you can find in most cities.
1. Dandelion. One of the most familiar wild edibles. Its dark green, jagged blade shaped leaves, form a rosette in the spring grass. And the tall yellow flowers are followed by white blowy seed-heads. The early spring leaves are perfect for salads, with lots of vitamins and minerals to help get over the winter blues. Leaves harvested before the flowers bloom are the sweetest, but even after the flowers bloom the slightly bitter leaves can still be harvested for cooking. Closed flower buds also go well in stir-fries. Watch the flowers, and when they have just opened, you can harvest them and turn them into a flowery wine. The roots, in the fall are perfect to harvest, dry, and roast for a coffee substitute.
2. Stinging Nettle. Possibly the most frustrating wild edible. Stinging nettles are a nettle, and they sting something nasty when the stems are old. However, the young starter stalks are a good addition to your spring menu. Harvest the young (4 or 5 leaves high) stalks using gloves. Prepare the nettles by steaming, or in boiling water, once the plant is wilted the sting is removed. You can also dry the leaves for a spring tonic tea, add dried mint for flavor, though just dried leaves can still have upright stinging hairs, so use caution.
3. Plantain. After you’ve gone after stinging nettles, plantain might be next on your list. Plantain grows in the same areas as stinging nettles, and it is good because a crushed plantain leaf will remove the sting from a nettle brush, and it works on bee and wasp stings, too. Plantain has two varieties, both form a rosette, and one has circular leaves and the other has long narrow blade-shaped leaves. The plant forms a small, four inch high, seed spike later in the summer. Plantain can be added to salads, or used with other greens as a steamed veggie. Though its sting reduction properties are great.
4. Burdock. This plant is most often recognizable in late summer and early fall by its annoying burrs. In spring and early summer, however, the plant’s leaves can be harvested for use in tea or as part of the wild veggie selection. Due to its medicinal properties, burdock is not recommended for heavy consumption, but can be used in small amounts.
5. Chickweed. A trailing ground cover, chickweed is a yummy wild green that loves taking over gardens and slightly damp lawn areas. It is a low growing plant with paired leaves. The stem is angular rather than round, and quite damp and crisp. This is a perfect salad plant to use in combination with other wild edibles. It does have a slightly strong flavor, and goes well with dandelion.
6. Japanese knotweed. This lovely plant is actually classified as a noxious weed, which makes it a prime candidate for wild harvesting. You can eat the young shoots, growing tips, and unfurled leaves on the stalk and branches, either raw or cooked. The roots are also edible, but are mostly used for medicinal purposes. The leaves are softly triangular, and the stems have a jointed or knotted look. This plant will root from a single piece of stem.
7. Wild Carrots. These look largely like their tame cousins, though look-alikes include Queen Ann’s Lace, Wild Parsnip, Wild Asparagus, and the poisonous Water Hemlock. Roots and leaves of Wild Carrot are edible either cooked or raw. When a plant has a poisonous look-alike always verify both the plant type, and its growing location before harvesting or consuming.
8. Cattail. This plant is a favorite of wild harvesters and has been called the supermarket of the wild. The roots have an edible center than can be roasted, baked, or boiled and are similar to potato. The center of the main stalk is tender and edible in early spring, and can be used as a vegetable. The young flowering stalk, before the pollen comes, can be harvested and roasted like corn. The pollen itself can be added to baking, or used as a flour substitute.
9. Shaggy Mane mushrooms. These are a fall mushroom. The cape is conical with a base cream color, the shaggy mane over the cap is a darker reddish brown. This is an easily identifiable mushroom. Mushrooms are best within a day of appearing. Aim for small mushrooms, and never eat a mushroom you have not positively identified.
10. Fairy ring mushrooms. These are another common mushroom, and fairly easy to identify. They favor grassy areas, and the mushrooms are white to light brown in color. The individual caps are rarely more than 2 inches across, usually half an inch to an inch. The rings often have a broad diameter, and the mushrooms are usually very thickly clustered. Again, take care not to pick any singly growing mushrooms and do not eat any mushroom you have not positively identified. Always cook your identified wild mushrooms before consuming.
11. Yarrow. This is a largely medicinal plant that favors dryer climates. It has a strong astringent scent, and its two-inch long leaves and white two-inch across flowers resemble Queen Anne’s Lace. Add the leaves to salad for flavor, or use for its medicinal properties.
12. Sheep Sorrel. Another strongly flavored weed, sheep sorrel has a tart lemony flavor. Its leaves are spear shaped, and the center vein is often red against the dark green of the leaves. It prefers grassy areas, or areas with disturbed soil.
13. Violets. An easily identifiable flower, these plants’ flowers are a bright addition to any wild-foraged salad. Violet flowers can also be candied, or used to flavor sugar.
14. Raspberry. Many cities have berries and fruit trees planted around. Raspberries are easily identifiable, with their tri divided and toothed leaves, and fine thorny stems. The berries are easy to locate in the fall, and young leaves can be used for tea.
15. Salmon Berry. This berry is much like raspberry, but a light orange to yellow in color. The berries are sweet, and look much like a raspberry or blackberry, though the bushes are not as prickly.
16. Black Berry. Of the three similar berries, blackberries have the worst thorns and the best flavor. In the regions where blackberries are prevalent, they are also invasive and will colonize hedges, ditches, fences, and roadsides.
17. Acorns. Largely planted by cities as an easy to care for tree, oaks can provide an abundance of acorns. White Oak provides the sweetest acorns. Acorns are edible, after the tannins have been leached out of them, usually with soaking and a slight alkali bath. The soaked acorns can be cooked, or dried and ground as a flour substitute.
18. Walnuts. Again, planted in yards or by cities, walnut trees produce an abundance of green-clad nuts. Use gloves when breaking the green hull off the walnut, or your hands will become stained black. The nuts are edible from all walnut varieties. The annoying green hull contains a strong brown dye, and is one of the few natural dyes that does not need a fixative.
19. Hazelnuts. Usually an easily recognized tree, this nut produces catkins in the spring and nuts in the fall. The nuts are encased in a green cover. The first drop of nuts is usually the empties and non-fruitful ones. Watch the trees after the first drop, and gather or pick as many nuts as you can. Nuts will continue to ripen after they are picked. All nuts should be thoroughly dried before storage.
For more information on wild edibles, I highly recommend the app, Wild Edibles. It’s available in iTunes and Google Play. If you prefer books, Edible Wild Plants is over 400 pages and has full color photos.
What to read next: Medicine In Your Backyard