Estimated reading time: 18 minutes
Disclaimer: Please do not go out and start eating wild plants that look like the ones in this article. It is your responsibility to make sure you correctly identify wild edibles that are safe to consume. I highly recommend a full-color guide to edible plants such as Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide.
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.
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Mainly 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.
It is unusual to see grain growing on your city block, but amaranth is catching the eye of many people these days. This ancient grain often grows in hotter climates and is known for its beautiful plumes of seed heads that appear in the summer. Amaranth plants can grow up to 12 feet tall and are hard to miss, given their bountiful and colorful seed heads.
The leaves of the plant are edible and quite versatile. Add them to soups, stews, stir fry, and salads for added flavor. The leaves are also great when fermented. Harvest the seed heads by bringing a bowl to your nearest amaranth plant. The tiny grain seeds are plentiful but easy to lose, given their size. Cook the grain to use as a side dish like couscous or rice.
To learn more, check out this article on our sister site: Amaranth: The Little-Known Survival Superfood.
Of the three similar berries, blackberries have the worst thorns and the best flavor. Blackberries ripen in late summer to early fall and are known for their size and juiciness. In the regions where blackberries are prevalent, they are also invasive and will colonize hedges, ditches, fences, and roadsides.
Immature berries are light coral or pink-colored that then turn dark purple or black when ready to pick. Harvest the berries using gloves, or purple stain may appear on your hands.
Use these juicy berries alone as a healthy snack or add them to salads for a burst of flavor. Many people enjoy eating blackberries in desserts like pies, tarts, and cobbler. Pick all that you can during the few weeks that the berries are ripe as you’ll have plenty of competition with neighborhood birds, other animals, and fellow berry lovers taking advantage of this natural treat.
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.
This plant is a favorite of wild harvesters and has been called the supermarket of the wild. The roots have an edible center that can be roasted, baked, or boiled and are similar to a potato.
The center of the central stalk is tender and edible in early spring and can be used as a vegetable. The young flowering stem, 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.
To learn more, check out our other article, Cattails: The Little Known Survival Food.
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 has a strong flavor and goes well with dandelion.
As one of the most familiar wild edibles, dandelions are easy to spot. 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.
For more ideas, check out 8 Things To Do With All Those Dandelions.
8. 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. 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 single growing mushrooms and do not eat any mushroom you have not positively identified. Always cook your identified wild mushrooms before consuming them.
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 dried before storage.
10. Japanese Knotweed
This lovely plant is 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 triangular, and the stems have a jointed or knotted look. This plant will root from a single piece of stem.
Known for their quick growth rate, mulberry trees are often seen as more of a nuisance in an urban setting. However, their delicious berries help make up for their invasive root growth qualities. Find mature mulberries anytime during Mid-June to early August.
Mulberries are quite large, which should make them easy to spot in the city. There are multiple varieties of mulberries that range in color from white to dark purple. The berries can grow to a few inches long and often stain the hands of those who pick them.
Mulberries are a great snack to eat right off the tree, but you can also use them to make jellies, jams, desserts, and baked goods. They are also great to make into ice cream, which is perfect on a hot summer day when they are mature and ready to eat.
Mustard greens are easy to use in in both salads and soups. The greens are a bit spicy but add a lot of flavor to a dish. Mustard is a cool-season vegetable that looks much like spinach. It grows in a rosette formation that can get up to three feet tall as long as the weather stays cold.
Pick off tender leaves as you need them, or harvest the entire plant before it gets too hot. Harvesting in the summer will result in tough and strong flavored greens that may not be very tasty.
Another easy-to-find nut falls from the pecan tree. Early fall is the time to start looking on the ground around pecan trees for their nuts. The trees shed the nuts right before they drop their leaves, and the nuts are perfectly fine to eat gathered straight from the ground.
Harvest pecans that aren’t rotten, and break open the shell to reveal the beautiful pecan halves inside. One tree can drop a large number of nuts quickly, so make sure to have enough storage, or the neighborhood squirrels will beat you to it.
Use pecans in a wide range of dishes, including a fall favorite: pecan pie. You can also eat this nut by itself for a nutritious snack. Pecans are also used in baking cookies and bread during the fall season. Add them to salads or sprinkle chopped pecans on top of chicken for a satisfying crunch.
After you’ve gone after stinging nettles, plantain might be next on your list. Plantain grows in the same areas as stinging nettles, which is good because a crushed plantain leaf removes the sting from a nettle brush and works on bee and wasp stings.
Plantain has two varieties, and both form a rosette. 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.
15. Prickly Pear Cactus
Arid and desert climates are often covered with plenty of different cactus varieties. Prickly pear cactus is a great addition to anyone looking for a unique plant to add to the dinner table. Easily spot the plant with its large paddle-shaped stems and small bulbous fruit that grows on top.
The fruit itself can range in color from yellow to green to deep magenta. The flowers and fruit are both edible as well. Many cultures also use the stems, or nopales, as a vegetable or side dish. The pads have a lemon flavor and are quite delicious when prepared properly.
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.
Young raspberries will be white or cream-colored, while mature ones are a dark pinkish-red. Check raspberry bushes every day as the berries ripen quickly.
Eat raspberries alone as a tasty snack or add them to a variety of dishes, including salads and desserts. Raspberries are usually used to make a raspberry tart, jams, jellies and can even be added into the water for an infused raspberry drink.
While it may be hard to eat these beautiful blooms in your neighborhood, rose petals are often used in other cultures as an edible food. Pick a few rose petals to add to salads, desserts, or syrups.
You can also distill rose petals into water to make rose water. Be aware that many roses are sprayed with chemicals on a regular basis. Make sure that any roses you try are not sprayed or come from an organic garden.
This berry is much like a 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. Salmonberry matures during the summer from mid-June through late July. It is often used in making beer and served alongside a Salmon entree in its native Alaska.
The young shoots of the Salmonberry are often cooked like asparagus and are edible raw as well. This plant also has medicinal properties and can be used in a tea to help treat diarrhea. The leaves are also astringent, making them good to use on cuts, burns, and wounds.
19. 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.
These mushrooms are best within a day of appearing. Aim for small mushrooms, and never eat a mushroom you have not positively identified.
20. Sheep Sorrel
Another strongly flavored weed, Sheep Sorrel has a tart lemony flavor comparable to rhubarb. Its leaves are spear-shaped, and the center vein is often red against the dark green leaves. It prefers grassy areas or areas with disturbed soil. Eat sheep sorrel either raw in salads or cooked to lessen its tart flavor.
Also known as red sorrel, this colorful weed also holds some history as a medicinal plant. It was used to treat bacterial infections, and some cultures used it as a tea.
21. Stinging Nettle
Possibly the most frustrating wild edible is the stinging nettle. These plants are a nettle, and they sting something nasty when the stems are old. However, the young starter stalks are an excellent addition to your spring menu. Harvest the young (4 or 5 leaves high) stalks using thick gloves.
Prepare the nettles by steaming or boiling them in water. Once the plant is wilted, the sting is removed. You can also dry the leaves for a spring tonic tea and add dried mint for flavor, though dried leaves can still have upright stinging hairs, so use caution.
An easily identifiable flower, these plants’ flowers are a bright addition to any wild-foraged salad. Violets are often found in the early spring and offer beautiful color and flavor to a wide variety of recipes. Consider adding them to butter for extra flavor, or use them to enhance your lemonade. Violet flowers can also be candied or used to flavor sugar.
When foraging for violets, choose the darkest colored blooms that you can find as those are usually the sweetest. Most foragers love adding violets to dishes just for their beautiful color that helps brighten even the most mundane day.
Often planted in yards or city parks, 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.
24. Wild Carrots
These look mostly 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.
This is a medicinal plant that favors dryer climates. It has a robust astringent scent, and its two-inch-long leaves and white two-inch flowers resemble queen ann’s lace. Yarrow is best eaten anytime from spring through fall. Add the leaves to salad, soups, or sauces for a peppery flavor.
Known as a natural astringent, yarrow is excellent to add to cuts, burns, and wounds. In fact, it was commonly used by soldiers to quickly stop bleeding on the battlefield. Look out for this useful plant that has multiple health applications.
As I said at the beginning and several times throughout the article, be sure to positively identify an edible before consuming it. If you’re not sure, check a reference book such as Edible Wild Plants.
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