Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
Knowing wild plants that are both edible and medicinal can save your life. If you are actively pursuing outdoor adventures like camping and hiking, this skill set is especially important. Part of nature-love-101 is understanding that the wilderness is unpredictable and even the most avid outdoors enthusiast can find themselves in unexpected survival situations.
Even without being deep in nature, it is helpful to know the way that nature can be your medicine cabinet and a source of sustenance.
Greens, Flowers, and Weeds
Plantain is a common yard ‘weed’. It is so common that most people never even notice it, yet it grows in much of North America and around the world. If you don’t use pesticides at home, it may be as close as your backyard.
This plant is nutritious, but also one that can be a regular part of your first aid kit. For minor scrapes and burns, you can simply crush the leaves and apply them directly to the wound. It works best crushed to the point the leaf moisture is brought out, so this has become one that some use as a chew poultice. This may seem gross, but chewing the leaves helps draw the helpful and healing properties out and might be your best option if you find yourself in a survival situation.
The crushed leaves are an antiseptic, antibacterial agent and a painkiller that can stop bleeding and even support skin regeneration. As someone who gets topical hives a lot, I’ve stopped a trail run to apply crushed plantain to itchy skin and had relief within minutes. Rashes and sunburn can be soothed this way. Plantain can also help effectively pull foreign objects from the skin from splinters, dirt in wounds, glass, and bug bites.
Plantain’s flowers are edible and when the plant goes to seed, the seed is harvested as psyllium. Psyllium is a bulk fiber that is used to treat diarrhea and constipation in products like Metamucil. The seed heads are edible and are especially tender while the plant is young in the season.
Eating plantain is an easily harvested survival food. Young leaves in spring are tender enough to be eaten as salad. Firmer leaves later in season can be steamed, and very late in the season leaves can be used to make tea. Plantain leaves contain the mineral silica which acts as a gentle expectorant that can help cough and congestion from a common cold, making plantain tea or tincture a great sick season remedy.
Yarrow is in the Aster/Daisy family, and it is another plant that can be found in much of the world. Growing along roads and fields, it is not hard to spot. Yarrow leaves and flowers are edible, and the plant has multiple medical uses.
The leaves are a bit bitter but mixed in a salad that is less noticeable. You can add leaves to a soup or sauté. The flowers are best used in a floral tea, though you can add them to meals as well. Yarrow in large quantities can be toxic due to the chemical composition of thujone, so it is best to not make yarrow a daily part of the diet; however, it is safe in moderation. It is recommended that only white and pink yarrow flowers be ingested.
Yarrow can be used topically. It is a great plant to be aware of in case you have a significant wound while in nature because it quickly stops bleeding and helps blood clot. It is also antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory. Because it promotes healing and clotting quickly, only use yarrow on clean wounds. Dirt can be trapped in a wound and cause infection if you use yarrow on a wound that has dirt embedded because of the quick healing when yarrow is used.
You can use a yarrow leaf poultice on bruises and swollen injuries to help promote healing. Yarrow tea can help menstruation issues whether it is a heavy menstrual cycle or a lack of menstruation. It also helps sooth cramps.
Burdock may sounds familiar because the common ‘bur’ that you get stuck on your clothes from a hike or time in the woods, is from this amazing plant. Burdock is edible and medicinal, but it does often grow alongside of poisonous plants like belladonna and has look-a-likes, so be sure you’re able to identify with certainty.
Burdock roots, shoots, and leaves are all edible. Young roots are most tender and a bit like a parsnip. Mature roots can be enjoyed like other root vegetables. Burdock root provides energy through protein and carbohydrates, fiber, several vitamins, and amino acids.
The shoots are delicious prior to flowering. If you catch the shoots before they flower, they taste like an artichoke, but once a flower bud starts to form, the shoot hollows. The leaves are edible but can be tough and bitter so cooking them is the best way to eat them.
Burdock root is used in many herbal medicines, as common as your local grocery store. Burdock is a regular ingredient in many detox teas.
To reap the benefits of this plant you can enjoy the root in your diet, create a tincture, infuse foods or vinegar, make teas, or even encapsulate powdered burdock root.
Burdock is known to cleanse the liver and promote bile production, cleanses the blood, and has diuretic qualities. It promotes blood flow in skin tissues to help with conditions like eczema. It’s also anti-inflammatory and antibacterial so it is helpful to apply to skin conditions like acne, or an irritated scalp.
A dandelion needs no introduction, and while many look at it as a pesky yard weed it is much more. The entire dandelion plant is edible and very nutritious. The leaves can be added to a salad or any other dish you’d use greens, they are high in vitamin A, K, C, and E and a source of minerals like calcium, iron, folate, and magnesium. Young dandelion is the least bitter and tender to eat.
Dandelion root has been used as a coffee substitute, and really tastes just like coffee. If you’re looking to cut down on caffeine this is a beneficial way to do it, as even the root has medicinal benefits like detoxifying organs (liver, kidneys, gallbladder), offering a relief to oxidative stress, reducing inflammation, aids digestion and toxin removal.
Dandelion leaves are a natural diuretic and blood purifier.
5. Wild Lettuce
Wild lettuce is found in the United States and much of the world. It is also known as prickly lettuce, and opium lettuce due to its pain-relieving abilities. It does not contain opium. The leafy plant typically grows on a single stem and has a milky substance inside that turns tan when exposed to air.
The leaves, like lettuce, can be eaten raw but tend to have a bitter flavor. Cooking like a sauteed green like spinach is a more palpable preparation.
The white milky sap is where the opium name comes from. This sap has sedative effects, and very effective pain relief like a morphine, or opium, but non-addictive nor disruptive of the gut. Because of the sedative effects, this is a plant to be mindful of the dose.
The sap also calms anxiety, restlessness, and helps when struggling with shock. If able, this substance is good to make a tincture to help be able to measure dosing.
6. Wild Violets
Wild violets grow in much of the United States and Canada as a perennial plant staying close to the ground from early spring through summer. Like the name suggests, they’re a purple flower. Pansies are in the same family and are edible in the same way.
The young plants are best for edible purposes. While young, the leaves and flowers are tender, though skip the roots and seeds which may make you feel queasy. As the plant matures, cooking the leaves and flowers will soften them and release some of the bitterness that acquires as the plant matures. There are a variety called sweet violets which stay a bit sweeter than the rest. The leaves and flowers contain vitamin A and C and antioxidants.
Medically wild violets have analgesic (pain relieving) and antiseptic properties to help pain and prevent infection in scrapes and burns. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and a soothing effect so it can be applied on rashes and insect bites.
The leaves have the flavonoid rutin which has anti-inflammatory and blood thinning properties. Eating the leaves can help act as a blood thinner but also help with ailments like varicose veins or hemorrhoids. Because violets are also a mild laxative, they can help hemorrhoids both by relieving the pressure and helping to relieve constipation.
7. Bee Balm (Monarda Didyma)
Bee balm, sometimes known as Oswego Tea, is a wild plant growing in much of north America, this perennial is actually in the mint family.
The name Oswego tea developed because it was frequently used by the Oswego tribe The flowers and leaves are edible. Oswego tea is made from the dried leaves and flowers.
This natural herb should be avoided in pregnancy as it can cause miscarriage. It is an anti-spasmodic and heavy dose can cause uterine contractions. Though, this can be an herbal remedy for an absence of menstruation.
Because this plant is a mild diuretic it has been used to help reduce fever through sweating. The vapors can also open sinuses during congestion.
Bee balm is a soothing plant for minor injuries and rashes. Because it’s in the mint family, it is similarly soothing and refreshing for headaches and stomach upset.
Mullein is another common weed in much of North America, especially abundant in the eastern states. It is edible, both the flowers and the leaves, though it is most used in a tea.
Mullein is an expectorant and antispasmodic making mullein tea very helpful for conditions like asthma and sickness like bronchitis. You can also drink Mullein tea for muscles spasms or use infused oil topically on spasming muscles.
Because of the anti-inflammatory, calming affects, and anti-bacterial properties mullein-infused oil is helpful for ailments like sunburn and other inflammatory skin conditions.
9. Jerusalem Artichokes
Also known as sunchokes because this nutritious and medicinal edible is part of a plant in the sunflower family. They’re noticeable by their beautiful yellow flowers, but the magic is in the tuber-root that tends to resemble ginger knobs. Less starchy than a potato, but with much more protein, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and prebiotics.
This perennial is easy to grow and maintain. They spread, so once you find a patch it’s safe to assume that there will be more since this plant is sometimes considered invasive.
Jerusalem artichoke can help lower high blood pressure and help glucose levels in the blood. One cup contains 643 mg of potassium and 6 mg of sodium and the prebiotic fiber inulin. Potassium helps the body metabolize extra sodium, which is a common trigger of high blood pressure. Inulin helps lower blood sugar and can help reduce fasting insulin.
Inulin is a prebiotic fiber, which means that Jerusalem artichokes can help relieve constipation and promote a healthy gut. The prebiotic elements are non-digestible but ferment in the digestive track feeding the good bacteria in the gut. Also full in B vitamins, like thiamine, which helps stomach digestion.
Full of antioxidants and helpful flavonoids, Jerusalem artichokes also can give your immune system a boost and relieve oxidative stress. It is also a great plant-based source of iron and cooper which supports blood health.
Another backyard weed that is simply under-noticed and under-known for its medical properties. Spreading like a ground cover, this plant is tasty and nutritious with a great crunch when added to salads.
Purslane naturally tastes salty and a bit sour. Best when young, the leaves are crisp, but grow in bitterness through the later season. You can eat the leaves raw or cooked. The stems and flowers are also edible raw or cooked. Purslane has lots of vitamin, minerals like iron, plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants.
Purslane improves pulmonary function when eaten. For people with airway disease, or asthma, regular consumption of Purslane can help open bronchial tubes and increase oxygen levels.
There are many different types of studies that have shown an improvement to patients with diabetes who regular eat Purslane. The seed can improve insulin levels and reuse triglycerides.
Purslane (both leaves and seeds) offer cancer fighting antioxidants, but there have also been studies suggested that they have anti-cancer properties.
Anyone who has been near a pond or other wetland has seen the common cattail. The rhizome is edible whether powdered, or boiled, or steamed, like a potato. Young shoots of the plant are edible peeled and sliced. Early in spring the young plant itself can be eaten raw or cooked. The green flower spike can be eaten boiled like corn on the cob. You will remove the outer layer.
Cattails are a great natural remedy for treating skin conditions, and this includes any part of the plant. You can use the root as a poultice for burns, rashes, bug bits. The fuzzy flowers can also be used for minor injuries and skin irritation.
The lower part of the stem has a sap that can be applied for pain relief and antiseptic. This can be applied externally or taken internally. If stranded in the wilderness with oral pain or tooth ache, this is a good option for some immediate pain relief applied on the spot.
12. Wild Strawberry Plants
Coming across a wild strawberry is always exciting. Keep an eye on the ground in summer and it’s easy to spot the red berries that look exactly like you expect, just a bit smaller. The plant’s white flowers bloom in April and May with fruit arriving through June and July.
Seeds can be widespread by birds, and because it’s a perennial, once you’ve found them, you will know where to look the next year. It’s not just the fruit that is edible, though that might be what you much first. You can use the entire strawberry plant.
Wild strawberry leaves can be used as an astringent when applied topically. They have antiseptic and some anti-bacterial properties. You can also dry the leaves to use as a tea. The leaf tea can sooth a sore throat. Add in dried roots to the tea and it also help with stomach conditions and diarrhea. The leaves and roots are also a natural diuretic.
If you find yourself having a bout of gout, strawberry fruit is anti-inflammatory and prevents uric acid crystals from building up in the body. These crystals are what can lead to gout.
Mushroom identification can be tricky because many edible mushrooms have poisonous lookalikes. Take considerable care when harvesting mushrooms to eat or to use medicinally.
13. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s mane mushroom gets its shaggy hair appearance that is much like a lion’s mane. This mushroom grows on dead trees like maple, oak, and beech. They grow from late summer to early fall, and they are edible and medicinal.
Lion’s mane can be eaten raw, cooked, or used for tea. The flavor is exceptional and has a texture or lobster.
Lion’s mane mushrooms are incredible for the brain. They are known to enhance memory and boost regrowth and recovery of nerve function. Patients with brain disease like dementia, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis may use this mushroom for the brain boosting and healing support it offers. Studies have been limited, but many patients have spoken of the support they have felt in using this mushroom.
Because Lion’s Mane stimulates Nerve Growth Factor, this remedy is helpful in regenerating the Nervous System for a variety of illness and injury.
There are multiple studies that show the Lion’s Mane is a good support for treating multiple cancers. It slows and stops cancer growth, prevents it from spreading and stimulates the immune system.
Lion’s Mane Mushrooms also lowers bad cholesterol, acts as an anti-inflammatory, improves mental health, rich in antioxidants, and naturally reduce lactic acid build-up.
14. Turkey Tail Mushroom
Turkey tail mushrooms are a wonderful medicine and incredibly medicinal, but they do have some look-a-likes. Only harvest these fungi if you have certainty or an expert to verify.
Turkey tail are nutritious with loads of vitamins and minerals but they’re tough to digest. They’re not easily chewed, and fairly empty when it comes to flavor. They’re best used dehydrated, powdered, tincture, and in teas.
Because of the nutrients and antioxidants in Turkey tail, this is an immune booster. Turkey tail also is anti-inflammatory and anti-viral.
Turkey tail is often used as an enhancement therapy for cancer patients as it boosts the immune system and helps kill cancer cells. It is also used as an immune booster commonly for patients with HIV and AIDS.
Because of the prebiotic and probiotic compounds within Turkey tail, this mushroom also helps gut issues like leaky gut and digestive disorders.
15. Reishi Mushroom
Reishi mushrooms are edible when cooked, but they tend to be bitter. In a survival situation, it’s beneficial to know that it is edible though you typically would look for alternatives.
Reishi mushrooms are an incredible anti-inflammatory medicine both inside and out. Topically they work better than many over-the-counter meds. Taking internally as a tea, powdered or tincture, Reishi mushrooms are a great anti-inflammatory for immune diseases or injury.
Rich in antioxidants, Reishi’s help relieve oxidative stress and other stressors in the body. There is long tradition, as well as current use, of Reishi mushrooms for life longevity in cancer patients. It also enhances the immune system, and is anti-tumor/cancer.
Because of the immune system boost with Reishi mushroom use, it can promote healing. It also is anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial.