LOOKING FOR WILD FOOD is a primordial form of travel. Even if the area where you’re searching is just a couple blocks of urban or suburban park or hillside, the search can take on the feel of something almost pre-language, a vestige of some earlier time.
I first started learning about edible plants when I was seven or eight. In the three decades since I’ve found wild edibles from Colorado to California to Mexico to Central America to the Pacific Northwest to Patagonia. The more I’ve learned the more I’ve realized a couple striking things:
No matter where you are, no matter how seemingly “harsh” the terrain is, there is always some kind of wild food available if you have the knowledge of what / where to look.
Searching for wild foods can give you the ability to see, smell, hear, and be aware of details in the landscape — directions and slopes and shadows, for example — that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
The following is meant less as a real guide than as a point of entry into the act of foraging and learning about plants. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve focused on wild edibles in North America, although many of these plants can be found in other parts of the world. My main criteria was that the foods can be found right in and around urban areas. Please be mindful when harvesting edibles that you properly identify all plants (use a guidebook), and do not take more than you need. Most of all, take time to just enjoy moving through the landscape as you’re gathering.
Plantain is a good example of how patches of “weeds” are often way more complex and full of different wild edibles than you might ever imagine. Found in most “weedy” areas such as overgrown lawns, disturbed areas along roadways, and sometimes growing right in the cracks of sidewalks, plantain is easy to identify by the way its leaves narrow to pseudo-stalks. The outermost leaves of plantain are tough and need to be cooked so as not to be too bitter, but the innermost shoots are tender and can be picked and eaten raw.
Probably the simplest of all wild edibles, needles from pine and most coniferous trees provide vitamin c and may be picked and chewed raw or prepared in a tea. New growth (typically lighter green) is more tender / less bitter.
A teacher told me once that if you’re ever in a survival situation and you found cattails, you’d never go hungry. There are several edible parts of the cattail I’ve never tried, but have heard are delicious, such as shaking out the pollen heads and using as a flour substitute. The one I’ve tried is digging up a cattail down to its root (actually a rhizome) and cooking it like a potato. It’s really tasty.
Acorns are edible and very nutritious, however they need preparation (leaching) to remove the tannic acid that makes them bitter. To leach, begin by boiling the acorns 10-15 minutes to soften the shell. Once acorns cool, cut them in half and remove the meat. Collect the meat in a pot, cover with water, then boil again for 10 minutes. Throw out the water and boil them again, then repeat the process 1-2 times. You’ll be left with sweet acorn “meat.” Salt to taste.
Nopal or “paddle cactus” is native throughout most of Mexico and the Western US, but can also be found in certain places in the east, and is commonly planted in people’s yards. I’ve found lots of it growing naturally in parks in Boulder, Colorado. The fruit of the Nopal is called “tuna” or prickly pear and is sweet and delicious. You may need to cut away a few spines before eating. The “paddle” of the cactus or Nopal, can be stripped of spines, then cooked like a vegetable.
Sumac is a shrublike tree with strange spirally-arranged, pinnately compound leaves, and fruits clustered into “drupes” or “bobs” that terminate the end of each branch. Note that there is a poison sumac you want to stay away from, but this is easily distinguished with the white fruits instead of the regular sumac’s deep blood red. When ripe, the sumac fruit can literarlly be cut off and licked like a sour lollipop. We’ve prepared sumac “lemonade” that came out delicious: boil water, add the fruit, let stand and cool, then pour through cheesecloth. Afterwards add sugar and ice.
Junipers are small coniferous trees and shrubs. There are dozens of species found all over the world in their native habitat, and also transplanted / used as ornamentals. Their needles range from soft to sharp and spiky. Berries ripen from green to greenish-grey, eventually reaching a deep blue color (often with the skin slightly wrinkled) when they are ripe. More of a spice than an actual food, ripe juniper berries may be chewed for flavor, spitting out the seeds. Their medical properties are still being studied by science in relationship with treating diabetes.
Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) are one of several nut-producing trees native to the eastern US, and commonly planted as ornamental trees in other parts of the world. The trees have blackish, heavily furrowed bark, and long beautiful pinnate leaves with 15-23 leaflets. The fruits turn from green (as in the picture above) to golden yellow as they mature in the Fall. The thick husks around the shells must be removed (wear gloves to prevent staining your hands), and then store / cure the nuts (in their shells, out of the sun) for at least two weeks. When the shells break crisply with a hammer or nutcracker, they’re ready to go, and should be delicious.
There are dozens of species of the genus Mentha growing all over the world. Identifying mint is a good introduction into learning about plant structures, as all mints have a very recognizable square-shaped (as opposed to round) stem, and leaves arranged in opposite pairs. Pick the leaves and newer-growth stems, and add directly to boiling water for a wonderful tea.
Wild Onion is easy to identify by smell and its hollow, leafless, rounded stalks (just like chives or small versions of “green onion”). Look for them in vacant fields or lots or any grassy place.
Persimmon trees are native to many areas of the eastern US, with other species growing in Asia and other parts of the world. They are sometimes planted in parks as ornamentals as well. I added persimmons here to show that not all wild edibles are bland or tasteless. When ripe (look for fruits to be deep brownish orange with a pungent sweet aroma), persimmons are among the sweetest, most delectable fruits.
Wood sorrel is sometimes mistaken for clover. Both plants have leaftlets in sets of three (except for the occasional shamrock) but wood sorrel leaflets are heart-shaped instead of rounded. Sorrel leaves are edible, have a pleasantly tart taste, and are high in vitamin c. Eat in moderation.
Dandelions are found everywhere. Flowers and leaves are edible. Add directly to salads.
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is native throughout the eastern US and much of western Mexico, and is sometimes planted as an ornamental tree in other areas. The cherries are small, and sometimes bitter, but can also be very sweet depending on the tree. Look for birds eating them.
Fireweed is a beautiful, tall-stalked, purple flower that’s native and commonly found throughout temperate areas in North America. I used to find large patches of it in the Rockies, particularly around areas that were in recovery from recent forest fires. The flower capsules are delicious, particularly the young ones that haven’t yet opened (found in the upper parts of the flower pictured here), having a delicate honey-like flavor. The young shoots are also edible.
The classic wild edible throughout the Southeast, Pacific Northwest, and many other regions around the world.
Pawpaw is indigenous to the eastern US and, while a small, shrub-like tree, they produce the largest edible fruit (banana-sized) indigenous to North America. I’ve found them in Georgia and Florida, the latter in a state park in Sarasota. Part of the joy of tasting wild foods is that you’re often trying flavors you’ve never had before. Pawpaw has a taste somewhat like banana, somewhat like mango, but still its own unique flavor.
Cranberries are not the easiest wild foods to find, but they’re out there. I’ve found cranberries growing up on mountaintops in Maine. These pictured here were growing by the roadside in Sutton NH.
Salmonberry is native to the Pacific Northwest. As a plant it’s nearly identical to blackberries except for the beautiful golden yellow berries. My daughter and I have picked these by the handful at Ravenna Park in Seattle.
Wild Grape (Muscadine)
Muscadine or wild grape is native to the southeastern US, and is very common in woods along roadways, disturbed areas, and even growing in little patches of woods between or behind houses. Muscadine teaches a good lesson in wild vs. domesticated foods: although sweet when ripe, it’s tough skin and numerous seeds make it less “friendly” to eat than the grapes you buy at a grocery store.
I’ve found fennel everywhere I’ve been. It’s immediately idenfiable by its fleshy stems and “Queen Anne’s Lace” looking flowers, only yellow colored. Take a quick pinch of the shoots and smell: does it smell instantly like licorice? If so it’s fennel. The shoots can be chewed raw, and the seeds can be collected and used as a spice / mint.
Along with fennel, clover is the only plant here not native to the Americas. It was brought from the Old World by settlers. It’s useful to know, however, because it grows everywhere. All parts of the clover – flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves – are edible. As with most greens, the youngest leaves are the most tender and palatable.