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There are over 20,000 wild edible plants growing in the United States and Canada. They vary by geographical area, habitat, harvest season, ease of harvest, type of food provided, preparation procedures, whether eaten raw, cooked, or as an ingredient in recipes, whether they are eaten when young or mature, taste, ease of digestion, any poisonous parts on the same plant, whether often contaminated by pesticides or road exhaust, etc. Here is a very small sampling of some of the more widespread varieties.
This familiar food now grows wild on roadsides and in disturbed areas. (A “disturbed area” is one that has been dug up or otherwise disturbed by bulldozer, rototiller, plow, or logging equipment.) This is the same plant that is available in the grocery store. It is harvested in the spring. Eat the young shoots only, as the other parts and older stalks are mildly toxic.
Cattails grow in ditches, and in the margins of marshes, ponds and lakes. This plant is extremely versatile, providing small pointed root sprouts for trail snacks or as a cooked vegetable, the inner parts of stalks as a cooked or raw vegetable, and green bloom stalks while still in papery sheaths (before pollen forms) as a cooked vegetable. In addition, pollen may be added to flour when baking and roots may be ground into flour. Caution: When harvesting from the young plants, choose only those growing in an area where old stalks are abundant, to avoid confusion with poisonous wild iris species.
This weed is ubiquitous. The entire plant may be harvested, starting in spring when no flowers are evident and continuing until the leaves are too bitter to eat. Older roots, for tea or herbal tinctures, are harvested in fall and winter. Leaves and buds may be prepared as a cooked vegetable. Flowers may be dipped in fritter batter and fried. Young leaves are good in salads. Roots may be roasted and ground and used as a coffee substitute. Note: Dandelion leaves are smooth. The flower is on a single (not branched) stalk that grows out of the crown of leaves that grows at ground level.
This common “weed” grows in gardens, fields, and vacant lots. It grows low to the ground with large shiny leaves and yellow flowers. Cook the young tips and shoots as cooked vegetables or in casseroles. Also use in salad. The older stems may be pickled. Add fresh parts or dried stem to soup. Add dried seed to flour for baking.
This wild tree grows in floodplains, river valleys, and the lower slopes of hills, mainly in eastern and southeastern U.S. Shake the tree to drop the berries onto a tarp. They may be eaten as is, or with cream. Or make juice and add lemon juice and sweetener, with or without ice and/or club soda. Mulberries may also be used as other berries in pies, cakes, bread, muffins, jams or jellies. You can also cook the young shoots (picked just as the leaves are about to unfold). Be sure to cook them, as otherwise they contain hallucinogens, as do unripe fruits. Note: White Mulberry is more widespread, but the fruit is quite different, being extremely sweet. Best used as dried fruit for breads, cookies and pudding. The dried fruits can also be ground and mixed with ground nuts to make candy balls. The shoots may be cooked, the same as Red Mulberry.
Common Day Lily
This garden plant often grows wild. It may be eaten in spring, summer, or autumn. Dig up the roots to harvest the small tubers, then replant the roots. The tubers will re-grow. These make a nutty-flavored addition to salads or they may be cooked in salty water, as a potato substitute. Flower buds should be cooked for a few minutes, as they might irritate the throat when raw. Both flowers and buds may be dipped in egg batter and fried in hot oil. They also add a gelatinous element to soups when added at the end of the cooking. If you have plenty, dry them in the air for about a week, store in dry bottles and use later in soups to help thicken them. CAUTIONS: If you eat a lot, they may have a slight laxative effect. If there are no orange flowers at the time you are digging tubers, be sure you have not confused it with a wild iris, which has a similar leaf. It’s best to have a book for identification in that case.
Arrowhead, Duck Potato, or Wapato
Wet shores of fresh water lakes, streams, ponds, and bogs. The edible part is the tubers. Since the plants are growing in water, simply loosen the tubers from the roots in the mud, using a hoe, rake, or (like the Indians) your feet! The tubers will float to the surface. These are most tasty cooked like potatoes. Bake or boil 30 minutes, then peel. Serve with butter and lemon juice. Half-inch slices may be dried for storage, then soaked 20 minutes before cooking.
Edible summer, autumn and winter. Wild roses grow in disturbed sites, such as fencerows, fields, empty pastures, and on wood edges. The fruits (rosehips) are the most nutritiously valuable for the Vitamin C and minerals they contain. They may be eaten fresh or made into tea, sauce or jelly. They may be dried for later use, then powdered and sprinkled on breakfast cereal, or used to make tea. The young leaves may be cut into strips and dried for tea. The flower petals may be used in candy, tea or jelly.
White Oak Acorns
The acorns of white oaks do not usually require leaching to remove tannins, as do the acorns of red oaks. A coarser grind makes grits that can be used like chopped nuts. A finer grind makes an acorn meal, to make muffins, pancakes or roast for coffee substitute. Whole shelled acorns may be dipped in candy syrup and left to harden.
Found in the shallows or muddy banks of slow-moving, clear water, such as springs and streams. Watercress may be harvested year-round and the leaves, buds and blossoms eaten raw in salads or sandwiches or cooked as a vegetable. It has a strong, peppery taste and may be mixed with milder salad greens, sandwich ingredients, or pot herbs to produce the desired flavor. If the purity of the water is questionable and they are to be eaten raw, rinse in water treated with iodine and then rinse.
Peppermint and Spearmint
These popular herbs grow wild in ditches, along stream banks and in wet areas of all kinds. They are useful in tea, seasonings, candy and jam, and are used in many herbal remedies. Pick the leaves anytime, preferably on a dry day. Then dry the leaves on paper, so they don’t decay.
For more information on Wild Edibles, see this book: Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods by Elias and Dykeman