In the modern world it is easy to forget that humans used to be hunter-gatherers, and it can be hard to believe that there are many people who still use wild plants in their diet. The good news is – with just a bit of time and learning – it is pretty easy to start foraging wild plants yourself!
There are actually a lot of wild plants that are edible, nutritious, and easy to find, even in some not-so-wild landscapes. Funny enough, some of them are even considered weeds. With just a little bit of knowledge, you can enjoy eating a bunch of wild plants. So whether you are looking for a quick snack while you are out on the trail or fun ingredients that you can add into your cooking at home, you can get started with these 6 plants!
Notes on foraging plants
Before we get started, there are always a few things to note when talking about foraging and eating wild plants, especially if you are new to it all. Some key tips and notes are:
- Always make sure that you are confident in your plant ID before you eat anything. Some plants can be toxic and even deadly.
- Do not forage in areas where you think there have been pesticides or herbicides sprayed. Also do not forage too close to roads or other pollution sources.
- Always leave some for others and for the ecosystem. A general guideline for most foragers is to not take more than 25-30% of what you find.
- Make sure you ask permission before foraging on private land.
With that said, here are 6 edible plants that you can find in your backyard in much of the USA and other parts of the world.
6 wild plants you can eat!
For sure there is a huge list of wild plants growing right in your backyard that you can eat. However, we picked 6 that are pretty easy to identify and that are simple to incorporate into cuisine.
The dandelion is a wide spread plant that is normally considered a pretty annoying weed, and though it is really only classified as invasive in a few places, it can be found in various countries outside of its native range. In fact, originating in Eurasia, these plants are now well-dispersed through many parts of the world. Despite all this, we want to help change your perspective on this plant – from a pesky weed, to a great culinary opportunity!
Dandelions make up a big group of flowers in the genus Taraxacum, The one that most of us are familiar with is the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).
Though most people are pretty familiar with dandelion, here are the main characteristics of dandelions:
- Dandelion’s actually get their name from the leaf shape, whose elongated pointed lobes resemble a “lion’s tooth.”
- Dandelion leaves grow directly from the base of the plant in a circular arrangement. This is called a “basal rosette formation.”
- The flower is a bright yellow flower with many petals, forming a composite flower head. When the flower goes to seed it becomes the iconic white fluffy ball, sometimes called a “dandelion clock” or “blowball.”
- The stem of a dandelion is hollow with a milky white sap inside of it. This is what people talk about when they refer to “dandelion milk.”
- The taproot of Dandelions is long and grows very deep. It is very thick and fleshy, which – spoiler alert – can be used in food as a root vegetable.
You can eat every part of a dandelion, and it is good for you! Full of vitamins and nutrients, the leaves, stems, roots, and flowers can all be eaten in various ways. People make salads with the leaves, which taste something like a bitter arugula, and flowers, which are possibly the tastiest part. The flowers can also be battered and fried to make dandelion fritters! The roots can be eaten like any other root vegetable, and you can also dry and ground them up to use as a coffee replacement (maybe to work into your routine with chaga tea). You can also find recipes for dandelion jelly, wine, and teas! Honestly, he possibilities are pretty much endless.
In addition to using dandelion as a food, dandelion “milk” has long been used as a medicinal plant. People use dandelion to treat various ailments, including fungal skin infections, anemia, and more.
Wild currants are a bushy plant that gives delicious berry-like fruits to enjoy. This plant is found in the genus Ribes, which is made up of both currants and gooseberries. A common variety is the Wax Currant (Ribes cereum).
Identifying Wild Currant
- Wax Currant plants are deciduous shrubs that can grow up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall. They have a bushy appearance.
- Wax Currant leaves are typically alternate, which means that they are arranged singly along the stem at different heights. The leaves are oval-like and tend to have 3 little lobes. The edges are serrated or toothed. You will also notice that they are glossy, hence the name “waxy.”
- Wax Currant flowers are small, bell-shaped flowers that hang in little clusters. The flowers have 5 petals and are droopy. They can be a few different colors, ranging from pale yellow to pink or purple.
- After the flowers are pollinated, they develop into small berry-like fruits – this is the part you can eat! The fruit is round, smooth, and juicy and can vary from red to purple or black. They have a very distinct little “tail” where the flower used to be.
- You will find Wax Currant plants in mountainous areas, forests, woodlands, and other areas with well-drained soil. They are adapted to various climates and can tolerate both sun and shade.
These berries are easy to find and delicious, if a bit tart. Though you won’t want to eat the rest of the plant, the fruits are great! Currants are fun to eat as-is or to take home for adding into your oatmeal, making jams, and more.
Onions tend to be an absolute staple in cuisine around the world. Though onions come in many shapes and sizes, their distinct odor and taste is an essential part to many dishes that we all love. The exciting thing is that Wild Onions can replace store bought ones in your recipes. Normally found near water, you can spot them because of their grassy chive-like leaves.
Identifying Wild Onion
Wild Onion belongs to the Allium genus, which contains many species of Wild Onion, as well as Wild Garlic. However the key characteristics of wild onions are as follows.
- Wild Onion leaves are typically long and slender, and look like grass. The leaves grow right from the base of the plant and grow in a clump.
- Wild Onion plants produce small, spherical to elongated flower heads that are usually white, but sometimes pink. The exact shape changes based on the species, but they grow on a leafless stem.
- One of the easiest ways to identify Wild Onion is because it smells just like any other onion. You can crush the leaves or the bulb and you will notice the powerful onion smell.
- Like other members of the onion family, Wild Onion plants have a larger bulbous base or bulb underground.
- You can find this perennial herb growing in clusters in a lot of different areas, but usually near water.
The grassy leaves of the wild onion look really similar to Death Camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum), which is of course toxic. The Death Camas however, does not smell like onion, so if you do not smell a very distinct onion smell, don’t eat it. The flowers are also quite different, but it is good practice to take some time to learn to tell the difference.
Eating Wild Onion
We won’t dive into this too much because you can just use wild onion the way you would use store bought onion: pick, clean, and enjoy in your favorite dishes!
You are probably more familiar with alfalfa as something to feed to livestock, but it can be a really nutritious addition to your diet as well, and it is something that you can forage!
Identifying Wild Alfalfa
Wild Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is pretty closely related to cultivated one, which is a common feed for livestock, it is just a bit smaller. Alfalfa also belongs to the bean family (Fabaceae)!
- Wild Alfalfa leaves are made up of three leaflets. The leaflets are elongated and oval-shaped, with serrated or toothed edges. The leaves grow alternately along the stems.
- The flowers of wild alfalfa are pretty easy to recognize. The purplish-blue or violet flowers grow in clusters on tall spikes. The flowers have what is called a “papilionaceous” structure with five petals: two upper petals, two side petals, and a lower petal that forms a keel.
- Wild Alfalfa is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows from a taproot. It grows very upright, with generally hairy stems that can reach heights of several feet.
- Wild Alfalfa is commonly found in open fields, prairies, meadows, and disturbed areas. It prefers well-drained soils and is fairly tolerant to many conditions.
Eating Wild Alfalfa
We are not going to claim that Wild Alfalfa is the most delicious thing you can forage, but it works really well as an addition to your smoothies. Though alfalfa is usually eaten in sprouts or other supplements for its nutritional value, you can pick it, wash it, and add it into your diet to get vitamin K, vitamin C, magnesium, and more!
There are probably more edible flowers out there than you’d think, violets being one of them. Since we normally wait until a flower becomes a fruit, we don’t always consider eating them before then. This is a shame, becasue it can be a really fun way to forage and add some extra color into your diet. The great thing about violets is that you can also eat the whole plant.
Identifying Wild Violets
There are a lot of species of violets (Viola sp.) as well as many hybrids, so characteristics can vary quite a bit between them, but the main identifiers are as follows:
- The leaves grow from the base of the plant and are heart-shaped or oval with a rounded base. They have toothed edges and often have a distinct veining pattern.
- Violets produce small, five-petaled flowers that come in many colors, including purple, blue, white, and yellow. The flowers are usually symmetrical and have a distinctive “spur” at the back of the petals, this is where the nectar is. They also produce a really pleasant and sweet smell.
- Violets are low-growing perennial plants that are found in many different habitats. They have a fibrous root system and often form dense clumps or colonies.
- Violets will produce seeds in small, rounded capsules but they can also spread through above-ground runners or rhizomes.
Eating Wild Violets
Edible flowers make for a really beautiful way to add color to your kitchen. You can also add them into teas for color, aroma, and nutritional value.
Violets are great because they have vitamin A and C, iron, calcium, and may help with cholesterol levels! There are many great recipes for homemade tea and we also recommend picking the flowers to add them into any dish as a pop of color. They are a healthier beautiful alternative to things like fondant for decorating cakes, and really add something special to salads and other dishes. Believe it or not, I have even seen them added onto a dish of fancy nachos!
This example likely won’t be found in many edible plant guides because though you can eat the flowers, it is not particularly tasty. So maybe it is better just as a nice pop of color to your salads. Either way, it is good to know you can eat it!
As an interesting fact, the Indian Paintbrush plant is a partially parasitic plant. It is similar to the ghost pipe in the way that it connects to the roots of other plants and steals some of their nutrients.
Identifying Indian Paintbrush
The common name Indian Paintbrush refers to many species in the Castilleja genus, so again, there will be a few variations in how it looks. When in doubt, you can supplement this with a local plant guide to learn more! The main things to look out for in Indian Paintbrush are:
- Indian Paintbrush leaves are generally narrow, elongated, and taper to a point. The leaves are often deeply lobed or divided, making them look a bit like ferns.
- Indian Paintbrush is named for its vibrant and showy flowers that tend to be red, orange, yellow, or pink. The “flowers” consist of multiple bracts, which are actually modified leaves, that surround the true small inconspicuous flowers. The bracts look a bit like a paintbrush.
- The spikes can grow just a few inches or even a few feet. They can have multiple flowers on each spike.
- They are usually found in prairies and also like drier conditions.
Eating Indian Paintbrush
Again, this plant serves as our reminder that though some plants are edible, it does not mean that they overly tasty. However, the flowers of the Indian Paintbrush have vitamin C and carotenoids which are both great for the immune system.
Despite the mixed ratings on flavors, many people do in fact eat this plant, and have for many years, many even say it can be tasty. ON the other hand, the potential levels of selenium in the plant cause some people to caution eating too much of it, especially because they have been known to poison livestock. We recommend just keeping this one noted down as something to add some nice color into teas, salads, and to show off your edible plant knowledge to your friends while enjoying the outdoors.
There are many great edible plants out there that have nutritious and medicinal value, are beautiful, and easy to find! Foraging is also a great way for you to get out and reconnect with nature. With some time to learn ,and a bit of help from your local edible plant guides, you can be foraging in no time! Though we of course recommend heading out with a professional guide (if you can) to learn more, we encourage you to carefully do your own research and exploring and start foraging yourself!
Watch the video to see the real plants in situ!