Finding edible plants in the wild is often easier than you might imagine. Many common plants are edible, delicious and easy to identify. Even complete beginners can quickly learn how to forage for edible plants when out and about.
Identifying and using edible plants in the wild is a key survival skill. Eating wild plants can allow you to sustain energy while in the great outdoors. You can reduce the amount of food you have to carry and store. It can allow you to reduce your reliance on other means of food production and supplement a home-grown diet. If you can understand the foods you can eat and plants to avoid in different environments – it could even mean the difference between life and death.
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Top 5 Easy to Find Edible Plants
There is a wide range of common plants that are great for novice foragers. Wild fruits and berries are key edible plants you can find in the wild in summer and fall. Plants such as blackberries and wild strawberries can be recognized by all. Nuts and seeds are also great sources of wild nutrition. Fungi can also be foraged – mostly in fall. But they are best left to the experts. Leafy greens, however, can be found almost all year round. Here are five of the top edible plants in the wild. They are relatively easy to identify and are widespread in the US:
The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a common wild plant (and garden weed). Many are surprised to learn that it is also edible. The leaves of young dandelions make an excellent, bitter addition to mixed salads. The leaves are at their best early in the season, when fresh and new. They become more bitter as the year progresses. The buds, meanwhile, can be pickled as a caper substitute and the flowers can be used to make fritters. You can even use the roots, it is said, as a coffee substitute.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is, as the name suggests, great forage for chickens. But it can also be a surprisingly delicious foraged salad crop for human beings. It is not only hens that enjoy eating this delicate and pretty plant. Chickweed is best foraged when fairly young, in the spring. But it is also still fine later in the season. The leaves, stems and small white flowers can all be eaten. They have a crisp texture and mild taste, not that dissimilar to gem lettuces, and can add variety to the salads of the season. In my experience, this is one of the best wild greens to nibble raw along a trail or when spending time in the great outdoors.
Going by many different names, Chenopodium album is another common weed considered to be good fodder for chickens and other livestock. But it can also be great for humans to eat. While considered a weed in some parts of the world, it is cultivated for edible use elsewhere (such as in Northern India). While it should be eaten in moderation due to its high levels of oxalic acid, the leaves and young shoots can be eaten as an occasional leaf vegetable, either steamed or cooked in the same way as spinach. The seeds of these plants (actually a close relative to quinoa) can also be eaten. They are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Often to be found growing wild in damp woodland and along shaded hedgerows, wild leek (Allium tricoccum) is a wild bulb similar to cultivated garlic or leeks. Leave the bulbs in the ground, but you can harvest the leaves, stems, and flowers for a mild garlic flavor that can be used in a wide range of ways. You can put them in sandwiches or salads and eat them raw, make a pesto, or chop them up and add them to a range of cooked recipes. This is an easy plant to identify not due to its appearance, but due to its unmistakable garlic/onion smell.
Nettles (Urtica dioica) can be wilted down (at which point they lose their sting) and used in a wide range of recipes much as you would use spinach. They have a pleasant, subtly sweet taste when used in cooking. Wear gloves to harvest them so that you avoid the stings, and wash and then boil them before you add them to your recipes. The fresh tips of young nettles in the spring (the top five leaves or so) have the best taste. Find out more about why nettles are such a valuable plant and how they can be used here. (This website is also a very valuable resource for information on other edible plants in the wild.)
The five plants described above are a great place to begin when foraging for wild greens. But these are just a handful of many edible plants you can find in the wild. Many other common plants and ‘weeds’ are actually delicious, either raw or cooked. You may also be surprised to learn that you can also eat the young leaves of many common trees in spring. Beech leaves, linden leaves, and birch leaves are all common examples.
All spruce, pine and fir trees have needles that can be foraged and simmered in water to make a tea that is very high in vitamin C. Note, however, that yew, which can look similar to the above, is poisonous. Be sure, if you plan to forage needles to make tea, that you are absolutely certain that you have identified the tree correctly.
For plenty of other edible wild plants in North America and more information on natural foods, check out this great book on the subject.
How To Know if a Plant is Edible
In a survival situation, there is no substitute for real, in-depth knowledge. The more you know about the natural world around you, the more likely you will be to survive and thrive. Learn as much as you can about the plants that grow in different environments – especially plants native to your area. If you can, take a foraging course, or take advice from survival experts in your locality.
Ideally, you should be able to identify any plant that you are considering eating. But in a survival situation, you may be less well prepared than you might wish. If you have access to a device such as a smartphone, a plant identification app could come in handy. It will help you immediately determine whether a plant is dangerous, or whether it is worth consideration as a survival food.
To identify a new plant, you should:
- Consider the environment and where the plant is growing.
- Look at the foliage shape and color.
- Look at the positioning of leaves/ foliage on stems/branches.
- Consider other identifying factors such as flowers and form.
If you need sustenance, but cannot be entirely sure of plant identification – think carefully and act slowly. Always try a skin test, a lip test, and hold food on your tongue before you ingest it. Remember, even some ‘safe’ plants can cause allergic reactions. So be very careful and slow when trying any new wild food.
It is also important to consider whether a plant may have become contaminated by human or animal activity. Even edible plants may be bad to eat if they are growing in the wrong place. They may have been contaminated with poisonous substances, or waste. Use common sense and eat only edible plants likely to be free from contamination.
Common Side Effects of Eating Non-Edible Plants
If you learn how to identify plants in your area and forage responsibly, you should not experience any ill-effects from eating wild plants. However, mishaps can occur. If you make a mistake, the results can be dire.
Non-edible wild plants can cause a range of harmful results – from mild nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea through lethargy and confusion – right through to coma and death in extreme cases. In some instances, you can begin to feel ill almost immediately, within a matter of minutes. In other cases, there may a delay before you experience any side effects. If you eat a plant that you later believe may be poisonous or have upset your system, try to induce vomiting as soon as possible, and drink plenty of water. If you can, call a poison hotline or a healthcare provider.
In all cases, avoidance is better than cure. If in doubt, it is always better to err on the side of caution and avoid eating the plant in question. Begin by eating some of the common and easily identified plants mentioned above before progressing to more complex survival foraging.
Build your knowledge and learn more about the natural world. That is the best way to make sure that you can find and safely eat edible plants in the wild. With the right knowledge and a little common sense, survival is possible in even the most unpromising of environments.