Stranded in the woods? Fleeing into the wilderness after the Zombie Apocalypse? Kids bored on a hike? Knowing how to identify what plants you can and can’t eat is one of those skills that may not be essential to modern man, but it can certainly make camping or hiking a little more interesting. If nothing else, it is an impressive skill to add to your life resume. Who knows, it could save your life.
Before we get started, we wanted to clarify that this is not meant to be a definitive guide to plant identification. Identifying edible plants takes practice, and we recommend you try it with someone more experienced first, if you can. That being said, we hope that these posts will inspire you take the time to look at the plants around you a little more closely, learn a useful skill, and enjoy some interesting tasting recipes.
Knowing which plants are tasty, which are just edible, and which are harmful requires a small investment of time in learning a few essential skills. Anyone can learn them, but not taking the time to do so can mean the difference between a tasty snack in the woods and two days of awful stomach pain, or worse.
Before you go grazing, be sure to spend some time familiarizing yourself with these 3 skills – Identification, Location, and Usage.
Arguably the most important of the three skills, identification is what most people associate with learning how to find wild edibles. It’s about learning how to know the difference between this plant and that one, by being able to recognize the subtle variations between the shape of a leaf, the color of a flower or the pattern of branches.
Knowing where a plant grows and the conditions in which it thrives is also an extremely useful tool to have at your disposal when finding wild edibles. Convergent evolution, mimics and optimal growing strategies mean that many plants look very similar but can have very different properties. If you know one grows in swamps and another grows in the sand and you just so happen to be wandering the desert, it makes things a little easier.
Uses actually covers two broader categories; which part of the plant to use, and what you can use that plant for. Many plants have certain parts that are edible. Others have multiple edible parts and still others have parts that taste great right next to parts that will make your tongue go numb. Knowing which part to use is essential.
Similarly, knowing what to do with your plant after you have found it is equally helpful. Stinging nettles will agitate your skin for days if you brush up against them, but they are also a good source of vitamin A and C and lose their stinging properties when boiled.
Not all edible plants are tasty. There is a notable difference between edible and delicious. Anyone who spends a bit of time combing the woods for wild edibles will soon discover that they generally fall into one of three categories once they have been deemed edible.
- Tasty: Some wild edibles are genuinely tasty. Wild berries, Allium schoenoprasum (wild chives), and Origanum vulgare (wild oregano) are all fantastic examples of exceptionally flavorful plants that can be harvested in the wild. While not perfectly suited for modern hyper processed foods, evolution did a pretty good job of making us like the taste of naturally occurring things that are good for us. The convenient end product of a few million years is that it is hard to find things in the woods that taste great and are completely devoid of nutrients (though, importantly, it is not impossible).
- Unsavory: Other wild edibles are not quite as kind to the tongue. We could probably call this group the “Raw eggs, cooked spinach, and flax seed smoothie” category. More simply, it is a group of plants that, while highly nutritious, is not particularly appealing to the taste buds.
- Bland Still others fall into the “bland” category. That is, they are edible, but either not particularly tasty or particularly nutritious. Some make decent teas or salad additives. Some just provide calories for the stomach to digest. They are good to know if you are a true forager or in a life-or-death situation. Spruce bark and yarrow leaves are great examples in this category.
As you might have guessed, there are far too many wild edibles out there to tackle in this one blog post. Instead, we’ll inspire you to pick up a guide, go outside, and start foraging for yourself.
As found in Wild Edibles: East Coast, posts such as these will focus on a dedicated region. Then, we’ll pick a few edible plants that are tasty and easy to identify. After that, we’ll give a brief overview of how to identify them as well as links to other resources. Finally, we’ll outline the general properties of the plants and suggest either a recipe or a use for the plant.
It is our hope that you will glean enough useful information, that the next time you go for a walk in the woods, you will be able to spot a plant, bend over, and evoke the image of an experienced ranger, to all of your fellow hikers, as you look thoughtfully at the leaves and declare “We can eat this”.
Good field guides to get you started
- “A Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants”
by Lee Allen Peterson
- “Mushrooms of North America”
by Orson Miller
by Herbert Z and Lester Ingle
- “Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West”
by Gregory L. Tilford