Foraging for medicinal and edible plants

Foraging for medicinal and edible plants

You might be surprised how many wild foods are available to you when you most need it. But, before we get started, if you plan to forage for food; a book on edible wild plants that will cost only a few dollars is a MUST. It will tell you what not to eat.

Make sure you get a reference book that shows detailed, color photographs, because look-alike plants have the potential to offer life-sustaining nutrition, or they can make you deathly ill.

As a rule of thumb, in humid climates most edible plants will be found growing in the sun. In drier regions, you’ll find a higher concentration of wild foods growing near water. In northern regions, foraging for food becomes more difficult in winter.

It’ll be interesting to check out what grows in your area that may be looked upon as an annoying weed today that could become diner tomorrow. I’ll list a few here, but each region varies with regard to plant life. If possible, get a book on edible wild plants specific to your region.

The list below is just food for thought–there are hundreds of wild, edible plants that grow in every climate zone. Always make sure you avoid wild plants that have been treated with pesticides! If you are taking prescription meds, research what natural foods, eaten in quantity, might negatively react with your medication.

Plants Have Many Uses

Wild plants have many uses besides life-sustaining nutrition and natural medicinal purposes. For instance:

  • Not only is the “fluff” of cattails nutritious, it can be used for tinder to start fires and can also be used as insulation.
  • Milkweed down can also be used for insulation.
  • Hardened sap from resinous trees can also be used to start a fire.
  • Sassafras leaves make excellent insect repellant, as does burning cattail seed and its hair fibers.
  • Camouflage dyes can be made by boiling onions for yellow dye, walnut hulls for brown dye, and pokeberries for purple dye.
  • Stems from the nettle and milkweed, yucca plants, and the inner bark of the Linden Tree can be used to make cordage.

Medicinally, plants can be lifesavers

  • Treatment of Diarrhea can be made from the roots of Blackberries into a strong tea.
  • Fungal Treatment can be made from Acorns, Oak Bark, or Walnut leaves to treat ringworm and athlete’s foot.
  • To Control Blood Loss Use the leaves of Plantain, Yarrow, or Woundwort. Prickly Pear or Witch Hazel helps to shrink blood vessels.
  • Antiseptics can be made from the juice of a Wild Onion, or Garlic, or from the juice of Dock or Chickweed.
  • Fever-Reducers; Tea made from Willow Bark or Yarrow helps to reduce fevers. Willow Bark contains the raw component of aspirin.
  • Colds & Sore Throats can be improved with Plantain Leaves or Willow Bark. You can also make tea with Burdock Root, Mallow, or Mullein (both the flower & the root).
  • Inflammation can be remedied by making a poultice from Dock, Plantain, Chickweed, Willow Bark, Garlic or Sorrell.
  • Antihistamines are found in Jewelweed or Witch Hazel and will relieve insect bites, sunburn, and skin rashes from plants such as poison Ivy.
  • Sedatives can be made into a tea by using mint leaves or Passionflower Leaves.

Natures Pantry—Edible Wild Plants

Barrel Cactus: The pulp of a Barrel Cactus can be eaten raw or boiled.

Cattail: Grow in stagnant water and beside streams, lakes and bays. Every part of a cattail is edible. The shoots can be eaten raw. its pollen, the “Fluff” that looks like thick fingered spikes has a flavor similar to corn that is extremely nutritious. It can be mixed with water and baked or fried into patties, or it can be ground and used in place of flour.

Chickweed: Has a sweet, grassy taste. The entire plant can be eaten raw.

Clover that most of us battle with in our lawns is abundant with edible leaves that can be used in salads and is high in protein. Some may have trouble digesting them and will want to juice them instead. The heads of clover and the seed can be dried and used as a replacement for flour.

Conifer Trees: The young shoots at the tips of branches of Conifer Trees can be eaten raw. 

Cress: Often found in cities growing between cracks in cement or in yards and landscapes is a member of the mustard family and can be eaten raw or steamed.

Dandelion: Can be eaten raw or cooked by steaming or frying. Eaten raw, many prefer eating the flower which does not have a bitter flavor.

Dead-Nettle: Don’t let the name put you off. This plant is edible and has a slight mint flavor. It is often used for groundcover.

Deciduous Leaves: Leaves from the trees of Box Elder, Linden, Sassafras and Sourwood are excellent raw foods, and can be used for salads when the leaves are young.

Fireweed stems taste a lot like asparagus and can be pealed and eaten raw or boiled.

Flowers: Many flowers are edible and are flavorful when you eat the petals and not the bitter center. Look for Azalea, Daises, Daylilies, Honeysuckle and Violets.

Fruit & Berries: In cities and in the country, wild fruits such Apple, blueberry, Chokecherry (NEVER eat the pits—they contain cyanide which can be fatal), Elderberry (range in color from blue to black—NEVER eat red Elderberries, as they are poisonous), Gooseberry, Pear, Blackberry, grapes, Cranberry, Raspberry, Strawberry are just some of the fruits that grow wild and can be foraged for and eaten raw.

Grass: Shorter grass can be chewed and swallowed (depending upon your digestion—but beware of pesticide use), longer grass can be chewed and the pulp should be spit out. Our bodies can handle only so much roughage!

Grass Seed can be collected by shaking the tops over a piece of fabric, or a tarp, or clothing to be collected and eaten raw or ground into a flour consistency.

Henbit: Is a mild mint and can be eaten raw by plucking off the tops of the stems.

Juniper Trees grow either white or gray berries, depending upon the species, which are edible—but have a bitter taste. They can be eaten raw or sun dried to improve the flavor.

Lambs quarters is a weed that can be eaten raw, both the leaves and the seed. Its seed is high in protein

Laurel Cherry: Produce edible cherries once they have matured and softened and has begun to shrivel.

Lichens (AKA Moss) are edible once they are soaked in water to rid them of the natural, but strong, laxative they contain (or not if that’s what the doctor ordered—consult a natural herb site before hand). It can be eaten raw or dried and boiled.

Milkweed is valuable for its tasty seed pods, which can be picked mid-summer and boiled. The young leaves and stalks can be eaten raw, but have a bitter taste. You can boil them to improve their flavor.

Mushrooms are popular with just about everyone and grow wild and sprout, seemingly overnight in our yards and wooded lots. But some varieties are deadly! 

Take a book to identify which are edible and which aren’t and when in doubt…pass.

The most popular edible mushroom varieties are: Morel, Puffballs, Shaggy Mane, Coral Fungi, Bearded Tooth, Oyster, Chanterelles, Boletes, Sulfur Shelf, and Hen-Of-The-Woods. 

Warning: Whatever you do, watch out for Amanitas that will kill you dead and it only takes one because they contain one of the deadliest poisons found in nature! If in doubt, don’t touch mushrooms that you can’t identify 100%. As an example, a Korean family in Washington mis-identified a mushroom that they thought they knew from home, had liver failure, and 4 out of the 5 had to undergo emergency transplants.

Mushrooms are VERY powerful, as food, as herbal treatments, and as poisons.

Nettles: Yep, you heard right! Nettles are almost indestructible; therefore will be plentiful in a Schuster-hits-the-fan scenario. Pick while wearing gloves and juice them (the juice is safe) or dry them for use in tea. Some swear young leaves do not contain the sting of more mature nettles and are safe for salads, but I haven’t tested this theory and probably never will.

Pine Cones: The nuts found in pine cones are edible in the late summer and fall. Roast the cones in a fire, and break open to get to the nut.

Plantain: Best eaten by plucking the young leaves found in the center of the plant and can be eaten raw. Older leaves can be boiled to tenderize them.  You can also harvest string from the leaves and use individually or braid them into a cord.

Prickly Pear Cactus is not only a good food source, but they also contain water. The fruit of this cactus can be eaten raw.

Purslane is a weed with plump leaves that grows abundantly. It is nutritious and can be eaten raw.

Rhubarb is popular for just about everything, especially when combined with sweetener like sugar or honey, just make sure to discard the leaves because they contain toxins.

Silverberry: Are used as an ornamental plant for bushes and hedges. When fully ripe, the berries are edible. As with any berry, always consult an edible wild foods reference book. Some berries are poisonous!.

Sow Thistle: Are those prickly weeds found just about everywhere. Their roots can be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted. Their yellow flowers can be plucked and eaten raw, avoiding Sow Thistle’s bitter sap. 

Water Lilly is edible. The roots and tubers can be eaten raw or can be boiled to remove their bitter taste.

Wheatgrass contains most vitamins and minerals necessary for human health and is considered a “whole” meal with complete protein. It contains Chlorophyll which builds the blood AND has calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and zinc.

Wild Onion sometimes found sprouting in lawns can be eaten raw and has the flavor of mild onion. It can be used in cooking in place of scallions.

Wild Rose; The flower can be eaten as well as the fruit (rose hips) which can be eaten raw and contains high concentrations of vitamin C.

Wood Sorrel: can be found in lawns and gardens , but grows wild as well. This plant can be eaten raw or boiled and has a tangy, refreshing flavor similar to Swiss Chard or cooked Spinach.

Yucca Plant: All species of the Yucca can be eaten raw or cooked along with the flower buds and stock.

Warning: Watch out for the following red flags if you are unable to identify or are unsure of any wild plant:

  • A milky or discolored sap
  • Any wild bean, bulb, or the seed found inside pods
  • A bitter or soapy taste
  • Plants with spines, fine hairs, or thorns
  • Foliage that mimics dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley
  • Almond scent in woody parts or leaves
  • Any grain that has heads with pink, purple, or black spurs
  • Plants with a three leaf growth pattern.

Why not take a walk around your neighborhood or investigate your lawn to see what grows in your location that can be consumed or used for medicinal purposes in an emergency? It’ll be interesting to exchange notes on what people discover in different climate zones.

For those who have studied wild edible foods/medicinal plants, please jump in and share your knowledge by commenting! You never know when someone may find themselves on an unexpected trek and will need to put your wisdom to good use.

Three things that you may want to consider doing, if it’s possible in your area, is to:

  • Transplant and cultivate edible wild plants in your area to your yard or to a pot. It’s MUCH easier to grow plants that are able to grow wildly in your area than fight with plants that don’t like your climate or soil.
  • The second thing to consider if you find patches of highly desirable edible wild plants is to leave them in place, but fertilize them and/or add worms to the soil around them so that they’ll grow better. There are obvious potential issues with doing this if the plants are in a park, private property, or public property, so check your local laws before “helping” any plants.
  • And finally, if you find a wild plant that you can harvest the seeds from, you may want to take several and plant them near where the original plant is growing with the hope that if the ground supported one plant, it may support several.

This is a topic that I’m passionate about and have foraged on a regular basis all over the country. While it’s very difficult in most areas to feed yourself with only foraged food, the ability to properly identify food in your environment is incredibly empowering.