To forage is to hunt for food provided by nature. One way to do so is by gathering edible plants in the wild, but it can also be as simple as going out the front door and weeding out your garden.
Listed below are 15 common edible plants in North America. Most of these are composed of weeds as not only will they be easy to find, but are also unlikely to be depleted since they grow in abundance. Packed with health benefits, some edible plants can even be both consumed or used topically as medicine.
Word of caution: Always be 100% sure in identifying plants before consuming and check local regulations when foraging.
Common Wild Edible Weeds
One of the most common weeds you will find on your lawn are dandelions, which flower from early spring to late autumn. All parts are edible and packed with nutrients, but each requires a different method of preparation.
Young, tender leaves and stems can be sautéed or added to a fresh salad. The flowers can also be added to salads or fried into fritters. They can even be made into wine or ice cream. The roots are often dried, roasted, and ground to make a dandelion coffee.
Chickweeds prefer cool, wet weather and can be found just about anywhere in mid -spring or fall as tangled mats on the ground with small white flowers.
Warning: The spotted spurge is a poisonous look-alike which oozes a white sap when snapped. Chickweeds do not produce this sap.
The leaves of chickweeds can be eaten raw in salads and sandwiches or cooked along with the stem and flowers. They also have medicinal properties and can be taken as tea for digestive problems or made into creams and ointments for skin conditions.
The curly dock is the most common among the dock species, all of which are edible weeds, and can be foraged throughout the year in fields, roadsides, and other open areas.
Harvest the young leaves in early spring and the stem in late spring and summer.
Both can be eaten raw or cooked. The seeds can also be ground up to make flour. The root, while quite bitter, is known for its medicinal properties and can be boiled and drank. It is even found in some commercial detox teas.
Lamb’s quarters prefer hot and dry conditions, and can be found in fields and along roadsides from early summer through fall. It has a less common look-alike, the orach, that resembles not only in appearance but in taste, though saltier.
Substitute for salt: Speaking of salt, you can dry and burn lamb’s quarter leaves and use the ash as a salt substitute.
Younger leaves can be eaten raw in small quantities as they contain some oxalic acid, which can be removed by cooking. They can be quickly sautéed, steamed, added in soups, or used in place of spinach in recipes as they are a close relative, only far more nutritious.
The common purslane is a succulent with small yellow flowers that prefers hot, dry regions, and will happily take over your garden when left unchecked. It is packed with omega-3 and is considered a superfood, but people prone to kidney stones should be wary as they contain oxalates.
It is tart and a little salty with the leaves, stems, and flowers completely edible. They can be eaten raw, cooked, or added to soups where they thicken the broth.
Warning: A poisonous look-alike is the spotted spurge, which secretes a milky sap when snapped. Purslane will not.
Violets are great for beginner foragers as they have no look-alikes and are easily recognizable. To top things off, these pervasive edible spring wildflowers are both edible and medicinal, helping to treat infections in the upper respiratory tract among others.
Young leaves can be added to salads or used to make tea. The blossoms can also be used in salads, but are more traditionally candied to adorn baked goods.
From the name itself, these guys sting when you brush up on them, so you might be wondering why you would want to put it anywhere near your mouth. They lose their sting when cooked and are not only delicious, but both nutritious and medicinal.
Equipped with gloves and some scissors, the best time to harvest is in spring before they flower. You can enjoy them steamed, in a soup, as pesto, as tea, and even as ice cream.
Garlic mustard may be one of the worst invasive weeds threatening the growth of native species, but it is tasty and full of nutritional value.
All parts of the plant are edible. Young leaves, flowers, and seed pods can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked as a vegetable or for flavoring. The roots, which taste like horseradish, can be pickled or incorporated in soups.
This plant has various edible parts when cooked and can be harvested at all stages of development. Tender shoots are like asparagus, young leaves can be blanched and cooked before eaten, unripe buds resemble broccoli, flowers can be used to infuse sweet drinks and desserts, immature pods can be cooked like okra, and the pure white silk in more mature pods can be added to a stew.
Forage sustainably: Do keep in mind to practice sustainable foraging as they are the host plant of endangered monarch butterflies. Only harvest from healthy colonies around farm fields, prairie, and wild areas, and leave the plant alone if a monarch caterpillar is on it.
Need help with foraging?
POCKET FIELD GUIDE SURVIVAL KIT
Take these weatherproof info cards when foraging in North America.
SMALL FORAGING BAG KIT
Comes with knives perfect for pruning and harvesting mushrooms, fruits, and vegetables.
Feral asparagus can be found in every state of the US and every province in Canada near marsh ridges, irrigation ditches, cattle ponds, and streams, and look just like store-bought asparagus, but much larger.
They are easiest to spot in the summer, growing up to 6 feet or more, but they are not ready for harvesting at this stage. Mark the area and come back in spring to find the young shoots. They can be eaten raw, steamed, lightly boiled, or stir-fried.
Not at all related to artichokes or Jerusalem, these tubers are native to the United States and are part of the sunflower family. You can find their tall yellow flowers peppering roadsides and fields with the only conditions they can’t tolerate being soggy wet soils.
They’re a lot like potatoes but sweeter, with the tubers sweetest when dug up in late fall to early spring. They are great for your digestive tract as they are loaded with inulin, a prebiotic.
Edible Wild nuts to forage from Trees
There are other edible nuts that are widely available, like acorns and walnuts, but both require some elbow grease in terms of preparation. Hickory nuts, however, can be easily consumed right from the shell. They can also be boiled to make oil or syrup, and the shells can be added to a barbecue to add flavor to cooked meat.
The nuts ripen on the tree by fall and you can simply look for newly fallen nuts on the ground or shake some off the tree. It is a great snack for active people as it contains a healthy source of energy.
Two species of hazelnuts can be found in the US.
The beaked hazelnut prefers shady habitats ranging from the southern half of Canada to the northern half of the US, extending down into Georgia and Alabama.
The American hazelnut is found in most of eastern North America, preferring savannas and open fields. The short tree or dense shrub and the nut husks are easy to identify and considered safe for beginners.
The best time to harvest the nuts is when they have started to turn brown but the involucres are still green. They will need to be dried before consumption.
Edible Wild plants to forage in Wetlands
Watercress is a common aquatic plant that can be found near springs or spring-fed streams. Harvest the leaves and flowers from mid-spring to fall by pinching the stems off the waterline and leaving the roots intact for future harvests.
They can be added to salads or sandwiches for a spicy kick, or quickly sautéed with butter. It is an extremely nutrient-dense food and ranked first on the US Centers for Disease Control’s Powerhouse Fruit and Vegetables list.
Cattails are aquatic plants that can be found forming dense colonies in wetlands, marshes, ditches, moist fields, or ponds. Parts of it are edible in all seasons. In spring, the green male head developing at the top of the stalk can be collected and prepared like corn on the cob.
As it matures, yellow pollen can be harvested and used as a flour substitute. Young shoots are also edible by removing the outer leaves, and can then be eaten raw, boiled, stir-fried, or pickled. When all other parts are dormant, you can dig in the mud for its roots for their starch.
The Bottom Line
When foraging, it is always good to be mindful of not only your safety, but also the impact you make. Always remember to take only what you need and leave some for others, not only other foragers, but for the various creatures that rely on those plants for food. Minimize plant damage unless the purpose is to weed out invasive species.
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