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WHO'S WHO AMONG WILD PLANTS
How do you know whether or not you should eat the plants?
Whether or not you eat the local flora depends upon circumstances.
Sometimes it's a matter of environmental impact, at others it's a matter
of your personal safety. Some guidelines are listed below.
EAT THE WEEDS --
BUY THE BOOK!
Only if there is an abundance.
Only if you harvest just as much as you know you will eat. Never
pick an area "clean". Pick some here, some there, so the plants have a
chance to reseed themselves in that area.
Only if you know what you're eating. If it's not familiar 1) don't
eat it, or 2) try just a nibble. Wait a day. If you live, you might try
a little more the next day. If you really want to know what you're eating,
buy a book on Edible Wild Plants and study it.
This is only a brief introduction to the common uses of some very familiar
"weeds." If you wish to learn more, there are dozens of Field guides on
edible and medicinal plants. Your investment will be well rewarded the
first time you have the courage to taste a wild blueberry. As you learn
to discern one plant from another, you will add a new dimension to your
PLANTS TO AVOID!
Deadly nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) -- tempting orange
and red berries have caused the death of more than one curious child. Be
safe--don't eat wild red berries.
Devil's-club (Oplopanax horridum) -- that about says it all,
doesn't it?)- shrub with thorny maple-like leaves that aggressively attack
innocent passers-by, causing painful irritation. Topped by a terminal spike
of bright red berries. (West coast)
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) -- although the young shoots
are edible, the attractive dark purple berries and mature leaves and stem
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) -- similar to wild carrot
(Queen Anne's Lace), but causes paralysis and death.
Leaf stalks are hairless, root is ill-smelling and ill-tasting. Blooms
Poison oak/summac/ivy (Rhus radicans) -- leaves of three,
turns brilliant red early in fall; contact produces rash, inhalation of
smoke can constrict air passages. Treat rash with calamine lotion if available,
or make a mash of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
leaves and stems and apply over affected area.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)-- treat with Jewelweed
mash, as for Poison Ivy or count to 600 slowly. Nettle irritation generally
subsides after 10 minutes even without treatment.
Blueberries/Huckleberries/Bilberries (Vaccinium spp.; Gaylussacia
spp.) -- Thornless low shrubs (1-2') on exposed mountain slopes, shrubs
grow taller (6-8') when found along the shores of lakes/rivers; prefer
full sun exposure, so often found in powerline clearings or burnt clearings.
Berries produced in clusters, dusky blue to black, but always with "eyelashes"--the
5-lobed star patterned fringe on the crown of the berry (the side opposite
the stem). Some blue/black berries are distasteful/poisonous, but they
the eyelash fringes. Stick to the berries with eyelashes.
Berries are smaller than the domesticated version by half but twice
the flavor. Eat them fresh, in pies, dried or as jelly. June-September.
Cattails (Typha spp.) -- Tall (6-10') marsh plants with sword-like
leaves and sausage-shaped brown flowering spike.
In early spring, young shoots and stalks (less than 3' tall) can be
eaten raw or boiled. (But don't confuse with Poison Hemlock shoot, which
also grows along the water's edge. See above, for description of Poison
Hemlock.) In late spring, the green flowering spike can be boiled
for a few minutes and eaten. In summer, the yellow pollen may be shaken
into a bag and used as a flour substitute. In fall, short sprouts from
the rootstalk may be eaten raw or boiled. In winter or early spring, the
mature rootstalks may be peeled, boiled and mashed (like a potato) or made
into flour. The starch can be extracted by mashing the roots in several
rinses of water. Discard the fiber. Dry the starch and blenderize for flour.
In emergencies, the downy fluff of the seeds may provide insulation/padding
or even serve as diapers! This is such a versatile, multi-purpose plant,
you may want to plant some in your garden next year!
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) -- weed found growing along roadsides
and waste places; blue blossom (sometimes white or pink) appears May-October.
Dandelion-like leaves are edible when young (Early spring).
Boil 5-10 minutes. Roots can be dried and ground as a coffee substitute.
A laxative preparation is made from 1 oz. ground root per pint water. (Fall
to early spring.)
Clovers (Trifolium spp.) -- What they lack in taste appeal,
they make up for in abundance. Weeds with 3 leaflets and little pea-like
flowers growing in dense clusters (round, oblong, or spiked).
Young leaves are edible raw or cooked; dried flowerheads and seeds
may be ground into flou. Tea may be made from the dried flowerheads, especially
when mixed with other herbs. (Spring-Summer.)
Curled/yellow dock (Rumex crispus) -- tall weed (1-4 feet)
growing in fields, along roadsides.
Late spring-summer, small green flowers give rise to heart shaped
seeds along central stalk.
Young leaves may be eaten raw or boiled 10-15 minutes, but eat in
moderation as they are high in oxalates, which decrease calcium absorption.
(Change the water once or twice to reduce the bitter taste.) (Early
Stems may be used as a rhubarb substitute. The dried seeds may be
ground to flour. (Summer)
Dandelion (Taxacum officinale) -- weed with one yellow-rayed
flower atop the 4-12" stalk which forms a spherical white seed at maturity.
Found in lawns, along roadsides and waste places.
A rich source of Vitamins A and C, the YOUNG leaves may be eaten raw
or boiled for 10 minutes. (Change the water once for milder flavor. Eat
in moderation--leaves have a laxative effect.) If the yellow blossom is
present or gone to seed, you've waited too long to eat the leaves, but
the blossom can be boiled 5 minutes and eaten. (Spring.) Roots can be dried
(bake) and ground as a coffee substitute, eaten raw in early spring, or
boiled (Summer-fall.) Caution: the root acts as a diuretic, so use moderation.
Fiddlehead ferns (best from Bracken Fern or Ostrich Fern, Pteridium
aquilinum or Pteretis pensylvanica, resp.) -- if you can see
the mature fronds, you've waited too long. You have to identify these plants
a year in advance, then return in early spring to harvest the young unfurling
fronds. The Bracken fern has a 3-forked leaflet, common in woods, pastures
and meadows. Ostrich fern grows in a vase-like cluster consisting of small
stiff erect fertile fronds still standing in early spring, surrounded by
large green sterile fronds which are broader near the apex.
Three carcinogens have been isolated from mature plants and are poisonous,
so only eat young coiled/curled plants and eat in moderation. For the desperate/courageous,
the familiar curled fronds are covered with a wooly covering which should
be rubbed off before cooking. Boil 30 minutes to deactivate thiaminase,
an enzyme which destroys vitamin B1. (Early spring.)
Greenbrier (Smilax spp.) -- green-stemmed thorny vine growing
in woods and thickets. Stems remain green throughout the winter, hence
the name "Greenbrier".
Young shoots, leaves and tendrils may be eaten raw or cooked. (Spring
to early summer.)
Hobblebush or Nannyberry (Viburnum spp.) -- also called "Wild
Raisin"; Tall shrub common in the understory of cool moist woods. Leaves
heart-shaped or elliptic with a pointed tip, respectively. Both bear flat
clusters of white 5-petalled flowers, which produce blue-black fruits when
ripe. [Caution: there are many inedible blue-black smooth berries, so don't
sample these fruits, unless you know your hobblebush/nannyberry plant.]
Ripe fruit each bear one large seed and may be eaten raw or cooked.
(Fall through winter)
NUTS -- All the following produce nuts which are good raw or toast
them for a milder flavor. Nuts can be ground to make nut paste/meal. All
are good sources of iron and protein
Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.) -- small tree bearing nuts
encased in a fringed husk which is easily removed.
Hickory (Carya spp.) -- (Shagbark hickory is the easiest
to identify, with vertical strips of bark peeling away at both ends from
the trunk, giving the tree its "shaggy" appearance.) The husk of hickory
nuts is divided into 4 sections which loosen as the nut matures. Gather
nuts when they fall to the ground, before the squirrels get to them. (Pignut
and Bitternut hickories produce nuts which are bitter/inedible, but they
do not resemble hickory nuts, so should not cause confusion. If the taste
is not familiar, don't eat it.)
Walnuts (Juglans spp.)-Nut is encased in an impenetrable
green fleshy husk which eventually darkens and dries. Gather nuts as they
fall to the ground.
Onion/garlic/chives (Allium spp.) -- Follow your nose. If
it smells like onion, it is onion and therefore safe to eat. Grasslike
leaves surround a flowering stalk with a cluster of white or pink flowers.
The young leaves (before the flowering stalk appears) and the bulb
may be eaten raw or cooked. (Harvest the leaves in spring; the bulb can
be eaten year-round.)
Pine (Pinus spp.) -- evergreen trees with woody cones (the
"leaves" of the cone are called "scales"). You can often see the remains
of a squirrel's feast, where he sat on an exposed rock and systematically
stripped the scales off a pine cone as if he were eating a corn cob. The
Pine cob remains in the scale litter, all the pine nuts gone.
Pine nuts are good raw or toasted. (Fall.) Tender green needles may
be chopped fine and steeped to make tea. (Spring-summer)
Plantain (Plantago spp.) -- Low-growing plant, often found
invading lawns. Leaves form a basal rosette from which a flowering stalk
arises, bearing many tiny seeds.
Young leaves may be eaten fresh or boiled 10 minutes. (Early spring.)
Medicinal tea can be made from dried or chopped fresh leaves. A leaf poultice
can be made by crushing/chewing the leaves and applying the mash to wounds
(antimicrobial and stimulates healing). The seed is the source of psyllium,
used to decrease cholesterol. (Summer-Fall.)
Queen Anne's Lace/wild carrot (Daucus carota) -- Don't
confuse with Deadly Poison Hemlock, or Fool's
Parsley whose white roots looks like a carrot, but are not carrot-smelling!
They stink. Lacy-leaved Queen Anne's Lace has a hairy stem. Fool's Parsley
is smooth-stemmed. Poison Hemlock is hairless and spotted with purple.
All three grow in wastelands/meadows. Don't eat Queen Anne's Lace unless
you are starving.
White root smells like a carrot, tastes like carrot when cooked. (Fall
to early spring.)
Raspberries/Blackberries (Rubus spp.) -- Thorny brambles growing
along roadsides/clearings. Fruit looks exactly like raspberries/blackberries;
tastes exactly like raspberries/blackberries. (Raspberries and strawberries
are the only red berries I recommend you try eating if you are a
Eat berries fresh, cooked, dried or in jelly. June- September. To
make tea, add 1 T dried leaves or 5-8 young Raspberry leaves chopped fine
to 2-3 C simmering water. Steep 10 minutes. (Leaves may be gathered throughout
Rose hips (Rosa spp.) -- prickly/thorny shrub with showy
white or pink blossom; red fruit, referred to as a "rose hip" produced
in late summer-early fall. Plants prefer sunny locations (fields, beaches,
Rose hips are a good source of Vit. C; peel the outer layer (calyx)
and eat raw, baked or boiled. Tea can be made from fresh or dried hips
(steep 10 minutes). Summer through winter, as the hips remain on the shrub
Strawberries (Fragaria spp.) -- plants and fruit smaller
than our garden variety, but unmistakably strawberries. Found growing in
recent clearings, abandoned logging roads, moist fields.
Fruit is tart, but flavorful. Eat fresh or cooked in jams and pies.
(Summer). Dried or fresh crushed leaves make a Vitamin C-rich tea. (Make
sun tea to preserve the Vitamin C: just immerse the leaves in a water bottle
exposed to the sun for 30 minutes or more.)
Smooth/Staghorn sumac (Rhus glabra and R. typhina)
-- Tall shrubs (4-15') found along roadsides, fields and fencerows. Large
leaves (1-2') with 11-31 leaflets. Fuzzy red fruit (not to be confused
with Poison sumac's white fruit! See above.) grows at the tip of
the branches, remaining on the tree through the winter.
Fruits may be made into a medicinal tea (gargle) or a refreshing lemony
-- tasting drink. Soak about 1/3 C bruised fruit (rub in hands or mash
with a fork) in 1 quart of water. After 10 minutes, strain off the seeds.
Add sugar to taste and drink. (Summer.)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)- Don't mistake this plant for
Poison Hemlock! Try it only if you are confident you know what both look
like through the various growth stages. Yarrow bears feathery leaves on
a central stalk, topped by a flat umbrella-shaped cluster of tiny white
flowers (1-2' tall). Grows in fields and along roadsides.
Leaves make a pungent aromatic tea. 3-5 fresh leaves or 1 T dried
leaves from a mature plant in 2 Cups simmering water. Steep 10-15 minutes.
Also a poultice can be made from crushed leaves and flowers may be applied
to wounds to stop bleeding.
USEFUL PLANTS TO KNOW
Birch (Betula spp.) -- familiar white-barked tree, generally
found invading recently disturbed areas. The bark burns, even when wet,
but don't ever strip the bark from living trees! Burn only dead branches/litter
as firewood. Peeling bark from a living tree will leave it vulnerable to
insects and disease.
Bright yellow root may be chewed to heal canker sores (contains berberine,
which is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial).
Gold thread (Coptis groenlandica) -- Shiny, strawberry-shaped
green-leaved perennial covering the forest floor.
To prevent/relieve itching, crush the leaves and stems to make a mash/poultice.
Apply to skin recently exposed to poison ivy/poison oak or stinging nettles.
(Return to Plants to Avoid.)
Jewelweed/Spotted Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) -- Yellow
or orange lipped flowers give rise to a seedpod which springs open when
held in your hand, releasing a delicious nutty seed. Grows near streams,
bogs or other moist shady places.
Bark chewed raw or steeped in hot water to make a medicinal tea containing
aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) for reducing pain, inflammation and fever.
Willow (Salix spp.) -- Tree found growing along river banks.
Fresh leaves may be eaten raw in moderation. The leaves are
high in Vitamin C, but contain oxalic acid, which inhibits calcium absorption.
The crushed leaves may be steeped for 10 minutes in hot water then cooled
to make a tart drink. Add sugar to taste. Of more benefit on the trail,
a mash of crushed leaves can be used to remove pitch.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis montana) -- Cloverlike ground cover in
woods or meadows, bearing white blossom streaked with fine pink veins.
The root was used as soap by the Native Americans. Flower petals may
be eaten raw. (Summer.) The fruit can be split open, seeds removed and
baked for 30 minutes. (Summer-Fall.)
Yucca (Yucca spp.) -- Stiff dagger-sharp leaves grow in a
cluster, surrounding a stalk bearing showy white flowers (6-petaled). Found
in sandy woods, clearings.
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