Take the Family Foraging for Wild Edible Plants

Include foraging for wild edible plants among the fun family activities to help put nutritious food on the table.

Persimmons Tree

Wild, edible persimmons hang ripe and ready to pick.

Photo by iStockPhoto/egon69

Content Tools

TRY ONE OF ANNIE’S RECIPES FOR FORAGED FOOD:

Fried Morel Mushroom Recipe
Poke Recipe for Basic Preparation
Poke Salad Recipe
Mayapple Jelly Recipe
Sassafras Tea Recipe 
Dandelion Greens Recipe With Currants and Pine Nuts
Broiled Salmon Recipe With Ramps and Morel Mushroom Sauce

The Quest for Wild Edible Plants

Spending hard-earned money at the produce department of my local grocery store became a bad habit I decided to break. Limp cucumbers and zucchini, rock-hard tomatoes tasting like plastic, and pencil-thin asparagus for $4 per pound — it had to stop!

Today, I loaded up my two young granddaughters, swathed them with tick repellent, handed each of them a plastic bucket and a pair of scissors, and we were off for the woods. Burrowing our way through overgrown blackberry thickets and pushing steadily forward to the old fence line, we found our pot of gold. There, like soldiers lined up for inspection, were the prettiest, firmest, thickest stalks of asparagus you would ever want to see. We quickly filled our buckets, then headed south through the stand of sassafras trees toward the little freshwater creek than runs through our place.

Ugly, wrinkly morel mushrooms lined the creek rock path, almost hidden under fallen, rotting logs. We scavenged them, then rolled up our pants and walked into the creek, heading for the bright green watercress.

Hundreds of different species of food are found in the woods, along creek beds, in open pastures, underneath fence rows, and around decaying trees. Spring, summer and fall offer different varieties of food, each delicious and nutritious. There are no preservatives, no waiting for them to ripen on the kitchen counter, and, with permission, they’re completely free for the taking. The physical exercise of traipsing through the woods is an added bonus, along with the fresh air and sunshine, and time spent with family and friends.

My grandmother used to make “Sheep Shower Pie,” another name for wood sorrel. Generally growing at the base of shaded tree trunks, wood sorrel’s tiny cloverlike leaves nestle in soft tufts of moss. As children, my brothers and I would pluck the tiny stems, pop them into our mouths, and wait for the sour and biting juices to hit our taste buds.

A spring ritual at my house is the gathering of pokeweed, or “poke” as it is commonly called. Young, tender leaves are picked, washed, boiled three times, then often added to a skillet of bacon drippings and fried for the finished touch. Throw in a couple of eggs to scramble up, and you have the perfect spring supper. Of course, it goes without saying, you have to have a pan of cornbread to go along with it.

Spring, summer, or fall — it doesn’t matter; there is always food to be foraged from the woods.

Spring

Chicory greens — Chicory is found in open areas, roadsides, grassy areas near parking lots, and often stands out alone in weedy fields and graveled areas all over the United States. It is a branching, scraggly looking plant with blue or lavender flowers. At the base, leaves resemble dandelion leaves, then are alternately spaced and much smaller as they get higher up on the stem. Young leaves can be tossed in a salad, and mature leaves can be used as a cooked vegetable. Chicory has a somewhat bitter taste. Leaves and root are eaten most frequently, and although the flower is edible, it is very bitter. One cup of raw greens contains 41 calories.

Dandelion greens — These invasive greens found practically everywhere — yards, woods, between cracks in sidewalks — are first noticeable by bright yellow flowers, then by the tall feathery puff of a plume growing on top. One cup of cooked greens has 35 calories.

Morel mushrooms — These delicacies can be found on land that has some kind of spring of water flowing through it, and decaying, rotting trees that have fallen. Morels grow alongside these trees, usually nestled in decaying leaves. Frequently, just the tip of the morel will be visible, so careful searching is important. Conical in shape, their caps have a wrinkled, pitted surface, and they have short, thick stems that are hollow. Tug the morel gently from the ground; do not cut the base of the morel with a knife as this damages the remaining mass. Gently brush off the soil with a pastry brush. A 100-gram serving contains 31 calories.

Pokeweed or “Poke” (wild greens) — These greens are found in woods, fields, roadsides, gardens, waste places, and anywhere trees have fallen. CAUTION: Poke must be cooked properly or it can be poisonous. Never eat the berries — they are very toxic. Use only the leaves. Poke can be recognized by its purple or magenta stalks. Pick leaves from 6- to 8-inch-tall plants. A half cup of cooked pokeweed has 35 calories.

Ramps (wild leeks) — Ramps have broad, smooth, light green leaves, often with deep purple or burgundy tints on the lower stems, and are seen as soon as the snow disappears. Scallionlike bulbs are strongly rooted just beneath the soil’s surface. Tear a leaf or stem and take a sniff of the strong, distinctive onion scent. Soil habitats are sandy, moist and often on hillsides and near streams. The leaves are tender early in the spring, and the bulb is edible year-round, though they can toughen up in the summer. Don’t overharvest or you will pay the price. One cup equals 54 calories.

Sheep Shower (wood sorrel) — With tiny, cloverlike leaves with a deep purple underside, sheep shower can be found growing at the base of shade trees in the woods, hidden in tufts of moss, or edging old tree stumps. Though very sour, they make a good snack. Wood sorrel contains negligible calories.

Watercress — Having peppery, small leaves with tender, edible stems, watercress grows in running creeks. Cut the top 2 to 3 inches of the plant with scissors. Do not pull, or you will get a handful of roots. The tiny, white, hairlike roots growing on the sides of the watercress stems are edible; they do not have to be removed before eating. One cup of raw watercress contains a mere 4 calories.

Wild asparagus — Asparagus can be found along railroads, electric poles, and oddly enough, underneath fence lines around cemeteries — all areas that escape the mower. Avoid eating spears harvested too near creosote soaked ties, posts and power poles. Snap spears close to the ground, but do not pull. They will grow back with more asparagus. One cup cooked contains 52 calories.

Wild garlic — You can find wild garlic in fields, ditches, gardens, and along roadsides. It has tall, green spikelike stems. Do not confuse wild garlic with the deadly Death Camus, which smells neither of onion nor garlic. Dig deeply with a hand shovel to prevent cutting bulbs. Shake off dirt, then spread and dry. Stems can be tied or braided for storage. One bulb has 4 calories.

Wild violets — Look for tiny purple and pale lavender flowers, growing wild in yards, gardens, fields and ditches. They’re nice placed on top of cupcakes or frosted cakes. Violets contain negligible calories.

Summer

Blackberries — Berry plants grow best in full sun, extending their long, flowering branches or canes as far as possible. Bushes sprout everywhere birds drop seed, including on fence rows, road and field edges, or at meadow margins. In spring, where brush has grown up around the parent plant, you will spot white flower-garlanded canes arching up and over adjoining plants to seek the sun. Blackberries are ripe around the Fourth of July. Avoid areas that have been sprayed recently with herbicide. Dead vegetation is a sign of recent spraying. One cup of blackberries contains 62 calories.

Huckleberries — These grow on 6- to 20-foot, woody-stemmed, evenly rounded bushes. In spring, bushes display down-hanging, white, bell-shaped flowers, which in summer sprout sprays of round, blue fruits. They do well in bogs with leached-out sand, and dried up beaver ponds are good. Oak trees can indicate good huckleberry land. One cup equals 50 calories.

Mayapples — Mayapples are prolific in woods under shade trees, growing in wide drifts. They produce a fruit that can be used fresh, frozen, canned, or made into jelly. The fruit is found underneath umbrella-shaped leaves, with only one fruit per plant. Do not use fruit until completely ripened; green fruit is toxic. Ripe fruits are soft and yellow. The seeds, roots and leaves contain powerful toxins and must not be consumed. They must also be peeled; do not eat the rind. The fruit is produced in early summer and ripens later in summer.

Mulberries — The ripe fruit of this tree is very dark purple, nearly black, although unripe fruits are reddish; if the fruit is all white, the tree may be that of the white-fruited cultivar. The tree reaches a height of about 65 feet, with rough, reddish-brown bark. The fruit, composed of lots of berries stuck together, is long-oval in shape and hangs from a short, slender fruit stalk. Ripe mulberries also come in red and pink. You will find mulberry trees in residential areas, parks, fields, near fresh water, and along the edges of open woods. They ripen in late spring and early summer. You can spot ripe berries because the fruits make such a mess on the ground. Use the fruit immediately; they only last a day or so in the refrigerator. There are 60 calories per cup.

PawPaw Fruit — This interesting fruit tastes like a mixture of mango, banana and melon. It’s native to the woodlands of the eastern United States, spreading across the eastern part of the country to eastern Kansas and Texas, and from the Great Lakes almost to the Gulf. The fruit grows on a narrowly conical tree between 12 and 20 feet tall, with dark green, obovate-oblong, drooping leaves growing up to 12 inches long. Maroon, upside-down flowers produce multiple fruits. The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North America. Individual fruits weigh 5 to 16 ounces and are 3 inches to 6 inches long. The larger sizes will appear plump, similar to the mango. The fruit ripens during a four-week period between mid-August and into October. A 100-gram serving contains 29 calories.

Sassafras — It can be found throughout the Eastern United States, south to central Florida, and west to southern Iowa and East Texas. The roots make a delicious tea that tastes like root beer — be aware that the FDA considers the consumption of sassafras root to be a health hazard due to the presence of safrole. Dig the roots from 2- to 4-foot saplings. Shake off the dirt and allow to dry for several days before making tea. You can also dry and grind young leaves to make filé powder, an ingredient in gumbos. Both have negligible calories.

Wild Strawberries — A common creeping plant, wild strawberries grow in forests, fields, lawns, roadsides and creek sides — just about anywhere. They can grow up to 6 inches tall, and their leaves are split into three leaflets. Wild strawberries bloom from April to June. Flowers are 3/4-inch wide, with five white petals. The fruit is bright red, looking like a regular strawberry but much smaller. There are 49 calories per cup.

Autumn

Black walnuts — The tree grows as scattered individual trees or in small groups throughout the central and eastern parts of the United States. The tree has a tall, clear trunk, with gray-black and deeply furrowed bark. The leaves are alternate, odd-pinnate with 15 to 23 leaflets, the largest of which are located in the center. Nuts ripen in the fall, covered with a brownish-green, semifleshy husk. The whole nut falls from the tree in October; it is small and very hard. One cup of black walnuts equals 773 calories.

Hickory nuts — The nuts grow on a canopy tree prevalent in eastern North America. Many types of hickory nuts are sought for their distinctive taste and texture, and food cooked over hickory woods have a hickory-smoked flavor. Look for long and narrow leaves, with several leaves extending from each stalk, ranging from 2 to 8 inches long. Hickory trees always have an odd number of leaves, ranging from seven to 17 on any given stalk. The leaves have serrated edges. Look for a woody outer husk on the nut, which is dark to light brown; it may be partially cracked open to reveal the nut inside. Nine nuts equals 186 calories.

Persimmons — Persimmon trees grow from New England to Kansas and Texas to Florida, with unique bark structure of thick, gray-black blocky squares about 1  1/2 inches across in a mosaic pattern. Leaves are up to 6 inches long and 3 inches wide, dark green on the top, and lighter green on the underside. Persimmon leaves grow alternately (on two sides of a branch, but not directly opposite one another), have an elliptical shape, and are pointed at both ends. The ripe fruit is a deep orange color in the fall and mid-winter. The taste is a mixture of plum, date and apricot. One piece of fruit contains 32 calories.

Pine nuts — You’ll likely see a bunch of opened shells (pine cones) on the ground among the pine needles, dirt and other vegetation surrounding the tree. This means that pine nuts have fallen from the cones to the ground. Look up and see if the trees contain open, large pine cones. Crawl over the ground underneath the trees, close enough so that you can easily spot the nuts that are littering the ground. They will be small, about half the size of a dime, and they will vary in color from light brown to black. Nuts get caught in grass and buried beneath pine needles. Generally a large concentration of nuts can be found around the base of the tree. Separate all cracked nuts from the rest. There will be some with large open cracks and others with thin, small cracks. Depending on the size of the crack, you’ll have to use a different knife.

To open a nut, place it firmly on the table, wedge the knife into the crack, and twist the knife while keeping the nut in one place. The two halves should pop open. For nuts without a crack, use a hammer to lightly mash the shell. One cup of dried pine nuts has 908 calories.

No matter the time of year, a little effort and time can provide your family with a wide range of fun, nutritious and delicious foods, plus offer some time for wilderness education along the way. 


Born and raised on a small farm in northeast Oklahoma, journalist Annie Stewart enjoys teaching her granddaughters about organic farming, and how to identify and collect food from the woods.