Fall is an exciting time of year for those of us who love the outdoors. As our favorite hunting, trapping, and trout seasons open, we find ourselves spending even more time in the woods and the backcountry. During these long-awaited hours in the crisp autumn air, it’s only natural that our appetites increase as the temperatures drop. And on those days when your creel or game bag stay empty, there’s no need to go home empty handed. For those who want to explore the art of foraging, autumn is the best season to learn about the tasty tree nuts, berries, and roots that sustained our ancestors when game proved scarce. And for the modern survivalist, it makes perfect sense to learn about the abundant wild foods that will feed your family during an emergency. Whether you are learning just for fun, or as a backup plan for survival, we hope you enjoy our forager's guide to 15 edible plants that you'll find in the woods this fall.
These swamp-loving plants bear a number of edible sections, and several parts with very handy survival uses. Grab your hip waders and a shovel. The chilly autumn swamp water surrounds a very valuable plant.
Identifying Features: No, it’s not related to the corn dog, but that iconic brown seed head certainly looks like some kind of deep-fried carnival food. Look for grass-like plants that grow 3-9 feet tall, with an oval cross section to the lower stalk, that are also growing in wet conditions.
Range: Various cattail species are found worldwide. The common cattail is found throughout southern Alaska and Canada, as well as the lower 48 states.
Best Bet: The common cattail (Typha latifolia) is the largest species, and it has the widest distribution. Late fall is your best time to collect the rootstocks.
Edible Uses: The white starchy material inside the long brown rootstocks can be scraped out and used to thicken soups and stews. It can also be dried and ground into flour. While you collect the rootstocks, keep an eye out for the little sprouts at the base of the plant. These small whitish spikes can be steamed, boiled or fried as a tasty vegetable.
Watch out: Several species of larger iris plants also grow in wet conditions and bear rootstocks. These are poisonous, and do not have a “corn dog” seed head. Make sure each plant you take has a cattail seed head attached to it, and you can’t go wrong.
14. Wild Grapes
Wild grape vines can provide us with clusters of wild fruit with an intense grape flavor. Get your throwing stick ready, since these little grapes are often found at the top of tall climbing vines.
Identifying Features: Wild grapes (Vitis genus) are deciduous woody vines that are found throughout the world, thanks to their native populations and cultivation. Grapes have alternate simple leaves that are heavily toothed. The vines typically have rough bark and all grape vines sprout out curling woody tendrils.
Range: Wild grapes are found globally, though they are found more commonly in the eastern half of North America rather than the western half. More than 20 species of wild grape are found east of the Mississippi, ripening at different times from August through October.
Best Bet: While many grapes ripen in the late summer, the frost grape (Vitis vulpina) ripens in October. These dark small grapes have a sharp grape flavor and were bred with cultivated grape varieties to create the Concord grape.
Edible Uses: Wild grapes can be eaten as fruit or turned into juice. Depending on the species and sugar content, they are roughly 100 calories per cup. Most wild grapes carry descent amounts of vitamin C, vitamin K, copper and potassium (one-tenth to a quarter of your daily requirement). Make sure it’s a grape though!
Watch out: The Canada moonseed looks like a grape, but it is actually poisonous! Grapes should have two to four teardrop shaped seeds, while the dangerous moonseed has only one seed, which is curved and flat. The grape vines also have tendrils (curly Q’s), while the moonseed has no curly tendrils.
13. Rose hips
Roses aren’t just for sweethearts—they’re for foragers, too. Once wild rose hips soften, their sweet pulp becomes a welcome snack on the autumn trails.
Identifying Features: This perennial species of rose is a woody plant that has finely toothed, pinnately compound leaves that can persist into winter. It has alternate branching and sharp curved thorns. It has bright red rose hips that are full of pale yellow seeds.
Range: Both invasive and native wild roses are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Wild roses favor open ground and pastures.
Best Bet: Native to Asia, the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) can now be found globally. It’s ripe red rose hips taste like sweet fruit leather (i.e. Fruit Roll-Ups).
Edible Uses: The pulp and skin of the rose hips can be eaten raw or the entire rose hip can be steeped to make rose tea. The tangy sweet, red colored fruits are a good source of Vitamin E and also a Vitamin C powerhouse containing 7 times your daily allowance.
We can’t talk about fall wild edibles without talking about the wild persimmon. If you taste one before it’s ripe, the sour and astringent qualities will flood your taste buds with a horrible sensation. But if you wait until the fruit becomes a gooey, wrinkled mess, the fruits are unbelievably sweet.
Identifying Features: The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a deciduous tree with alternate simple leaves and small orange fruits that contain large brown seeds. A related species with larger fruits (sold in grocery stores) can be found in Japan and neighboring countries. The scientific name of this fruit is diospyros, which means “food of the gods." If you are concerned that they are overselling the quality of the fruit, you clearly need to taste it first.
Range: Wild persimmons are found the eastern half of the U.S.
Best Bet: Look for very wrinkled fruits in late October. Typically, the rougher they look, the sweeter they taste. And if the fruits aren’t ripe yet, they will give you a strong case of cotton mouth.
Edible Uses: The completely ripe, native persimmon fruits are a sticky, gooey sweet treasure trove. The fruits of this eastern tree have 127 calories and a full day’s vitamin C per cup of pulp. Eat them raw, turn them into jam or ferment them into golden colored wine.
These red seeded shrubs have been used to make a lemonade flavored beverage for ages. It’s a shame this fleeting flavor is only available in the fall.
Identifying Features: There are several species of this perennial woody shrub, though all have large alternate leaves that are pinnately compound. These shrubs can reach heights of 15 feet (4.5m). Sumac has cone shaped clusters of hard, red, fuzzy seeds.
Range: Various sumac species (Rhus) can be found in open woods and fields throughout much of North America. Related edible species can be found in America, Europe and Asia.
Best Bet: The staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is found in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and the American northeast. The thick fuzzy seed coating holds a lot of flavor and resists the rain.
Edible Uses: The red fuzzy seeds can be separated from the twigs and soaked in cool water for an hour; or steeped in hot water for 15 minutes then chilled to make a drink like pink lemonade. Use before the winter rains wash away the flavor, and strain out the berries and hairs by pouring it through a filter.
Watch Out: Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a rare wetland shrub that looks similar to the sumacs (though not directly related). It has toxic greenish-white berries and leaves that can cause an allergic reaction after touching the skin. Poison sumac is kin to poison ivy and poison oak, and contains the same irritating oil, urushiol.
10. Wild Onion
Spicy and delicious, wild onions turn your wild-caught fish and game into a meal fit for a king. Diverse and frost-resistant, these plants provide a great wild seasoning throughout the fall season. Grab a little spade and a bag to hold your prize, because we’re hunting down one of nature’s super foods, the wild onion.
Identifying Features: Your first step—to make sure a plant really is an onion or garlic—is looking for the classic shapes of a bulbous root and a rounded stem that onions and garlic share. Once it passes that test, go to the scratch and sniff phase of testing. Scratch the bulb, or bruise the green tops, and you should immediately smell the familiar oniony odor. The plant contains numerous sulfur compounds, which mix with the salt in your tears, to create a weak sulfuric acid, which is the cause of the burning eyes and crying while dismembering these plants.
Range: There are over a dozen different species of wild onion growing throughout North America.
Edible Uses: Tender tops and juicy bulbs can be eaten raw or cooked. I like them finely chopped as an aromatic seasoning ingredient, in both salads and cooked dishes.
Watch Out: Onions and garlic are a group of plants that are edible to humans, and generally very tasty. But don’t just wolf down everything shaped like an onion. The broader family they belong to is the lily family, which can be a problem for foragers, because some lilies are toxic and resemble onions at first glance.
If you like root beer, then you’ll love the spicy and complex flavor of sassafras roots. Part of the original root beer recipe, the roots of this flavorful tree yield an amazing tea.
Identifying Features: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a rough, grey barked deciduous hardwood tree in the laurel family (Lauraceae). This tree grows in old fields and the edges of woods, as well as an understory tree in woodlands. It has greenish twigs with an alternate branch pattern. The most distinctive trait about this tree is the variety of leaf shapes. Simple oval leaves are common, as well as leaves with one deep sinus resembling a mitten, and leaves with two deep sinuses (resembling a 3-toed dinosaur foot).
Range: Sassafras is found in the forests and thickets of eastern North America.
Edible Uses: The fresh or dried root of sassafras has an intense root beer flavor, and makes an excellent tea when steeped in hot water. The twigs can be steeped as a tea also, with a very different citrus flavor. The dried leaves can be used to thicken soups, and they are a traditional ingredient in gumbo.
Watch Out: Some dusty old studies have suggested that sassafras extract is carcinogenic (cancer-causing), however, you’d have to drink several gallons a day to reach a dangerous dose. I don’t let that stop me from drinking it, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
Frequently confused with wild roses, these thorny bushes grow a crop of red berries that are often used as a trailside snack and a healthy tea.
Identifying Features: This shrub grows in old fields and new forests as a bush with thorny branches, red dangling berries and whorled leaves. The Japanese barberry has solitary thorns, while native species have thorns in sets of three.
Range: The barberry family (Berberidaceae) has members throughout the world. Several species are found growing wild in the eastern US.
Best Bet: The American barberry (Berberis canadensis) is a common species in the American southeast and the Mid-Atlantic. Its juicy red berries are high in Vitamin C.
Edible Uses: The berry skin and pulp can be eaten raw and the seeds spit out. The berries can also be steeped in hot water to make a tea. Barberries contain an immune-system-boosting compound called berberine, which can help to keep us healthy in cold and flu system.
7. Curly Dock
This odd plant has a second growth of leaves in the fall, offering us some tender leaves with a refreshing sour taste.
Identifying Features: Curly dock (Rumex crispus) is a member of the buckwheat family, with leaves that have wavy edges and a net-like structure of raised leaf veins. Look for the reddish-brown seed stalks at a distance, and then search around the base for the fall flush of tender new leaves.
Range: This species can be found throughout North America.
Edible Uses: The new leaves growing in autumn provide a pleasantly sour salad green, and they can be used as a cooked green as well.
Watch Out: The levels of oxalic acid in this plant are high, and those who are prone to kidney stones should limit their consumption of curly dock (or skip it altogether).
This tender creeping plant grows like a short little vine – and its leaves and soft stems make a great addition to salads and soups.
Identifying Features: This species is a low growing herbaceous annual plant often forms a carpet on the disturbed ground of farms, gardens and lawns. Native to Europe, it is now naturalized in many places. The small, ovate simple leaves grow in an opposite branching pattern on the round, green stems. Chickweed has white flowers, which appear to have 10 petals, but on closer inspection, it’s really only 5 petals which are partially split.
Range: Native to Europe, chickweed can now be found throughout the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
Best Bet: The common chickweed (Stellaria media) is usually tender and mild tasting, and it’s not as furry as other species.
Edible Uses: The tender leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked. The star chickweed (Stellaria pubera) and mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) can be eaten as a cooked green and star chickweed can be eaten raw. Chickweed can also be used as a poultice for an anti-itch remedy, and it can be eaten to relieve constipation.
You’ve probably seen this plant and said “Wow, that’s one fuzzy leaf.” Do your homework on this unusual looking plant, and you’ll discover that it’s far more than just a furry-leafed weed that your buddies call “hunter’s toilet paper”.
Identifying Features: Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a plant with very fuzzy oval leaves. Living for two years, each biennial plant forms a rosette of leaves during the first year of life, and a 3-8 foot tall flower stalk with yellow flowers during its second and final year of life.
Range: Dry sunny ground throughout the U.S.
Edible Uses: The leaves can also be brewed into a tea for drinking, or mixed with tobacco for a Native American smoking blend.
Watch Out: It’s also been called “cowboy toilet paper,” though that use may not have nice results. The irritating hairs and the vasodilating oil can cause an itchy rash on very tender skin.
4. Sheep sorrel
A vinegary sourness will fill your mouth when you munch on these acerbic leaves, which are perfect in salad or when served with fish.
Identifying Features: Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is a small plant which grows some very unusual spear-head shaped simple leaves. Sheep sorrel is a perennial herbaceous plant that has a reddish alternate branching stem, up to a height of 18 inches. The leaves are typically small, about 1 inch, and smooth edged. They have a pair of lobes at the base of each leaf which may point outward or down to the base of the plant.
Range: In fields, lawns and gardens throughout the world.
Edible Uses: The tender, sour tasting leaves can be eaten raw as a salad or steeped in hot water for a sour drink very similar to lemonade.
Watch Out: Like curly dock, sheep sorrel gets its sour taste from oxalic acid. So those who are prone to kidney stones should limit their consumption of this plant. If regular consumption of either of these plants is followed by urinary gravel (small stones), stop eating these plants, lest bigger stones follow.
3. Hickory Nuts
If you enjoy the taste of pecan, then you’ll enjoy the sweet taste of the pecan’s wild cousin. Pecan is a southern species of hickory with a flavor that resembles most other hickory nuts. Not only do they taste good, but these tree nuts are also a treasure trove of calories.
Identifying Features: These trees are deciduous hardwood trees found in North America and Asia. The leaves are alternate compound and the nuts have a “double” nut shell. There’s a husk that peels off, revealing a nut shell underneath. And make sure you don’t get a buckeye. They have a double layered nut shell like hickory, but buckeye nuts are poisonous. Hickory nuts have a multi chambered inner nutshell (like a walnut), while the dangerous buckeyes have a solid nutmeat (like an almond).
Range: Hickories are found in Asia, the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Edible Uses: Hickory nuts are the most calorie dense wild plant food in this book. One ounce of shelled out hickory nut meats packs a whopping 193 calories, with most of that coming from fat. Most hickory nuts taste like their most famous relative – the pecan. These sweet and fatty nut meats can be used as a raw food, picked right out of the shell.
Watch Out: There are a few species of hickory that have very bitter nuts. They aren’t harmful to eat, but they are so nasty that you won’t be able to consume them.
2. Black Walnuts
These remarkable trees provide food, medicine, dye, and useful wood, and when the nuts are present—they are very easy to identify.
Identifying Features: Walnuts are tall growing deciduous hardwood trees with round or oblong nuts. Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) look like green tennis balls when they are freshly fallen, but the rough round husks turn from green to a very dark brown as they lay on the ground in autumn. The leaves of walnut are alternate compound leaves.
Range: Black walnut trees are found in the eastern half of the lower 48 states.
Edible Uses: The tasty nut meat contains 173 calories an ounce, with a fair bit of protein, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese. The butternut walnut (Juglans cinera) can also be used like black walnut.
Watch Out: Wear waterproof gloves when working with goopy wet walnut husks. Not only will the walnut hull pulp dye your skin an odd color – some people develop painful skin irritation from contact.
Acorns are one of the most common tree nuts, and with a little processing, they provide us with a nutrient rich power food.
Identifying Features: There are approximately 600 species of "oak" throughout the world. This list includes deciduous and evergreen tree species found in cool climates down to warmer tropical latitudes. Oaks have alternate simple leaves in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. North America contains the largest number of oak species, with a surprising diversity of 160 species in Mexico. The fruit of the oak tree is a nut called an acorn, borne in a cup-like “cupule”.
Range: Oak species are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Best Bet: Stick with the white oak (Quercus alba) and its round-lobed relatives for the lowest level of bitterness and the shortest leaching times.
Edible Uses: One ounce of acorn nut meat contains a little over 100 calories, which many of our ancestors ate as a staple food prior to agriculture. The bitter acid in them is easily removed by cracking them into pieces and soaking the acorn nut meat chunks in repeating baths of warm water, one hour at a time, until the bitter is gone.
Watch Out: Eating acorns that still contain too much tannic acid can cause nausea and digestive distress. Also, make sure you don’t collect any buckeye nuts. Once they have fallen out of their husks, buckeyes can have a similar appearance to acorns, but unlike acorns – buckeyes are toxic.