Wild edible plants are more common than the average person might think. The leaves, seeds, fruits, roots, and nuts that sustained our ancestors are still out there to be found, collected and enjoyed. My family regularly feasts on a wide variety of seasonal wild foods gathered from our farm and forests, and you can too. Just make certain you have positively identified the plant as an edible species, and that you are using the right part, at the right time, in the right way. Once all these things are confirmed, it’s time to dig in!
Curly Dock (Rumex crispus): This perennial herbaceous plant in the buckwheat family is also known yellow dock. Full-grown plants have a stalk that is about 3 feet tall and reddish in color. The wavy “curled” margins resemble burdock, though unlike burdock, these leaves are hairless. On the top of the stalk, greenish flowers form and give way to reddish-brown seeds in clusters on branching stems. These seeds can be winnowed and ground into flour or cooked as a cereal grain. The cleaned seeds are a shiny, caramel brown and like others in the buckwheat family, they have three sides. The tender leaves can be eaten raw or cooked when available. The root is a large, yellow taproot, which has long been a source of medicinal tannic acid.
Sumac (genus Rhus): This group of shrubs has compound leaves, and the edible ones will have red-colored seed clusters in autumn. Collect the hard, red, fuzzy seeds and pick them off the twigs. Rub them in water and then allow them to soak in warm water for 15 minutes (or up to an hour if the water is cold). Strain the liquid and drink it as a vitamin C-rich lemonade substitute. Just use caution if you have severe allergies. Anyone allergic to cashews (a relative of sumac) or severely allergic to poison ivy should not consume any part of this plant.
Rose Hips (genus Rosa): One cup of the tangy, sweet red-colored fruits of wild rose bushes provide 162 calories 7 times your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. They’re a good source of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), vitamin K, calcium, and magnesium, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin A and manganese. To avoid harvesting the wrong fruit or berry, look for compound leaves and thorns on the rose bushes. Red rose hips branch upward; they’re not dangling fruits. If you’re still unsure, tear open the fruits. Rose hips have multiple seeds that are light in color, and each seed has a teardrop or “garlic clove” shape.
Acorns (genus Quercus): These are the nuts produced by oak trees. Their size and parts will vary quite a bit, and they may even resemble other tree nuts. Verify your acorns by checking for a solid nutmeat surrounded by a thin shell. This shell grows inside a cap, which might come off the tree with the acorn or remain behind on the twig. The caps might be very flat, with the majority of the nut sticking out of it; or they could be very deep, surrounding most of the nut. This all depends on the species of oak from which the nuts are falling. Acorns are a wild-food powerhouse, containing about 2,000 calories per pound, and they can be found across the Northern Hemisphere. Crack the shells open and soak the nut meat in water to remove the tannic acid. Taste test for best results and use the soaked nuts when their taste becomes palatable. These nut chunks can be roasted, candied, ground into flour, or eaten as they are.
Pine (genus Pinus): Pine trees are easily identified as having needles in clusters of 2 to 5 needles, and they also bear tell-tale pine cones. These versatile trees provide us with food, fuel, glue, and many other useful things. The bark is relatively nutritious, packing 500 to 600 calories to the pound. Pine nuts can be eaten, too. These are fatty and soft, and are picked from larger pine cones. They can be enjoyed raw or cooked. One hundred grams of pine nuts have approximately 640 calories and provide 10 percent of your daily potassium. A spoonful of chopped pine needles can be steeped in a mug of hot water for 10-15 minutes to make a tea that is rich in vitamin C. One serving contains as much as five times your daily requirement.
What are some of your favorite wild edible plants? Let us know in the comments.