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When no other food sources are available, you’ll need to rely on Mother Nature to replenish your calories. That’s where foraging comes into play. If all of your pre-stocked food has run out, you should have the ability to spot and harvest wild edible plants.
Pay very close attention. If you consume the wrong wild plants, you could get sick and die. You have to know what you’re doing. There are way too many toxic plants in the wild to worry about. Let’s take a look at some of the ones that are safe to eat, as well as how to harvest them.
Of course there are many more than 10, and we'll include some resources for you, but to get you started, here are some common ones.
Common Wild Edible Plants
The edible parts of the Cattail include the leaves (salads), the stems (soups), the flowers (stews), the pollen, and the roots. Cattail is full of vitamin A, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. As for its medicinal value, it can be used to treat bruises, burns, insect bites, and scrapes. You can harvest it at any time.
Some of its key characteristics is that its tall, has 1-2 cm wide leaves, and can be found in swaps and wetlands. If you find yourself in a survival situation with nothing to eat, look for these. They could just save your life.
The parts of a chicory that you can ingest are the leaves (salads), roots (coffee substitute), and flowers. Chicory contains a good amount of phosphorous, vitamin K, vitamin C, and vitamin A. For medicinal purposes, it can be used to treat upset stomachs, constipation, loss of appetite, and disorders involving the gall bladder and liver.
Chicory can also be used to treat inflammation of the skin. It’s best to harvest chicory during the fall or spring (summer tends to make the leaves bitter). Some of the distinguishing features of these wild edible plants include a purplish-blue flower about 2-4 centimeters in diameter, with a scraggly look and often standing alone. They tend to grow in open areas, along roadsides, and in fields.
For edible plants in the wild, look no further than the coltsfoot. I know it LOOKS a little like a dandelion, but it's not. However, like the dandelion, the flowers can be used in soups, teas, and salads, while leaves can also be eaten (just make sure you wash and boil them to remove the bitter taste). They contain potassium, calcium, and vitamin C, and can even be made into a cough syrup.
The best time to harvest them is during the early spring. It has a slim stalk, while the leaves are waxy, hoof-shaped, and basal. The leaves also have white hairs on their underside. You can find them on the edges of the forest, as well as in ditches and open areas. As a general rule of thumb, don’t consume more than 6 grams of these per day. NOTE: The roots can be potentially toxic, so be careful there as well.
Since we mentioned it, it's a good time to mention that there are great books out there to help you learn more about toxic plants. Here's a well-received one on Amazon: A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides)
When it comes to the humble Dandelion, you can eat the leaves (salads), flowers, and root (coffee substitute). They contain magnesium, sodium, potassium, vitamin K, and a whole load of other nutrients. As for their medicinal value, they are a diuretic, so they can help with urination. The leaves can help with digestion and appetite, and even improve kidney function.
The flowers are full of antioxidants as well. Finally, the roots can be used to detox the gallbladder and liver. You can harvest them at any time, which is a good thing. They are bright yellow in color, and contain hairless, deeply-notched leaves. Also know that these edibles make for a great companion plant for gardens!
We personally love seeing these little fellas pop up on the lawn each spring, and we gather the leaves and enjoy them in our salads. I have personally brewed the roots for a medicinal tea.
It's worth the effort to learn more about medicinal flowers. We'll post some resources below this article.
The next one that we’re going to talk about is the elderberry plant. The berries can be used to make wines, jellies, and jam, while the flowers can be used to make salads. What makes the elderberry so great is that it's filled with magnesium, iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6 (among others). Their medicinal value is also fairly high. They can alleviate congestion as well as potentially treat bacterial sinusitis. Perhaps you have heard of the popular cold remedy, Sambucol. Sambucol is made with elderberry extract.
If you want to harvest your own elderberries, keep an eye out during the spring (for the flowers) or during the late summer (for the berries).
They look like an ordinary shrub with gray-brown bark that’s smooth. The berries are purple-black and can be found in clusters near the umbrella-shaped flower clusters. Keep in mind: all of the parts of these wild edible plants, other than the berries and flowers, are TOXIC.
Below is a photo of our own elderberries! We were on our land for over a year before we even discovered what they were. The birds had a field day, and stripped out the bush in just a couple of days!
#6: Garlic Mustard
The edible parts of the Garlic Mustard include the flowers (salads), the leaves (tea), and the roots. The seeds can also be eaten. The nutritional content for the garlic mustard plant includes an abundance of calcium, potassium, vitamin E, vitamin B, vitamin A, and even selenium and manganese. For medicinal use, it can be used to treat parasites and asthma, as well as heal wounds and skin ulcers.
The tea is also known to be a blood purifier. The best time to harvest these in the wild is fall (for the seeds) and before summer (for the leaves). The garlic mustard plant has broad leaves that are kidney-shaped, tiny white flowers, the odor of garlic, and can be found in wooded areas, ditches, swamps, and even on roadsides. These are known to be very invasive, so feel free to harvest as much as you want!
All of the above-ground parts of these wild edible plants can be eaten. Filled with vitamin B3, vitamin B2, vitamin C, and vitamin A, they offer a high degree of nutrition. Horsetail plants have been known to treat kidney and bladder issues, as well as help relieve the symptoms of arthritis.
Horsetail is an antiseptic, antibiotic, and anti-hemorrhagic. It’s best to harvest them after the spores are released and the leaves grow. You can tell these apart from the rest since they don’t have any flowers, have a grown stem in the early spring, and can be grown pretty much anywhere (even waste areas).
Some years ago, we had the good fortune of meeting a Passamaquoddy elder (Fredda Paul) at the Common Ground fair in Maine, who introduced us to horsetail. He harvests it in the spring. Here is a link to an article by Fredda and his wife from the Fair archives.
#8: Lambs Quarters
The edible part of these wild plants include the leaves and shoots (for salads, soups, and stews), the flowers, and even the seeds. They offer a descent amount of vitamin B3, calcium, iron, vitamin B1, and vitamin C. The reason why they are so good is because they’ve been known to help with internal inflammation, diarrhea, and even loss of appetite. The leaves of these wild plants can also be used to treat sunburns and insect bites. Also, if you suffer from anemia then you can help alleviate the symptoms with this plant. It’s best to harvest them during the spring, but anytime during the summer is also fine. The seeds should be harvested during the fall.
#9: Milk Thistle
The great thing about Milk Thistle is that it can be eaten cooked or raw. The leaves, flower buds, stems, and seeds can all be eaten (watch out for the prickles!). You’ll receive a descent amount of potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, and folate with each bite.
From a medicinal standpoint, they can be used to treat liver damage and disorders, jaundice, and mushroom poisoning. They can help treat loss of appetite, as well as help with heartburn. Make sure you harvest the flowers from June to August. These wild edible plants can grow up to 1 meter, can take 2 years to grow, and have prickly leaves that have a unique shape and color.
The last of the edible plants that we’re going to talk about is purslane (Portulaca oleracea). First, I have to tell you: This is one of our favorites, and this stuff grows like a weed. Oh... right, because a lot of people consider it a weed! But, we'll pick it and eat it while we're tooling around in the garden.
It's got quite a bit of mucilage, but that's one of the best parts about it! The edible parts include the stems, flower buds, and leaves, all of which go great in stews, soups, and other dishes. What I love about purslane is that it’s loaded with vitamins and nutrients. The major ones include potassium, vitamin B2, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B1, magnesium, sodium, and phosphorus. For medicinal purposes, use it for reducing fevers and detoxing the body.
You can harvest them all summer long. They have thick, red stems and green leaves that are shaped like spoons. They can grow pretty much anywhere, including roadsides, wastelands, and cracks in the roads or sidewalk.
Top 5 Books on Identifying Wild Edible Plants
Ratings & Price Check
The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
Incredible Wild Edibles
Nature's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Edible Plants
Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate (The Wild Food Adventure Series, Book 1)
Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places
Whether you’re living off the grid, or in a survival situation, being able to spot out and harvest wild edible plants is a good skill to have. Now you won’t need to rely exclusively on hunting wild game or growing vegetables.
However, I can’t overstress the importance of making sure you become knowledgeable about the types of wild edible plants that are out there. If you make a mistake and eat the wrong one, you could easily become ill and die. It happens more often than you think, so always stay vigilant and learn as much as possible about what’s edible and what’s not.