Foraging is having a moment. It's not too surprising to see a resurgence in the practice given current affairs. Supply chain issues, sustainability concerns, and a desire to revive traditional practices have pushed interested folks back outside in search of consumable wild plants. Whether you realized it or not, the United States has a variety of wild edibles ripe for the keen-eyed forager. It's a great way to save a little money on food, add some variety to your meals, and build your survival skills in the process. The only challenge is in knowing what to look for while you're out and about in the forest. We're here to help you figure that out today. Here are five common plants you've likely seen in your outdoor before but didn't realize were completely edible with a little proper preparation.
Clover has a few different varieties, but this article will stick to the two most common, white clover and red clover. Both have similar appearances. They have three oval shaped leaves with white "V" marks on them. White clover has a white sphere-shaped bloom that sometimes has pale pink coloring on the tips. Red clover has vibrant pink blooms. All clover blooms eventually turn brown and droop. The flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds of clover are all edible. It can be eaten raw or cooked, although it's usually best fresh. Most people seem to enjoy the flowers more than the leaves. Your mileage on that may vary. As WebMD notes, there are some health benefits with clover, but most experts recommend not eating it in massive quantities.
Leeks and Ramps
Wild onion (leeks) and wild garlic (ramps) have many similarities. Both grow in wet, marshy areas and both can be harvested in the springtime. They present similarly and are sometimes mistaken for each other. Both have thin, glossy, waxy green leaves, but while wild onion leaves are flat and solid, wild garlic leaves are round and hollow. Wild onion leaves emerge from the base while wild garlic leaves branch off the main stem. Wild onion flowers are generally white or pink, while wild garlic blooms are typically green or purple. Aside from appearances, both wild onion and wild garlic have a signature fragrance that will linger in the air when they have been disturbed. When harvesting wild onion and wild garlic, pull from the bottom to ensure you get the whole stalk; both the green leaves and white lower stalk are edible. It can be helpful to bring a small trowel out with you to use to loosen the soil around the leeks. Once pulled, shake the dirt off and rinse before consuming. They can either be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of ways depending on your preferences.
In the United States there are several different species of wild blackberries. Mature blackberries, like their raspberry cousins, are thankfully, easy to identify. One great thing about blackberries is they have no poisonous doppelgangers, so the risk or making a dangerous identification mistake is quite low. They will appear black when ripe, can vary in size from approximately the size of your pinkie fingertip to your thumb tip, and are characterized by their bumpy shape. They are ready to pick if they easily pop off the branch. Unmatured berries will be more difficult to pick, as they will continue to adhere, and it will feel like you're trying to break it off rather than it sliding off smoothly.
This one surprises a lot of people. While this little yellow bloom might have a reputation as a lawn nuisance, it is actually a nutrient-dense wonder weed. Dandelion is loaded with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, and K, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and have smaller amounts of vitamin E, and folate. All parts of the dandelion can be consumed, from bloom to root. They have single, vibrant yellow blooms on hollow stems that grow from the center of a base of basal leaves. Dandelion is versatile as an edible. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Dandelion greens can be added to tossed salads or boiled and sautéed with garlic and oil for a yummy side dish. The blooms can be battered and fried into fritters. Or they can be boiled and prepared into dandelion wine. The root can be dried and made into tea. This delectable edible has plenty of possibilities.
Fiddlehead ferns are the tightly coiled tips of immature ostrich ferns. It is important to harvest the correct variety, as other variations can be toxic. Take a close look at the stems. If they have a fuzzy appearance, it's likely not a safe variety to eat. You want a fiddlehead with a smooth stem. Unlike some of the other edibles mentioned here, this is one you cannot eat raw. They must be cooked to be safe to eat. Boil or steam first, and then sauté. Ostrich ferns grow abundantly throughout the Northeast and Midwest. They can grow almost anywhere but are concentrated in damp areas with rich soil. The only bad thing about them is there's a limited timeframe in the spring when you can harvest them before the fronds unfurl and they become inedible again.
Some quick notes about safety while foraging.
When foraging, always be sure to consult with an expert before consuming wild plants. We recommend bringing a friend already experienced in foraging as a precaution. Some edible plants have toxic lookalikes. Some have safe-to-eat portions and not-safe-to-eat portions. For example, sunflower seeds are edible (and tasty), but the rest of the plant is not safe to eat. It's the same story with rhubarb. While the stem is edible, the leaves are not.
Then there are plants need to be cooked or prepared before consuming. Wild onion, or leeks, have a poisonous and deadly lookalike, called death camas. The big giveaway is a lack of that trademark pungent onion aroma. Sometimes it's the size of the plant that affects edibility. Young milkweed shoots (shorter than six inches) can be cooked and eaten, but mature milkweed plants are poisonous if eaten in large amounts.
The point is, never eat something with positively identifying it using the Internet or a quality guidebook with pictures before putting anything into your body. As long as you're cautious, there's a wealth of tasty options out there just waiting to be discovered.