Throughout each season, various wildflowers, berries, leaves, tree bark, tree sap, and fruits are available to provide food and habitat for wildlife. Some songbirds love nothing more than the tasty fruits of cherry trees. Bumblebees love meandering around fields in search of the sweet liquid tucked away in clover. Fox and Raccoon, while not hunting for small critters like mice or crayfish respectively, can be found snagging blackberries along the wood’s edge. Box Turtles stop their search for worms and slugs to take a bite out of the sweet, wild strawberry running along a sunny forest floor.
All of these plants mentioned are edible to wildlife and to humans as well! Honestly, many plants are entirely edible, but not that yummy – you’d only want to eat those plants if you’re in the zombie apocalypse and have no other choice. Below, I’ve put together some rules of thumb for foraging, along with some of my seasonal favorites that are fairly widespread in their distribution.
Rules of Thumb:
Don’t take everything you see! – Animals need these plants too! Humans can go to the grocery store when we need food, but nature IS the grocery store to wild animals. This goes for flowers as well, not just berries! Pollinators rely on those flowers. Avoid picking everything so as to leave food for others and to allow those berries/flowers to go to seed and continue making more plants!
Don’t pick it if it’s rare! – This goes along with not picking everything you see. Picking endangered species is illegal. We want to conserve and appreciate the nature around us – not selfishly contribute to the extinction of a beautiful species!
Don’t pick on private property (or get permission first) – Some people specifically plant cultivars of berries and other wild edibles to enjoy – don’t go stealing! Some natural areas that you may go for a walk or hike are also protected lands and foraging might not be allowed. Ask first!
Don’t pick something unless you’re 100% sure that it’s edible to humans! – While many plants are edible, not all of them are and some that are edible to wild animals are poisonous to humans. For example, the Pokeweed looks absolutely delicious and we may see numerous birds flocking to the berry laden shrubs in the fall. Unfortunately, if we were to confuse the Pokeweed with a huckleberry plant and snack on the berries, we wouldn’t feel too great afterwards…
While those ideas listed above give you some guidelines for how to behave as a forager, you may be a little nervous – what if you think you know what a plant is and get it wrong?! Here are some traits that can help you identify a plant as inedible (note – this doesn’t apply to every plant, but keeping this in mind when you’re unsure can really help keep you safe!) See figure 9-5 for the Universal Edibility Test.
Avoid plants with glossy or shiny leaves, white sap, or yellow or white berries
Don’t eat a leaf or plant that has thorns on it…. Ouch!
If a plant is bitter, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s inedible, it may just mean that you have to prepare it properly! Not everything should be eaten raw. Many plants have Tannins that make them very bitter – Dandelion greens are one of them. I love them in salads while my husband prefers when I use them in sautees since the heat gets rid of the bitter tannins.
Violets – Petals and flowers are great as added color in salads, drinks, or desserts! They are high in Vitamin C and A.
Dandelions – Not only do I love Dandelion greens in any recipe that calls for greens, but I also love making dandelion fritters by frying the flowers! Just be sure to fully separate the flower from the stem. Dandelions are high in calcium, iron, Vitamin A & K.
Dame’s Rocket – Similarly to the violets, the flowers are great to add colors to your dishes. They have a sweet/spicy flavor and have Vitamin C.
Garlic Mustard – These leaves make the BEST pesto. The greens are very garlic-y! This plant can also help lower cholesterol.
Onion Grass – Tastes exactly like onions. I often use them when I’m making Asian dishes and don’t have any scallions or green onions available. These little guys are packed with folic acid and antioxidants.
Chicory – The petals make great color additions to dishes and they make a light amber colored simple-syrup. The roots can be roasted and turned into a coffee-like beverage. Drinking it can enhance liver health.
Wineberry or Raspberries – These are great in smoothies, desserts, cookies, drinks, or anything else really! They are packed with antioxidants and vitamins.
Sumac – The horn or the Staghorn Sumac can be steeped (don’t rinse beforehand- that’ll get rid of the flavor!) to make tea. It tastes sour – reminding me of rhubarb, so it makes great additions to lemonades and other drinks. Sumac is chock full of antioxidants (even outranking acai on the antioxidant list!).
Daylily – The petals have a mellow, cucumber or melon taste and make great additions to salads. The buds can also be eaten like potatoes! Daylilies can reduce muscle cramps and spasms, help to calm and soothe, and act as a pain reliever!
Honeysuckle – While I like to pick the flower and suck the nectar right out, it can also be used to make a honey-ish syrup for drinks and desserts! Honeysuckles are great for enhancing gut health and can even reduce brain swelling!
Blueberries – I love picking these to use for smoothies and jellies or for just eating raw. My husband loves to add them to his breakfasts! Blueberries are high in antioxidants and help to lower blood pressure.
Crab apples – Once they’re ripe, they can make jellies or be steeped to make teas or syrups. Eating crab apples can help to maintain gut health.
Rosehips – They can be used for teas and syrups. Rosehips are rich in antioxidants, reduce risk of heart disease, and can help maintain a healthy weight.
Sassafrass – The root is most commonly used to make Sassafrass Root Beer, but I don’t really like taking the root of plants – how will they continue to grow without roots! The leaves can still be used in teas and you’ll still get some of the root beer-y flavor. Sassafrass tea is great for your liver and digestive health.
Blackberries – Another great addition to jellies and jams, desserts, smoothies, and breakfasts! They are packed with Vitamin C & K, are high-fiber, and are also high in manganese.
Cedar – Chop up the scale needles and make a tea! Maple syrup can be added as a sweetener that also highlights the cedar flavor. Cedar is a great source of Vitamin C and reduces fever symptoms. Drinking one or two cups of cedar tea a week is ideal. Too much can overdo it.
Pine – Chopping up the needles and making very pine-y smelling tea is perfect for reducing cold symptoms and preventing winter colds from even happening!
Fir – Do you want your cookies or tea, or even eggnog to smell like Christmas? Fir needles can help with that while also fighting colds and helping to boost your energy!
Juniper Berries – These little fleshy cones can be eaten or used in teas or in cooking and have a slight citrus flavor. They can also be used to make your own gin packed with Vitamin C and anti-cancer agents! This is another wild edible that is best in smaller quantities.
Wintergreen (Teaberry) – The little red berry with a fleshy white inside is so minty! It is great in desserts and cookies as well as yummy when eaten raw! The leaves also have a slight mint taste and can be added to winter teas. Wintergreen may help to reduce pain and headaches.
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