Wild Edible Plants . . .

This site is a database for wild edible plants of North America. I encourage any users to leave comments reflecting their experiences with a certain plant. Much of our knowledge of edible plants is either lost, superstitious or incorrect. There's a lot of hype about how dangerous wild plants can be, when in reality most are not only safe they're critical for your health.

My perspective is somewhat unique in that my family and I have camped as a lifestyle for over a decade - essentially lived with edible plants and used them on a daily basis. We have also been raw fooders for a very long period. Becoming 100% raw vegan sparked my interest in edible plants like nothing else. Every day I was out hiking the trails barefoot, eating grass, eating flowers, trying parts of the many plants I came across with a clean palate . . .

Using wild edible plants is the best way we can defy the system, maintain our health, and get our independence back.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Georgia Woods

. I stopped by Autrey Mill Nature Preserve to check out an 1880 farmhouse very similar in size to the cabin I'm about to build, and took a hike through the forest to see what wild foods are out. The Preserve is mostly dank Georgia woods, and the fact that it was periodically raining on and off only made it wetter. Since there is very little sun, there won't be much fruit - but there is still plenty to eat.

Elderberry (Sambucus . . .) is growing in several dense stands not far from the farmhouse. Its wand-like growth habit and stalks covered in warty bumps are distinctive. It also has compound leaflets, anywhere from 5-11, though I usually find 5 on this species common throughout the Atlanta area, both in forest and along waterways:

Both the flowers and berries are edible - the leaves and stems are reported as toxic.

I've gathered huge quantities of the ripe black berries . . . in ditches along raised roads in North Florida, along creeks in the Southern Appalachians, as well as along waterways by our land in Sunbright, Tennessee - and even right in the forest where there's plenty of sun in north Georgia mountains [Pigeon Mountain]. Though there is some debate about the edibility of the ripe berries (some sites say they're possibly emetic, need cooked, or dried, etc.), I've been eating raw elderberries for many years and they are perfectly good raw. We'd pull them right off the red-stemmed corymbs with our teeth like grapes, or turn the corymbs upside down and pull clusters of berries off to throw in our oatmeal. It is a very common wild edible plant, and important food source.

Here is some prickly pear (opuntia . . . ), doing okay even without much sun:

The pads of our native prickly pear in the Southeast are exceptionally mild. Even when old and out of season, once you've cleaned off the spines and glochids the pads are wonderful - a fresh lemony vegetable. This is in strong contrast to the prickly pear of the Southwest, where the old pads are more medicine than food, with flesh that's rather nauseating and lots of tough stringy fibers.

Take a pad that has good coloring and plumpness, and carefully pull it off. Scrape it with a rock or knife. Be patient . . . it usually takes a full five minutes to scrape all the tiny barbed spines (glochids) off the pads - otherwise they'll end up in your tongue and gums, and there to stay for several hours. If there's any kind of flowing water source nearby, it's good to give the pads a final rinse to take away any last miniscule spines. If not wipe the pad with a cloth to make sure it's clean. Blowing on it can also work once the tiny barbs are free.

The first time you bite into a fresh pad it will be a memorable experience - nothing like the bland old nopales you find in ethnic groceries. And what's great about prickly pear is how much food there is. Several pads is a very filling meal - something out West you usually only get in spring, when the pads are young and fresh. But our native opuntia humifusa is edible all year.

The fruit is also great, marketed commerically as 'tunas'. The fruits of our native southeastern prickly pear aren't very large - but they are still good. The best prickly pear fruits tend to be out west - anywhere from the flavor of a sweet steamed beet, to a fruity mix of fig and watermelon. And the tunas can be huge and in great abundance.

As with the pads, it's important to process them on the spot, then give them a final rinse with water or cloth. If you simply gather the fruit without cleaning and throw it in a basket or bag, spines and glochids will interpenetrate everything and become very difficult to remove. Though our native prickly pear fruits are small, many people have planted western varieties out front on their properties - and these can be an excellent food source.

The oregon-grape is here, mahonia bealei - it's from Asia, and has established itself throughout the South:

They often call it 'Leatherleaf Mahonia' here in the South, because we're so far from Oregon - where our native Oregon-grapes are everywhere. The berries are not as far along as the ones down by the Chattahoochee River - there's still no coloring yet:

They're still rather bitter at this stage, but eventually will taste like tart grapes. I've gathered large amounts of them in the mountains of Northern New Mexico.

The muscadine is getting its leaves:

Like most southern counterparts to northern foods, the muscadine greens tends to be tougher and stronger than wild grape greens. The leaves at this stage are still mild and rather edible - only a little astrigency. The tendrils when they first appear are decent also. But as the foliage matures it becomes rather strong. We once packed the leaves into a glass jar camping off Owl Creek down in the Apalachicola region of North Florida. Once the leaves were packed tight, and a lid put on, we allowed them to ferment in the sun for a week. This tenderized and sweetened them immensely . . . it was like muscadine sauerkraut. This can be done with any strong edible wild greens.

The muscadine is everywhere in here, and a great basket material. I don't know that it will produce much fruit in here with so little sun - it depends how open the canopy is. Muscadines are large thick-skinned grapes with a bubble gum-like flavor - an excellent wild food source. They are about as large as the grocery variety, except the seeds are far more edible and not as bitter. With enough sun, such as roadsides or forest edges, muscadine will put out tons and tons of grapes. We gather several baskets every year. If there's one crop you can depend on here in the South, it's muscadines.

Here's an enormous hickory bud opening up:

The bud is so huge because the leaves are compound (one giant leaf coming from one bud is actually composed of several leaflets). Hickory is very distinctive with its spare foliage at the ends of stout twigs, its spare stout branches, and compound leaves:

I find taste and smell to be a far more precise way of pinpointing a plant rather than just a visual. If you rub hickory leaves, your fingers will get that strong unmistakable hickory nut fragrance. Native Americans used to cook their beans wrapped in hickory leaves to impart some of that fragrance to the food.

Hickory nuts are another incredible wild food source. I find the nuts to be one of the most dependable winter food supplies in the South - hickories produce copious amounts of nuts, they will cover the ground all through winter, and many will have nutmeat as fresh as the day it fell from the tree. Avoid nuts with holes - something's already gotten to them. And hickory nuts, just like the way fats cut chile, will take away the strong taste of greens immediately. It's amazing how filling fresh wild nuts are, especially walnuts and hickory nuts. Half a dozen to a dozen nuts can be totally satisfying even when you're very hungry.
[4/3 Update: Just today in fact I wandered Kennesaw Mountain until I found a south-facing slope that was so like the Southwest - exposed rock slabs everywhere, yucca, prickly pear . . . but also tons of hickory nuts. Every single nut I cracked open was perfect. And literally just 3 nuts was totally filling. I'm still working on my technique as far as how to crack them open, but this method seems to work for me okay - I set the nut upright in a dent or pock of a slab so it stays in place. I then come down hard with a rock right on the apex of the nut - smashing right down through it. This causes the nut to be laid wide open, with all the nutmeat accessible, instead of hidden away in woody crannies.
As far as how to pick the nutmeat out - do your best with fingers and teeth, or better, get a large spine to use as a nutpick. Plum spines work okay (Kennesaw is covered in wild plum trees which are in bloom right now), but the tip tends to be brittle. Locust spines are much tougher, especially on the new growth. They'll get all the nutmeat out pretty easily. Bradford pear also has very stout spur branches that end in a spine - they're worth trying, considering how ubiquitous Bradford pear is.]

Japanese honeysuckle is everywhere in the forest:
It is another non-native that has established itself in the wild near cities and developed areas. The cream and white flowers are edible and sweet with a lot of nectar. It's a vine with opposite leaves that tend to be lobed lower down the vine - an easy way to identify it.

Here's the new growth coming out on the pine:

This stalk will soon put out tiny green packets of new needles that are excellent raw, with huge amounts of Vitamin C - once used to cure scurvy. Even the older needles can be diced and steeped to create a very rich Vitamin C tea. The tea is transparent, and might seem just like hot water compared with conventional tannin-stained teas. But the flavor is there, as well as the nutrients.

The dogwood is in flower, and the petals torn away from the flower-base are not bad:

The berries tend to be very bitter.
I come across a patch of fern, and the young unfurling fronds are very, very good, almost as good as bracken (which comes up everywhere in the pine flats of Florida about April):

Fiddleheads can sometimes be tough and strong and hairy. We've tried fermenting these with not much luck. But these ferns shoots in particular are tender, and have almost no hair and a mild flavor - an excellent spring vegetable. Even when the fiddleheads have completely unfurled, but the growth is still relatively new, it's got a mild taste. Here's a whole patch of it:

The greenbriar is putting out new growth:

All of this new growth is edible - the shoot, the leaves, the tendrils. It's very mild and tender - excellent. And there's an infinite supply! Greenbriar is everywhere. Here are two shots of the new growth, plucked from the old green spiny stems:

The berries are also edible, even the ones still on the vine from last year. Greenbriar berries in general tend to be tasteless, but sometimes they can have a slight date-like sweetness:

The flesh on these berries in particular was rather dry, but the hard seeds had a sugary crust and were pleasant to chew on.

Suprisingly, the young leaves of sweetgum are not bad, a decent edible green this time of year:

Whereas the young leaves of tuliptree, even when tiny, are very strong:

The beech has yet to put out its young edible leaves - it's still holding on to last year's leaves:

The new growth on cedar is edible . . . very mild, just like the new leaf growth on any conifer:

Here's Hercules-club (aralia spinosa) in leaf, with its tall spiny stem and huge compound leaves:

As far as I know, not edible.
I found violets:

I like the flowers, but the leaves, though extremely nutritious, seem rather strong to me, even though I've eaten them for many years. I might try steaming them at some point.

Here's some clubmoss, a very primitive plant:

Blackberry in leaf . . . the leaves not so good to eat, but would make a great tea:

Here's blueberry in flower:

I found large shrubby blueberries in flower over and over. It's a very common understory shrub in the South. Even without much sun, these shrubs will put out tremendous quantities of blueberries. The blueberries begin to come in in late April in Florida, and early June up in north Georgia mountains, such as Pigeon Mountain.

Here's heartleaf, a birthwort, with its small bulbous flower I unearthed just above the leaf:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dock (rumex crispus)

The dock is coming in really thick right now. It's abundant at the edge of where they mow. I was able to gather a full canvas tote bag in ten minutes or so, and hardly made a dent in the amount of greens. But I had to pick quickly - there was a guy with a weed trimmer literally 20 feet behind me.

I don't know if it's this particular curly dock (rumex crispus), or it's all this mild, but I could not believe how good the leaves are raw. A slight acid taste, a little like wood sorrel, with only a trace of astringency, if any. Even the older leaves that are dark and somewhat eaten by bugs . . . they tend to have even less astringency than the young leaves. So I went ahead and picked the leaves at all stages, enough to fill a 2 gallon pot.

Here are two closeups of the wavy-edged leaves, a conspicuous feature of curly dock:

At home I steamed them using a waterless steam. I rinsed them off (they're low to the ground, and we've had a lot of rain, so they're somewhat gritty), then stuffed them in a large pot with a lid, and turned it on high for 5 minutes. The greens reduced almost to a tenth in size, became dark, and looked like any other steamed or sauteed greens. There was actually a small pool of water in the bottom from when I rinsed them off - next time I'll remove the water with a salad spinner, and steam them purely in their own juice.
The flavor was excellent. The slight sourness that comes with dock made the leaves taste slightly pickled - they had a pleasant acid taste. I noticed they had a strong cleansing effect also, and like any wild green, they're loaded with nutrients. I've read they were a major food source during the Great Depression.
Dock is in the buckwheat family, a highly edible family of plants, including buckwheat (the seed), rhubarb (the leaf stalk), and dock (the greens). It's best to think of dock as our native buckwheat. Wild dock seeds tend to have a lot of chaff, but I've still eaten them. Out in the Southwest the dock gets huge, with giant leaves - the plant is almost a small bush. The leaves are rather strong, but the seeds have a nice bacon flavor, even with all the chaff. The chaff you ignore like eating grass seed - a lot of chaff, but once you hit the seed inside, it tastes like bread.
The next wave of silverberries (eleagnus ebbingei) have come in, and the berries from these bushes are nearly twice the size. We gathered a bunch of them:
I made a new gathering bag specifically for the purpose of harvesting silverberries. It's important to have both hands free when you're picking food. This bag has a small rope which attaches to a belt loop - I made the bag out of canvas and wire . . . the wire is from a coat hanger I pulled apart, and it keeps the bag open so you don't have to hold it open as you pick:

However, most of the silverberries we were picking were on bushes and hedges trimmed low to the ground. So a basket set on the ground would have worked fine. It's much easier to gather silverberries on the wild plants that are a mass of sprawling shoots - with the bushes, you often have to get down on the ground and look up underneath the dense foliage to spot all the clusters of berries, then reach in to grab them.

These berries are not only large, they are very sweet - there's quite a bit of flesh on them. I'm saving the seeds separately for my geurilla gardening from the previous silverberry seeds. It will be interesting to see which grow best from seed, and which produce the best harvest.

The light in this photo isn't great, but it shows how speckled with silver the berries are:

The pits are edible, in the sense they are not that hard and you can chew them up. But they have a dry bean flavor that I don't think is good, and it ruins the tart strawberry flavor of the flesh. Besides, it's better to save them for growing. But in a survival situation, who knows - they might be a decent food source.

On the 'bean' note, silverberries (eleagnus spp.) are one of the few nonlegumes that fix nitrogen in the soil via bacteria on the root nodules. And they make fabulous hedges - there's one dense hedge at least 10 feet high with a mockingbird nesting in it . . . the shoots climb on nearly 25 feet up a nearby red maple.

Here's an idea of the size of the berries:

Like most wild berries, the bigger the better - the sweeter, and milder.

I've also noticed the new growth on the common juniper is edible, just like the new growth on other conifers. It's packed with vitamins, and has a very mild juniper resin taste.

Here's a photo of Rachael and Brooke (my daughters, 11 and 9) in front of the azalea that's blooming everywhere:

We eat these azalea flowers all the time. They are very sweet. We just pinch off the base of the flowers and eat the rest. My daughters love them. They're sweet - lot of nectar. The best of all azalea flowers are the orange ones, called 'Flame Azalea'. The flowers are so sweet they taste like Orange Crush.

We've been eating azalea flowers in such abundance for so many years it was a big suprise to me to see that no one else considers them edible. Almost every site I find reports them as toxic. I understand they're in the rhododendron family, with its toxic leaves . . . but I am not at all convinced the flowers are toxic. They are too mild and sweet. It's like everything else with our native wild foods - a lot of suspicious information, that gets repeated endlessly.

However, regardless of my own opinion and experience, this link is worth checking out on the toxicity of all rhododendron species.