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Foraging for Edible Plants

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

It is important to know and be able to identify which types of plants can provide us with a food source, especially in times like this in our world. It doesn’t hurt to read up on this information and be prepared. Our ancestors were hunter- gatherers. They lived off the land and would forage for wild animals and plants. They would eat all different parts of the plants, such as the flowers, leaves, berries, and nuts. Of course, groups of people lived in different regions and their foods would be different from coast to coast. Even though that was thousands of years ago, people still do this today. I want to talk about what foods we can find in our “backyards”. There is no way I can list them all, but here are some plants, shrubs, and trees that may be more popular and easier to find than others. I tried to pick common ones for the people that are unsure about plants!

Things to keep in mind:

  1. Check to make sure the plants are not threatened or endangered in your area. You can use the link below for this:

  2. Do NOT dig up plants or strip plants of all they have. They need to be able to thrive and be used again. They are just as important to our wildlife.

  3. Always be certain about plants you are collecting, not all of them are safe. There are poisonous ones.

  4. Do NOT forage on side of road due to pollution and dangerous chemicals.

  5. Forage on land you know and are allowed to be on.  

  6. Gather for personal use only. Do NOT sell these plants.

  7. Harvest with a knife, pruners, and/or scissors

  8. You may want to wear gloves.

Edible Plants:

Images taken from Google Images.

Asparagus officinalis – common or wild Asparagus

Asparagaceae Family (USDA site below still says Liliaceae Family)

Native to the warmer parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa and naturalized in parts of North America. This is a perennial that produces new stems each year and is the same plant you buy in the grocery store. It has feather-like branches and fern-like feathery leaves. Its fruit is a red berry. Its edible parts are spear-like young shoots that are harvested to eat. It is a cool weather plant that produces in the spring. You can find this plant in grassy areas near coastal lines, on cliffs or dunes where the soil is light and well-drained. To harvest, use a long, sharp knife and cut near the bottom of the spears just below the soil surface. Make sure to wash well and cut a few inches off the bottoms before cooking. Asparagus is known as a diuretic; increasing cellular activity in the kidneys. The powdered seeds can be used as a laxative to calm the stomach.

Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Asparagus officinalis:

Images taken from Google Images

Taraxacum officinale – common dandelion

Asteraceae Family

Dandelion is abundant throughout the Northern Hemisphere. A perennial weed that is usually sprayed with RoundUp or other harsh chemicals to kill in lawns because everyone wants picture perfect green lawns. But, also, its leaves have been sold in the produce section in grocery stores to be added in salads. Taraxacum can be found in meadows, pastures, lawns, and gardens in spring, summer, fall, and even winter depending on weather. It has light green leaves that are deeply lobed, which branch in a rosette form from the long taproot. Flowers are yellow and have a milky sap when cut. Harvest young leaves, preferably in the shade because they are less bitter. Leaves are good cut up in a salad with other greens.  Dandelion leaves and roots are rich in vitamins and minerals. The roots can be used as a coffee substitute.

Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Taraxacum officinale:

Images taken from Google Images

Sinapis alba (earlier know as Brassica alba and Brassica hirta) – white mustard

Brassicaceae Family – Mustard Family

Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, but now widespread in North and South America, Europe, Japan, and New Zealand. This plant can be found during spring in moisture retentive cultivated soil and wasteland. The Mustard Family includes: broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage, kale, and Brussel sprouts. Mustard is sometimes grown as a cover crop to improve soil structure and nutrients. You will find this plant on the edges of farmlands where it as escaped and in ditches. The leaves are dull green, stiff, hairy, and deeply lobed. Flowers have four sepals and six stamens that grow on a spike. Seeds are produced in pods containing yellow/brown seeds. To harvest, pick the leaves and wash before use. Flowers are collected before they open and seeds are harvested when pods have fully developed. The leaves and flower buds are good in stir-fries. Leaves are best in salads. Mustard can help stimulate digestion, or in concentration as a mustard mixture to place on chest for coughing and clearing up the lunges.

Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Sinapis alba:

Edible Shrubs and Trees:

Images taken from Google Images

Lindera benzoin – common spicebush, Northern spicebush

Lauraceae Family

Spicebush is a shrub native to the north eastern United States. You can find this shrub in moist soils usually in dense clumps in woodlands as an understory shrub in partial shade. They can also be found along streams and swamps. They grow six to ten feet tall with dark brown, bumpy bark forming oblong, smooth, non-serrated, non-hairy leaves. The leaves are lighter on their underside compared to the top of the leaves and grow in an alternating pattern. It is easily identified by the spicy-sweet fragrance that comes from crushing the leaves. The flowers are the first emerge in the spring time. During the months of July through September, the bush produces red, fleshy, olive-shaped berries that are about ½ an in diameter. The leaves and berries can be harvested for food. Teas are made with the crushing of dried leaves. Spicebush tea is known to relieving fevers, colds, fatigue, pain, and breathing problems. The dried leaves and grinding dried berries can also be crushed in making a meat seasoning spice.

Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Lindera benzoin:

Images taken from Google Images

Sambucus nigra – elderberry, common or European elder

Caprifoliaceae Family

Native to Europe, southwest Asia, and northern Africa and introduced in North America, is a shrub or tree that can grow up to 30 ft. high. It is best known for its fragrant flowers and dark, purple fruits. You will find this shrub in woods, waste areas and hedgerows mostly where there is moist and fertile soil. Elderberry has matte green leaves that are grown in five leaflets. In early summer, they produce the sweet-smelling, creamy-white to yellow, umbrella shaped (called an umbel) flowers. After the flowers are finished blooming, in late summer/early autumn the berries will ripen. The berries start out green and then when ripe, will turn a deep purple. To harvest, cut off the flower and berry clusters leaving a small piece of stem attached. The flowers are used to make Elderberry cordial (I’ve attached a recipe below). The berries are used to make Elderberry syrup, which is most common and you can find it at your local grocery store or health food store. This plant has many benefits including high amounts of vitamin A, B, C, immune system booster, remedy for colds, flus, and chest congestion.


Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Sambucus nigra:

Images taken from Google Images

Rubus idaeus – raspberry, wild raspberry, hindberry

Rosaceae Family

Raspberries are native to southern Europe, Iceland, Russia, Asia, and North America. This wild fruit can be found in woods and hedgerows around hilly areas. Very widespread. They grow in a sprawling form with unbranched stems about five ft. long with prickles on stems. They have green, serrated, oval, leaves. Flowers produce in early to late summer, which later turn into red fruits. Fruits are ripe when red sometimes you will see yellow raspberries as well. Harvest when fully ripe and wash with care since they are fragile and will squash easily. They are best eaten fresh as a healthy snack, but can be used for jams and added to desserts. Berries are good for your immune system!

Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Rubus idaeus:

Images taken from Google Images

Diospyros virginiana – common persimmon

Ebenaceae Family

Native to North America, persimmons can be found in the eastern and southern parts of the country. This tree can adapt to a wide range of places and can grow in almost any type of soil. Persimmons have a pyramidal to oval-rounded outline. They produce dark, oval green leaves, which turn reddish purple in the fall (it’s gorgeous!) and square-like, blocky, gray-black bark that look like charcoal briquettes. The fruit of persimmons are 1-1 1/2 inches wide and are yellow red to pale orange. The berries ripen in fall, staying on the tree long after the leaves have fallen. It is one of the latest available wild fruits! When fully ripe, the persimmon fruits taste delicious almost like a date. If you eat too early, it can taste bitter. Persimmons can be used to make jams, pies, cakes, and beverages!

Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Diospyros virginiana:

Images taken from Google Images

Asimina triloba – pawpaw

Annonaceae Family

Native to North America, it is the only local member that is a part of a mainly tropical plant family. It represents the tropical custard apple family and a relative of the papaya. It produces the largest edible fruit in North America. Pawpaws are understory trees found in cool, moist soils along streams. They produce droopy, oval looking leaves that grow in an alternate pattern. Before the leaves form, they produce purple flowers in April and May. Their fruits ripen in late summer are irregularly shaped, waxy and as long as 2-5 inches. The fruit is delicious to eat and tastes like a banana with hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus. To harvest the fruits, shake the tree and when they fall, you know the fruit is ripe. Handling the fruit may cause allergic reactions to some. Pawpaw has some health benefits such as, anti-inflammatory properties, calms respiratory problems, and rich in vitamins A, B, and C.  

Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Asimina triloba:

Trees that Produce Nuts

Images taken from Google Images

Fagus sylvatica – common beech, European beech

Fagaceae Family

Native to central Europe. Beeches can grow up to 100 ft. tall forming an oval shape outline with shiny green leaves. Beech bark is very smooth and gray in color. Michael Dirr describes it as “elephant-hide like bark” (301). You can find beech trees growing in well-drained, open woodlands, parks and grasslands. Nuts ripen in the fall to mid-fall. You want to make sure these are harvested ASAP because wildlife will get ahold of them. Once collected, store in a ventilated box in a slightly warm room to dry out from any moisture. Beech nuts are highly nutritious and are good eaten raw or roasted and salted. The oil from these nuts can be a substitute for butter. Not too common growing wild in Pennsylvania, but there are ones that people have planted in landscapes and gardens, which may have escaped into the wild.

Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Fagus sylvatica:

Images take from Google Images

Quercus robur – Common oak, English Oak, Truffle Oak

Fagaceae Family

Native throughout Europe, western Asia and North Africa. Oaks are trees that can grow up to 80 ft. tall. The leaves have three to seven-lobed, 2-5-inch-long, green-blue leaves. You can find oaks in forests, open countryside, hedgerows, and paths. The acorns, which are an oak’s edible nut (botanically a fruit), shed in early fall. Some will be green, but mostly brown. Trees do not usually produce acorns until 20 years old. Harvest any acorns that are fully closed because open ones may not be good and could have bugs inside. Acorns can be used for making flour and acorn coffee. Acorns contain a bitterness to them called tannins, so before you eat them make sure to release the tannins. The video below explains and shows you how to release the tannins.

Watch this insightful video on how to process acorns for flour!

Acorn Coffee:

~Harvest acorns, remove their cupped bases (“shells”), place in boiling water until soft. Allow to slightly cool off.

~After they have cooled, cut them in half or quarters and put on low in the microwave to dry.

~Once cool, place on a baking sheet in a warm oven and roast until brown.

~When cooled, place in a coffee grinder or food processor to grind like they were coffee beans.

~Use grounds to make a cup of coffee like you would normally do.


Check out the USDA map to see what parts of the country you can find Quercus robur:


Foraging for Wild Foods by David Squire

Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel

Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs by Michael A. Dirr

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