Foraging for wild edible plants has long been practiced throughout human history out of necessity for survival, but in modern times it has seen a resurgence in popularity even when food can easily be purchased. There is something gratifying about living off the land and connecting with nature by eating wild plants. However, proper identification of any plant is crucial before consuming it, as many wild plants can be poisonous or harmful if eaten. Even edible plants may require special preparation to remove toxins or make them palatable. This article will cover 12 common wild plants that can be foraged and safely eaten with the right precautions taken. Most are widespread global species that grow on multiple continents. While appealing as a free food source, no plant should ever be ingested unless you are 100% certain of the identification. Refer to field guides or foraging experts to properly identify before consuming wild plants. With some basic botany skills though, these tasty wild edibles can add variety to outdoor meals and journeys.
Asparagus is a perennial flowering plant that grows in temperate climates around the world. The edible part of asparagus is the young shoot, which emerges in early spring. Asparagus has a thick green stem with scale-like leaves. The shoots have a slightly bitter taste. White asparagus is grown without sunlight, keeping the shoots pale. Asparagus grows in full sun locations with well-drained soil. It is commonly found growing wild in ditches, fields, along roads, and in other open uncultivated areas.
The young shoots are edible raw or cooked. About 6-8 inches of the plant tips can be snapped off and eaten. The shoots become woody as they get taller. Asparagus shoots can be eaten raw in salads or on their own. To cook, lightly steam or sauté the spears for 5-10 minutes until just tender. The texture softens but retains some crunchiness. Asparagus is high in vitamin K, folate, and antioxidants. It is a good source of fiber, thiamine, vitamin B6, and potassium. The shoots are low in calories and contain no fat or cholesterol.
Lamb’s quarters is a common edible wild green that grows all over North America. It flourishes in disturbed soils and is considered an agricultural weed. Lamb’s quarters has alternate, triangular to diamond-shaped leaves with irregular teeth on the edges. The leaves and stems have a white powdery coating. Lamb’s quarters thrives in full sun and disturbed soils. It pops up in gardens, farm fields, along roadsides, trails, and disturbed areas. Lamb’s quarters often grows in dense patches.
The leaves, stems, and flower clusters are all edible. The leaves and stems can be eaten raw in salads or cooked by boiling or sautéing. Many describe the taste as similar to spinach. The seeds can be harvested and eaten as a nutritious grain. To prepare lamb’s quarters, collect young leaves and tender stems. Wash thoroughly to remove dirt or insecticide residue. Chop leaves and stems and add them raw to salads or smoothies. For cooking, boil leaves for 2-3 minutes or lightly sauté with olive oil and garlic. Lamb’s quarters is high in vitamins A, C, iron and calcium. It has more protein than spinach and provides many important minerals and antioxidants. Lamb’s quarters has historically been eaten as a spring tonic green and consumed to treat vitamin C deficiency.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a common weed with large, rhubarb-like leaves and bristly seed heads that stick to clothing. It grows wild across much of the Northern Hemisphere, along roadsides, fields, and ditches. The roots, young leaves, and flower stalks of burdock are all edible when harvested from young plants. Older leaves and roots tend to be bitter. Choose plants with tender white roots. Scrub them well and peel off the skin. The roots can then be eaten raw, boiled, or sauteed. They have an earthy, radish-like flavor.
The young leaf stalks can also be peeled and eaten raw or cooked like asparagus. The leaves should be boiled in a couple changes of water to reduce bitterness. Flower stalks can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked before flowers appear. Burdock is highly nutritious, rich in dietary fiber, minerals like manganese and magnesium, and packed with powerful antioxidants. The root contains inulin, a prebiotic that feeds beneficial gut bacteria. Burdock has been used for centuries in herbal medicine to treat a variety of ailments.
Chicory is a bushy plant with small sky blue flowers and toothed, dandelion-like leaves. It grows as a wildflower in fields, roadsides, and open woods across much of North America. The entire chicory plant is edible, including the roots, leaves, flowers, and buds. The roots can be boiled and eaten or roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The leaves and buds have a mildly bitter taste and can be eaten raw in salads or sautéed.
To prepare chicory greens, rinse them thoroughly since they can contain dirt or bugs. The tender young leaves are best eaten raw in spring. For older leaves, cooking reduces bitterness. Buds taste best sautéed or stir-fried. Flowers add color and a mild bitterness to salads. Chicory is highly nutritious and provides vitamin A, vitamin K, folate, minerals like calcium and potassium, and antioxidant polyphenols. Eating chicory may provide digestive and immune system benefits. It has been used in folk medicine as a liver cleanser and digestive aid. With its coffeelike bitterness, chicory root promotes bile and digestive juice flow.
Red clover is a beautiful, purple flowering plant that grows wild in fields and meadows. Look for red clover in open sunny areas, along roadsides, and in disturbed soil. The entire above-ground part of red clover is edible. The flowers can be eaten raw and have a sweet, floral taste good for garnishing salads or sandwiches. The leaves are best lightly cooked by sautéing or steaming. Red clover leaves have a hint of green bean flavor and are high in protein, calcium, and fiber.
Red clover blossoms can be used to make herbal tea. Pour boiling water over fresh or dried blossoms and steep 5-10 minutes. Clover tea has a pleasant, mild taste and gentle medicinal effects as an expectorant and blood cleanser. For a nutrient-dense wilderness salad, mix young red clover leaves with other edible greens like dandelion, lamb’s quarters, or wild mustard. Red clover is a nourishing, tasty, and abundant wild edible plant found in many parts of the world. Identify it by its distinct purple flower heads and clover-shaped leaves.
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a low-growing, perennial plant native to eastern North America. It is an herbaceous groundcover plant in the birthwort family that spreads by rhizomes and forms colonies in moist, shaded hardwood forests. Wild ginger has kidney-shaped leaves that grow close to the ground. The leaves are medium green and slightly fuzzy on the underside. Small purple or brown flowers grow at the base of the plant, hidden beneath the leaves. These flowers bloom in spring and have three triangular petals. The most edible part of wild ginger is the rhizome, which has a spicy, ginger-like flavor. The rhizomes can be dug up in early spring or late fall. Make sure to harvest ginger rhizomes that are at least 1 cm thick, as the small, thin ones don’t have much flavor.
To eat wild ginger, you can peel and chop the rhizomes, then cook them by boiling, sautéing, or roasting. The flavor is best when the rhizomes are young and tender. Another option is to steep the chopped rhizomes in hot water to make a spicy ginger tea. Wild ginger rhizomes contain antioxidants and have traditionally been used in herbal medicine as a digestive aid. They can help alleviate gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The Ojibwe used wild ginger to help treat colds and fevers. Overall, foraging for wild ginger can add a tasty, spicy flavor to dishes when hiking or camping. Just be sure to correctly identify the plant before consuming it.
Dandelions are a common weed that grows vigorously in many parts of the world. While considered a nuisance by some, the entire dandelion plant is edible and nutritious. Dandelions thrive in full sun and disturbed soil. They can be found growing in meadows, fields, yards, and roadsides. The plant has a rosette of jagged, lobed leaves at its base and bright yellow composite flowers on hollow stalks. The leaves, flowers, roots, and stems of dandelion plants are all edible. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or lightly cooked. Mature leaves taste more bitter but can be boiled in a couple changes of water to reduce the bitterness. The bright yellow flowers can be eaten raw or made into dandelion wine. The taproots can be harvested, roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The smaller roots and stems can also be cooked and eaten.
Before eating any part of a dandelion, be sure to collect from an area that has not been treated with herbicides or pesticides. Wash all parts thoroughly. Young leaves are best eaten fresh in salads or sandwiches. Cooking the leaves mellows the bitterness of mature leaves. Flowers should have the green parts removed from the base before eating raw. Roots are best when harvested in the fall through early spring. Scrub roots clean before roasting at 400°F for 30 minutes until brittle and dark brown. Grind the roasted root to use as a caffeine-free coffee substitute. Dandelion roots and leaves are high in vitamin A, vitamin K, calcium, potassium and iron. They also contain antioxidants and have a diuretic effect.
Green seaweed (also known as sea lettuce) is a type of edible wild seaweed that grows along rocky seashores and tide pools. It has bright green ruffled leaves that resemble lettuce and grows in large masses or clumps. Sea lettuce is commonly found growing on submerged rocks or coral reefs in coastal areas. The entire sea lettuce plant is edible both raw and cooked. The leaves have a mild, salty flavor and a soft, rubbery texture. To prepare, simply rinse the seaweed under cool water to remove any sand or debris. The leaves can then be eaten fresh in salads, wraps, or rice dishes. You can also add the leaves to soups, broths, and stews during the last few minutes of cooking.
Drying sea lettuce and then grinding it into flakes or powders is another easy way to preserve it. The dried flakes can be sprinkled on dishes as a nutritional boost or made into an energizing seaweed tea by steeping in hot water. Sea lettuce is high in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin K, folate, iron, and manganese. It also contains omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fiber. Seaweeds like sea lettuce have been consumed by coastal communities for centuries and provide an excellent source of nutrition when foraging in the wilderness near the ocean.
Kelp refers to several species of large brown seaweed that grow in cool, shallow ocean waters. Kelp can most commonly be found growing along rocky shorelines. The entire kelp plant is edible, including the long, thick fronds which contain the most nutritious parts. Kelp should be thoroughly rinsed to remove any sand or debris before eating. It can be eaten raw, dried into chips, or added to soups and stews. Rehydrating dried kelp fronds by soaking in water for 10-15 minutes helps soften them up before cooking.
Kelp is packed with valuable vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It is an excellent source of iodine, which helps support thyroid function. The high fiber content of kelp also promotes digestive regularity. Other nutrients found in kelp include vitamin K, which is important for blood clotting, as well as iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and folate. The umami flavor of kelp makes it a tasty addition to savory dishes. Including more kelp in your diet can provide nutritional benefits from the sea.