When I moved to rural Canada more than ten years ago, I had little experience with finding food outside the grocery store: I liked to pick blackberries. In Oregon, where I went to high school, blackberries grew along the bike trails of the Willamette River: in September, you could gather a fair amount of them, sometimes sour, sometimes luscious, sweet, tasting of summer sun and a hint of wine.
Trying to garden in the stony, thin seaside soil of Nova Scotia was hard work: after the first, disappointing year, I found some books on foraging and changed my approach. Weeds choking out the spinach? Eat the weeds! Blackberries not in great supply? I learned about rose hips, wild blueberries, chokecherries and chanterelle mushrooms. There’s alot of free food out there, and locating it is much more fun than stumbling the aisles of the grocery store. You need bags or containers, sunscreen and sometimes bug repellent and little patience–wood from the wild often has dirt on it, and needs more washing than the mass-produced supermarket veggies.
Where you live has alot to do with what you can find: in Key West, FLA, where there’s virtually no soil, you can find mangos and avocados–pretty high-quality forage. In the mountains, wild grapes, sassafras root, nuts and berries abound, and in towns, you might luck into chestnuts, linden blossoms, apples and plums.
Once you get the habit, you may find yourself surrounded by all kinds of lovely edible things that you never even noticed before. And when you really hit the jackpot, you may find yourself with a year’s supply of crabapple jelly, enough to make your Christmas list happy and save yourself some money.
There are 5 important rules to remember about foraging: Don’t eat anything you’re not sure of. There are poisonous berries and mushrooms, so either stat foraging with an expert friend, or get a good book, and if you aren’t 100% sure, don’t take the chance.
Don’t forage where roadsides (or even parklands) may be sprayed, or where there’s any sign of oil spills, paint cans or things sewage-related. If you find something lovely on someone else’s property, ask first, or you may be embarrassed when the owner shrieks at you for stealing her Jerusalem artichokes.
Foraging is a NATURAL event. There will be dirt, bugs and slugs, and eventually, you’ll get used to the idea that wild things may be hiding under mushroom caps, and nibbling “your” berries. Pick things that look clean, and wash them carefully when you get them home.
Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it tastes good. Some things are scrumptious, others are icky. It’s a matter of personal preference, and sometimes the addition of a lot of butter and salt, or sugar, makes the difference between a food your whole family hates and one they can’t wait to eat.
Read on for a list of wild foods found in many parts of North America. Some of them may be in your backyard, or down at the local park! If you want to make a more extensive study of wild foods, check out the foraging books of Euell Gibbons.
Tea Plants and Herbs Linden flowers, raspberry and blackberry leaves, rose hips, wild mints. Elder flowers, rose petals, wild sage and fennel. Honeysuckle flowers. Pineapple weed, chamomile.
Coffee Substitutes Roots of dandelions and chicory can be dug up, cleaned and roasted for “coffee.”
Veggies Roots and flowers of wild day lilies Nasturtium flowers and seeds are spicy additions to salads Mushrooms. Learn the edible mushrooms that grow in your area, and stick with them. Wild mushrooms must always be cooked–raw ones have compounds that could make you ill. Dandelion leaves when young, or the unopened and barely-opened buds Good King Henry and lamb’s quarters are good spinach substitutes. Cattail tops when they’re green (before the pollen arrives). Cattail roots. Most seaweeds (sea lettuce is my favorite) Asparagus Beach peas Jerusalem artichokes
Wild Grains Sea oats can be cooked like rice. Dock seeds can be roasted, ground and used as buckwheat flour.
Don’t forget that nuts can be ground into flour!
Nuts Acorns from white oaks (other acorns are bitter!) Hickory nuts Hazelnuts Walnuts Pine nuts (mostly in the southwest) Chestnuts (make sure they aren’t horse chestnuts, which are bitter and nasty)
Fruit, Wonderful Fruit! Mulberries, blackberries, blueberries, thimbleberries, wild strawberries Wild plums, pears, apples, crabapples. sloes, elderberries chokecherries, pin cherries currants quinces (even ornamental quinces are edible, and many people grow them for their spring blossoms) paw-paws and maypops
Photo by Liz West, Creative Commons, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode