Edible Wild Plants in USDA Zone 5
Did you know that many common garden weeds are edible? We see some of these plants every day in our own backyards, near streams, and in wooded areas near our homes. Yet many people don't even realize these plants are edible in some form, whether it be a plant that bears fruit, a plant that bears underground tubers, or the leaves themselves. In some areas of the country, wild edibles are considered a delicacy. Some people depend on wild plants as a part of their diet.
For easy reading, the wild edibles featured in this article will be broken down by:
- Location where they are found
- Edible parts of the plant
- Suggested methods of eating/cooking the plant
Spring: Canadian Violet and Other Violet Species
This small ground cover plant spreads wildly. The heart-shaped leaves are a glossy dark green. They can be found in woodlands and in backyards in both shade and full sun. Blooms are purple or white, depending on the variety. Harvest the blooms and leaves. You can use the blooms in tea, fresh in a salad, or candy them. The leaves can be used fresh in salads or cooked like greens. Violets are a great source of vitamin C.
Spring: Ostrich Fern (and Other Fern Genus)
Ferns are found in shaded, woodland areas and shade gardens. Pick the young fronds (fiddleheads) before they unfurl. Scrape off any brown scales/spores. You can eat them raw in salads or the preferred method is to sauté in olive oil and garlic.
Spring: Ramps (Wild Leek)
Ramps are found in wooded areas, commonly under maple trees. The leaves are light green and wide with an onion-like scent when crushed. You can harvest the young leaves before they unfurl into broad leaves or you can harvest the underground bulb from spring through fall. Ramps are great raw chopped into salads but can be pungent. The preferred method is to sauté or boil them. Another good application is in soups.
Spring: Lambs Quarters
This perennial weed pops up everywhere. I can easily identify this weed, as I always have it popping up in my yard. The most common areas you can find Lamb's Quarters is in vacant lots, backyards, and roadsides. Lamb's Quarters are identified by their upright growth habit, fuzzy leaves, and grey-green foliage. Pick the young leaves and cook like spinach. Taste is similar to spinach. It can also be eaten raw.
Spring: Stinging Nettle
This is another perennial weed that is easily identified. If you have ever pulled it in your backyard without gardening gloves on, you can recognize it right away from the sting it gives. Despite its stinging ability, once cooked, the sting is no longer there. It is an upright plant with dark green serrated leaves. It can be found in backyards, moist and fertile areas, along streams, trails, and roadsides. Simmer the leaves until they are tender and eat like greens.
Spring: Wild Strawberry
A very easily identifiable plant. Looks just like your common garden strawberry with slightly smaller fruits. Can be found in woodlands and edges of woodlands. Harvest the fruits in early June. Eat them raw or make preserves.
Dandelion is very commonly used in Italian cuisine. All parts of the plant are edible. Found in lawns, fields, meadows, and woodland areas. The most common application is eating the young leaves in salad or digging the roots and boiling them like potatoes
These broad, exotic-looking plants are most commonly found in wooded areas as an understory plant. They like rich, moist soil. The mayapple produces a white strawberry-like flower followed by an egg-shaped fruit. Gather the fruit when ripe and has turned yellow. The fruit turns yellow when the leaves have almost completely died back. Only eat the fully ripe fruit as the unripe ones are slightly toxic. Best application is eating it raw.
Summer: Peppermint and Other Mints
Mint is very widespread in wet places like ditches and along streams and meadows. Crush the leaves for that pure minty scent. You can pick the leaves at any stage of growth. Eat fresh, make tea, or even mint jelly!
Purslane is a common weed. You probably have seen in in your own backyard and not known what it was. It is found in fields, vacant lots, waste sites, and even grows between cracks in the sidewalk. It is a small and delicate plant that looks similar to a stonecrop (sedum). Harvest the young tips June through September. Eat raw in salads. Purslane is very high in vitamin C and iron.
Summer: American Elderberry (Sambus Varieties)
Elderberry shrubs can be found in woodland areas, and some of the cultivated varieties are used as an ornamental in garden landscapes. For use in your own garden, typically two plants are required for proper pollination. Harvest the white flowers in late spring/early summer. Pick the fruits when they are a deep, dark purple. You can batter and deep fry the flowers or extract the juice from the berries. The berry juice is commonly used as a treatment for colds. It helps boost the immune system, because it is very high in vitamin C.
Summer: Black Huckleberry
Huckleberry are found in woodland areas, clearings, along trails and in both dry and moist soils. This shrub's fruit are ripe from late June through September. Pick the fruits and eat fresh or use in jams and pies.
Summer: Common Blackberry, Raspberry, and Mulberry
Blackberry and raspberry shrubs are found on the edges of woodlands, fence rows, roadsides, and disturbed sites. Mulberry trees are found in the same sites, and many of these trees are used as ornamentals in neighbors gardens. They are most commonly spread by birds and can pop up anywhere. The fruits are ripe from June through August. Use fresh or in preserves and pies.
These understory shrubs can be found in forested areas and on the banks of rivers and streams. The berries are found in late June on thorny branches. Birds love them and for that reason. You may even find yourself with a gooseberry shrub popping up in your yard. The cultivated variety are less thorny and can be found in seed and plant catalogs. The berries taste like a tart, green grape. This is an old-timey shrub that not many people grow anymore, but it yields nicely and is commonly eaten raw or made into pie or preserves.
Summer: Paw Paw
This Native American tree with a tropical look can be found in river valleys and deep, moist hummus-rich soils. Many varieties are grown in home gardens, as the tree comes in both full-size and dwarf-size varieties. Paw Paws produce oblong, smooth fruits that when ripe taste like banana custard. Harvest the fruit in late summer/early fall. Use the fruit raw or in baked goods.
A Word to the Wise
Only collect these wild plants in areas you know are safe from pesticide usage and with permission in forest preserves and neighbor's yards.
Fall: Wild Rose and Rugosa Varieties
Smaller than their cultivated cousins, wild roses can be found in wooded areas, fields, and abandoned pastures. Both the hips and flowers are edible. The flowers are available in summer, followed by the hips in the fall. Applications include making rose water with the flowers and rose hip jelly and teas with the hips. The hips are very high in vitamin C.
Fall: Wild Grapes
The predecessor to the common garden variety grapes, wild grapes can be found along riversides, edges of woodland areas, and along fences. Both the leaves and fruit are edible, however, the fruit is more tart than the common cultivated varieties. So it is best used in preserves, pies, and wine-making.
Fall: Lotus Lily
A beautiful and common water plant, lotus can be found in ponds, streams, and lakes, as well as in a home water garden. Harvest the tuberous roots in the fall. Harvest the seed heads after the seeds ripen summer through fall. The tuber can be baked or boiled like potatoes. The seeds can be roasted like chestnuts and eaten or ground into a flour.
How likely are you to try some of the wild edible plants in this article?
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© 2014 Lisa Roppolo