Forage for your food: 3 plants you can eat tonight

April 26 |
March harvest of wild plants
Photo by judyofthewoods. Used with permission.

Spring is springing, plants have sprouted, and I bet $10 you can find enough edible greens for a tasty salad within a mile of your front door. You may even be able to bring home enough for dinner tonight.

Interested? Let's forage.

Before we start, be clear on the ground rules. Never, ever eat anything you aren't 100% sure about — especially mushrooms. Most plants are easy to positively identify using a field guide, Wikipedia, foraging websites, or a knowledgeable friend.

Garlic mustard


Green-veined Whites
Photo by David Curtis. Used with permission.

Garlic mustard is native to Europe, parts of Asia and Africa, and is an invasive plant in the US. In Iowa garlic mustard grows everywhere, and is so prevalent our Department of Natural Resources puts out maps of garlic mustard clusters on public land and invites the public to collect the plant to their heart's content.

Look for garlic mustard in woody areas — it's especially easy to find right now because most of the taller overgrowth has yet to come out. It's a green leafy plant whose heart-shaped leaves have scalloped edges. When picked, its roots smell distinctly of garlic.

Like radishes, garlic mustard starts mild and develops heat as it grows. Younger leaves are tasty in salads and pastas and spicier older growths make a delicious pesto. Here are a few garlic mustard recipes.

Asparagus

Asparagus
Photo by Esteban Cavrico. Used under Creative Commons license.

Wild asparagus bolts a bit earlier than cultivated varieties, so April is a good time to hunt for it. It likes well-drained soil near rivers and lakes and is reportedly hard to spot — most foragers recommend you look for last year's dead asparagus brush in order to find the new shoots.

Dandelions

Dandelion
Painting by Tricia Newell. Used with permission.
Dandelions are drop-dead easy to find, though you'll need to be particularly careful to make sure they haven't been sprayed with pesticide. It would be wise to hunt dandelions on conservation land or property which you're familiar with to minimize the possibility of coming into contact with poisons.

When picking dandelion greens, know the smaller, younger shoots and leaves are less bitter. You can blanch bigger leaves to ease their bitterness. Dandelions are tasty in a mixed green salad or sauteed in pastas.

Additional tips

  • Keep yourself free of poison ivy and bug bites by foraging in long sleeves and pants.
  • Watch your hands: don't grab hold of plants you aren't familiar with. Nettles are common in the habitats these wild foods like and a palm full of nettle hairs is a burning fury.
  • Take a cell phone and make sure someone knows where you're going. It would suck if a tiptoe through the tulips to collect wild greens turned into an overnighter in the cold with a broken ankle.
  • Know your foes. People in the southwestern US know what a rattlesnake looks like, but people in the midwest need to know, too. Rattlers live in South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, though they're rare.

But this is an easy start, right? We take care of you at Offbeat Home — no more paying $2 for a teeny bunch of mustard greens at the grocery! When you've collected a bag of tasty, crunchy greens, rinse them thoroughly in cool water, dry, and store in your crisper. And then snap a photo of whatever dish you make and share it in the Flickr group.

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  1. I'm laughing at the look my husband would get on his face if I mixed dandelions in with our salad!

    If I found wild asparagus, though? That would be an amazing day. Asparagus is so good and soooo expensive.

    3 agree
    • Hehe, if he's ever had a spring mix pre-packaged salad, he has already had dandelion leaves!

      5 agree
  2. Speaking of stinging nettles, those are also edible! Harvest the young leaves (using gloves) and boil them; they're super-tasty and very nutritious, as well.

    3 agree
    • I've heard they make good tea as well. Although other than boiling them I'm not sure how you go about making it.

      • It's pretty much that. You can also dry them and use them like you'd use any loose-leaf tea.

        1 agrees
  3. If in the US, check with your local county's agriculture extension office: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/. My local extension office has held wild and edible plant classes in the past (classes are usually free or inexpensive). It's possible yours might have a class or some resources specific to your area.

    2 agree
  4. Oh my gosh, this article gave me such a panic attack. My mother used to forage wild mushrooms and try to force me to eat them for dinner.

    1 agrees
  5. For some reason I remember being told that dandelions are poisinous and shouldn't be eaten. Even that I should wash my hands after touching them. (And the only other plant I heard that about was deadly nightshade!)

    I'm not sure why, because I also remember commonly seeing dandelion and burdock drinks sold, which should have been enough to prove otherwise.

    • Oh I love dandelion and burdock together. Fantastic for a detox cleansing!

      1 agrees
    • Dandelion and burdock is super tasty! All I was ever told about dandelions (which were the only wild flowers we were allowed to pick as my mum considered them a weed) was to wash your hands after touching them as the fluid in the stems would stain your hands brown. Don't know if this is true or not though!

      2 agree
  6. My kids have so much fun picking danelions from the front yard before the grass is cut and putting them in our salad. We watch a bunch of survivor shows, so they love stuff like this.

  7. I'm the founder/moderator for Punk Domestics (www.punkdomestics.com), a community site for those of use obsessed with, er, interested in DIY food, including foraging and gleaning. It's sort of like Tastespotting, but specific to the niche. I'd love for you to submit this to the site. Good stuff! (P.S. I love your no-drama commenting policy.)

    2 agree
  8. Stinging Nettle Tea: Dry the leaves, and then steep like you would any other sort of tea.

    We pick and freeze nettles and eat them all year long. AMAZING in lasagna.

    Day Lilly leaves. Super yummy- just steam them.

    Dandelions- agreed.

    Onion grass- use like chives.

    Watercress -look along stream beds. Absolutely delicious.

    Ramps (wild leeks)

    Lamb's quarters. Look for it in pastures, fields- Tall growing plant with diamond shaped leaves coming off a tall stalk. Pick off individual leaves, eat like spinach (tastes like spinach!!!) fresh or steamed.

    YUM!!!

    2 agree
  9. Lovely idea, but since I live in Manhattan I might skip on that, despite dandelions growing in Riverside Park … Picking plants outside may be tricky if it is too close to a major road because of pollution.

    My in-laws (who live in the Hungarian countryside) regularly pick wild porcini, and these mushrooms are the most delicious ones I've ever eaten. They dry the porcini as well, which allows to add instant flavor to risotto etc.

    1 agrees
  10. I'd never known about garlic mustard. I have some of those flowers all around my house. I think I'll have to see if the roots smell like garlic to be sure, and if so I have a new addition for my salads! Awesome, so glad this was posted!

    1 agrees
  11. RAMPS!!!

    They are SO SO good. Not sure how wild they grow, but they are only at the farmer's market in spring. Which reminds me, I need to get on that …

    1 agrees
    • I was surprised ramps weren't mentioned in the article! Again, I will leave the foraging to the experts and visit the farmer's market- win win in my opinion.

      • Love this post, but the author must be midwest–southwest centric. Ramps are an eastern thing. And as any south-easterner will tell you, we know how to spot (0r hear) a rattler–or any of the other six venomous snakes in the southeast.

        • Well, I am definitely eastern, so that makes sense! I didn't realize they were regional. I also didn't realize that they can be endangered in places like someone else mentioned. I wonder if you can grow them in your garden?

  12. I love free food foraging, me and my partner do it on a regular basis. We mainly find apples and plums growing on the sides of the road. We've even eaten artichoke thistle flowers…which was interesting to say the least. Living in Australia means we have a completely different set of edible plants, but when you know what you are looking for, a delicious meal can be found!

    1 agrees
    • I love walking around Brisbane and nomming on fresh figs. And native plums, and quandongs… mmmm.

  13. In eastern Canada, I love spring for the Fiddleheads (unfurled ferns). Tastes like a cross between asparagus, green bean and okra and has a wonderful snap still after cooking.
    Here in the Rockies… we still have snow!

    2 agree
  14. While working on the backyard we learned of a very invasive plant which OVERTAKES the whole yard every year. After doing research I learned it is called Japanese Knotwood. In researching how to kill the damn bamboo like stalks, I learned you can eat it. It's very invasive and grows all over the place. Now that I know what it looks like I see it everywhere I drive. It's said to be like rhubarb but I haven't tried it yet. A quick google search turned up this: http://www.newfs.org/protect/invasive-plants/japanese-knotweed-recipes.html

    I'll let you know if I ever eat it. <3 Jax

    • I've eaten it! It's tasty, but very very sour! I've prepared it savory, and it was too sour as a vegetable, and also had it sweet like rhubarb. Definitely go sweet with it!

      Very sour!

    • Dudes! This is the best thread ever! Not only did I learn that the wildflower growing EVERYWHERE around here is garlic mustard, I also learned that those nasty bamboo-y things that keep coming up can be eaten like rhubarb? What?! This is soooo cool you guys. I'm totally foraging for dinner tomorrow.

    • For anyone foraging for fiddleheads (or any other kinds of edible wilds), please make sure you know what you are doing.

      Only Ostrich fern fiddleheads should be consumed. Historically, some people also ate bracken fern fiddleheads, but they have been shown to contain carcinogens.

      1 agrees
  15. Please, please do pick the garlic mustard. It is a nasty plant that crowds out our native spring ephemerals.

    1 agrees
  16. Collecting any of the edible wilds on this list should not be an issue because none of them are native to North America, but for other plants, do be aware of the conservation status of those plants.

    Take for example, Wild Leeks. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) lists Wild Leeks as threatened in the province of Quebec. In Quebec, wild leeks are so highly prized that they have been overharvested. What's more people from Quebec are travelling farther and farther into Eastern Ontario each year to try and find new sources.

    1 agrees
    • I think wild leeks are the same as ramps around here. I've heard about ramps becoming rarer and rarer so unless you can sustainably harvest your own patch in your backyard, I would try not to eat too many from the farmer's market.

      3 agree
      • Has anyone ever found any sources where you can buy ramps to plant and cultivate for yourself?

        1 agrees
  17. It's probably the wrong season here anyway, but… anyone have any foraging resources for Australia? (Particularly in NSW…)

  18. PLEASE be careful when picking invasive species such as garlic mustard and Japanese knot weed. Garlic mustard is EXTREMELY invasive, the seeds can live at least 4 years within the soil and one plant can produce thousands of seeds. If you pick these in one area, the seeds can easily spread to a new area and take over there as well. If you're going to pick garlic mustard, make sure you bag it appropriately.

    Also, for help when picking invasives (including common dandelion), they tend to grow along disturbed areas, especially near roads and ditches.

    Wild leeks are generally found in forested areas with sandy soils near streams. Other edible good stuff found on sandy soils in wintergreen, which can be used to make tea (or just something minty to chew on in the woods). Also good for tea is labrador tea, which can be found in bogs.

    Happy hunting!

    2 agree
  19. So, this is like a year later than this thread started, but I'll take a shot anyway:

    Anyone know of any websites that can identify plants based on pictures you take? I'm interested in wildcrafting herbs, and I'd love to be able to verify "Um, I think this is OK, but I'm not sure – can someone check?" I don't have a smart phone or tablet, but maybe there is an app for it?

    • And I'm even later but since this is on the front page roller again someone else might want it:

      http://www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/forums/
      You have to register, but they are great. It only took a day or two for them to ID a plant for me. Just make sure you google the answer you get, to make sure it looks like the right plant in case you've got someone just guessing.

      1 agrees
  20. Don't forget if you live in a rental house to take a close look at what is in the abandoned garden. I thought it was just flowers, but there were lots of garlic plants. You can eat the top as a garlic scape and then months later eat the bulb. There were also herbs that I was able to identify with the help of a neighbor and some books!

    1 agrees

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