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WILD (AND SOMETIMES WOOLY) EDIBLES

The term “wild edible” describes those plants that we have to locate and “catch” as opposed to the domesticated plants that are sold in stores.  We go to the store and buy pre-harvested, washed, and packaged plants, and we assume (even if we’ve never seen the plant before) that it is ok to eat and won’t harm us.  When we pick wild edibles, the same is true, if we do our due diligence and know what we’re picking.  With that said, there are some ground rules and cautions concerning the harvesting and eating of wild edibles.


I’m going to assume that some of you are new to wild edibles, and it’s important that you start off on the right foot.  You are ultimately responsible for what goes into your body.  Therefore, you need to be 100% sure to correctly identify the plant you are about to eat.  If in doubt, throw it out!  Identifying a new plant can be exciting and scary at the same time.  For myself, I have found that books are good, videos are better, and being with someone as they identify the plant is the best.  There are lots of plant identification books out there (including flower ID books) that are helpful.  Even better are books on wild edibles that help with plant identification as well as showing the edible parts of the plant.  There are also a lot of videos on wild edibles that are excellent in that they can show more realistically how the plant looks in real life.  If you are with someone who can ID a wild edible for you, you then can see, touch, and taste the plant as well as observe its habitat/growing location.  If the person IDing a plant is someone you don’t know (like me), be sure to get a second opinion from other videos or people.  If it’s an in-person ID, they should be ok with eating some themselves which should help weed out those who are just trying to impress you.


Identifying an edible plant is just the first step.  Many plants will look different in their various stages of development.  The leaf shape or plant shape may differ from seedling to seed-bearing, and learning the different stages will increase your eating potential.  Learning the parts of the plant that are edible and how to prepare them is a good next step.  Part of this step is learning how this plant will affect you.   Our digestion isn’t used to eating these plants, so there may be some reactions such as vomiting, bloating, or diarrhea.  It’s advisable to start with small portions to allow your body to adjust.  Also, be aware that there is the possibility of an allergic reaction, so start with a small bite and see how your body reacts.  Research new plants to see if there is a high allergy potential.  If you are allergic to a nut or plant, other nuts or plants in the same family will likely affect you as well.  Many (if not most) wild edibles also have medicinal properties.  Knowing what these are will let you know if you can eat a lot of a particular plant, or only eat in moderation.  If you are taking medicine, are pregnant or nursing, you need to know if this plant will negatively affect you.  As I talk about the various plants, I will try to let you know these details, but please research for yourself.  Lastly, be aware that some plants have look a likes that are poisonous.  Knowing which plants these are and how to differentiate between them is essential.  All the above may seem daunting and scary, especially when starting the journey of learning wild edibles, so here are some tips that have helped me.  Start small.  Begin with learning 2, or at the most 3 plants.  It helps if they are plants you can find in your yard or close by.  Get a positive ID, and then touch, taste, smell, and get to intimately know them.  Take notes and pictures.  What are some identifying characteristics that let you know you’ve correctly identified the plant?  When out in your yard, take the time to identify it, then pick and eat it.  This will help your confidence with IDing, plus help your body to adjust to a new food.  When you can identify your 2-3 plants quickly and accurately, move on to 2-3 more.  If you want to get really crazy, once you’ve identified a plant with seed, take some seed to plant in your garden, flower bed, or area just for “weeds”.  When it grows, you can see it from seedling to maturity and positively ID it every time you walk by. 


Some final thoughts.  If and when you decide to harvest, make sure you are harvesting in areas that have not been contaminated by insecticides, herbicides, or vehicle pollution.  Usually, if an area or lawn has a wide variety of weeds, you are safe from herbicides.  Don’t harvest within 20 feet of well-travelled roads (leaky vehicles) and stay away from areas with high animal traffic (cow pastures, etc.…) as these can have a high percentage of parasites.   When you harvest, leave some plants for others, animals, and to allow the plants to reseed.  Always make sure you have landowner permission to harvest!  Finally, just because it’s edible doesn’t mean that you will enjoy eating it.  It means that you will get some health benefit from it😊.  Now let’s get into some plants!

Since it’s winter, I thought I’d look in my yard to see what’s available.  The following 2 plants (among others) I found on January 9, 2024.  I live 30 minutes from Chattanooga, TN which means that I am in zone 7 for plants.  You might still be able to find these plants further north at this time depending on temps and snow. It’s my understanding that edible roots are best gathered in the late fall or early spring as the roots have been storing energy during this time.  Another reason is that once there is a hard frost or two, most leaves die and it’s hard to find the plants you need.


Burdock (Arctium)



In the US, we have 2 varieties of burdock.  greater burdock, and lesser (or common) burdock.  Most of the burdock you see will be the common burdock, but since both are similar in look and edibility, I’m just going to use burdock.  Burdock is a biennial, meaning that it uses the first year to store energy and flowers and dies the second year.  The first-year plant will have a basal rosette of leaves while the second-year plant will send up a flower stalk with alternate leaves.  The flowers are purple and resemble thistle flower heads in shape, with the resulting seedhead being a rounded ball with curved hooks surrounding it.  This is where the idea for Velcro originated, as you will see when you try to remove them from your clothes. 


The leaves are green and feel slightly rough on top, while the undersides are white/silvery and slightly furry with the stem sometimes having a purple tinge.  The leaf edges may be slightly ruffled or wavy.  The leaf midrib will jut out below the leaf and the veins coming from the midrib will go to the outside edge.  The leaves can get quite large, 2’ long and over 12” wide.  One of the easiest ways to identify this plant is to look in disturbed areas, overgrown fields, and along secondary roadways in the fall and early winter for the distinctive flower stalk with the brown balls at the end (pic below right).  Once you find one, there will often be newer plants scattered around (as in above picture).  You can then identify by the leaves and either dig up the root, or wait until the spring to do so.  You might also find them by looking for the stalks with flowerheads in mid to late summer (pic below left).      


Some look alike plants to be aware of are

foxglove (poisonous), rhubarb (leaves toxic, but leaf stalks edible), and yellow dock (edible).  Foxglove leaves are similar in shape but are green on the top and underside of the leaves.  The veins off the midrib will not go to the sides of the leaf, but will turn and go parallel to the midrib towards the end or top of the leaf.  Rhubarb leaves are smooth with reddish or green stalks, to contrast with the rough and fuzzy feel of burdock. 


Yellow or Curly dock (Rumex crispus) will also have smooth leaves that are green on the tops and underside.  Often the leaves and stems have reddish purple splotches on them, and the leaves are smaller than mature burdock leaves.  In the picture of burdock leaves on the right, notice the silvery underside vs the green tops and how the midrib sticks out below the leaf.

Edible parts of the plant.  The leaves are extremely bitter and are usually not consumed.  The leaf stalks can be eaten by removing the leaf, and then scraping the skin (which is bitter also).  Eat like celery.  The young flower stalk when supple (I like to think of it as rubbery) can also be eaten.  Cut it off at the base, peal the outer layer off leaving the core which can be eaten raw, or cooked in soups, fried, etc.…  As will be obvious, I am not a chef and am still working on the preparation aspect of wild edibles (and store-bought for that matter).  The root is also eaten and can be bought in Asian markets and sometimes health food stores under the name of gobo.  If you can’t find any to dig up, I encourage you to buy some and try different ways of fixing it.  It can be eaten raw or cooked.  You need to dig up the roots before the flower stalk starts to grow. 


The root is sending all its energy to grow the stalk and flowers and turns into a withered chunk of wood.  The roots can get fairly big, 3” diameter and over 2’ long depending on soil conditions.  This also makes them somewhat difficult to get out without breaking off.  I have clay soil with rocks, so I had fun digging one out for this article!  I was able to dig up about 8” of the main root before it broke off as you can see in the picture on the left. 


It was approximately 1” diameter.  I rinsed it off with a hose outside and then finished cleaning it by rubbing it with my hand under the faucet to get all the dirt and clay off.  I then cut off the top where the stems are attached (also remove any top part of the root that is hollow), cut out any obvious bad spots, peeled the skin off the blacker part of the root and cut into 1/8” to ¼” slices.  I then deep fried them like you would French fries.  They were delicious.  My wife and kids tried them and liked them, so a big win for burdock! They tasted like potato fries with a hint of fried okra.  The finished product below. 



Things to be aware of if you eat burdock.  If you are sensitive to daisies, chrysanthemums, or ragweed, you may have an allergic reaction to burdock.  If you are pregnant or nursing, you shouldn’t eat it as it may hurt your baby.  The above 2 cautions are found in many articles that talk about burdock, but I couldn’t find out why, or what the effects might be.  Burdock is also a diuretic, so don’t eat it if you are dehydrated.  There are also many health benefits and medicinal uses for burdock which are worth investigating.


 Thistle (Asteraceae family) namely genus Cirsium and Carduus


I am not talking about milk thistle, sow thistle, or prickly lettuce.  There are many varieties of thistles in America, some native, but many are not.  True thistles will have spines along the leaf margins with flower heads that are usually pinkish purple.  All true thistles in the US are edible, but some will obviously be more enjoyable to eat.  Different thistle varieties can be annual, biannual, or perennial.  This means that some varieties only live one year, while others live 2 years or many years.  Thistles start out as a basal rosette and gather energy before sending up a flower stalk, flowering, and dying.  The leaves are lobed and spiny with a spine on each lobe.  The leaves can be quite wooly or almost smooth depending on species and be quite large (24”) or not, once again depending on species. 


The leaf midrib will also be a lighter green than the leaf.  The flower stalk will have alternate leaves that are smaller than there basal counterparts.  In the picture on the left, notice the flower head shape along with the one just starting to open.  The basal rosette below.

The most common look alike to thistles are sow thistle (edible), prickly lettuce (edible), Yellow star thistle – Centaurea solstitialis (poisonous to horses, unsure about human edibility), and milk thistle (edible, but can cause severe allergic reaction to some).  Prickly lettuce and sow thistle look similar in that they have yellow flowers and leaves that feel prickly.  They also have whitish sap in the leaf and flower stems while true thistles do not.  You can eat the leaves of both these plants, but it is still important to correctly identify anything you wish to eat.  Milk thistle is probably the closest to resembling a true thistle, but its leaves have milky white veins which give the plant its name.  Yellow star thistle has yellow flowers with long spines below the flower petals, but no spines on the leaves.


Edible parts are leaf midrib, young flower stalk, and root.  To eat the leaf midrib, I take a knife and cut the leaf at its base (or where it attaches to the flower stalk).  Holding the midrib at its base, I take the knife and run the blade against the midrib cutting off the leaf with its spines.  Be careful as some plants have a few spines at the base of the midrib which I cut off with my knife.  Eat like celery.  I (and some of my kids) like this quick treat and it’s fun to introduce others to this odd snack.  If you don’t like the fuzz on the midrib, just rub it off.  The flower stalk is a little more work, but worth it.  When the stalk is young, usually 3’ or less (higher is ok as long as the stalk is flexible/rubbery and not stiff) cut off the leaves starting at the top and moving down until you reach the base.  Cut the base and remove the top.  Remove the outer layer of fibrous material which will leave a moist core that you can eat raw or cooked.  The root is eaten raw or cooked. They tend to be fairly smooth and so clean easily.  


 As you can see, the one I dug up has smaller roots.  Other species can have much larger roots, so don’t be discouraged.  The larger root was about ½” thick and 3-4” long.  I sliced the thicker root in half and left the smaller roots as they were.  I deep fried them (I am in the south after all), and ate them with a little salt.  They weren’t as tasty as the burdock and a little tougher, but not bad.  I also ate some of the leaves although small.  I hate to waste a good thistle leaf!  The finished product below (minus the leaves).



I don’t know of any health precautions for thistle (other than the suggestion of wearing gloves when harvesting).  As with all new food, be cautious and start with small portions until you know how your body reacts to it. Now that you’ve learned, put it into practice!!


 

About Me:

John Miller loves the outdoors and enjoys learning about all the things the Creator has made.  He enjoys hunting, fishing, backpacking, and finding new moths.  While looking into prepping in 2008, he realized that developing skills such as knowing wild edibles and bushcraft skills were more important than storing food.   Ever since then he has been learning and slowly working on the skills of these two disciplines.  He currently lives in Cleveland, TN with his wife Rachel and six children.


 

Suggested Reads: Any book by Samuel Thayer


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Thank you for sharing about burdock. I am in South Dakota and it grows prevalently. Knowing of its medicinal qualities for respiratory and it also being a prebiotic, I have blended it in smoothies and dried it for tea. This year after a bumper crop, I did more research. I was surprised to find a few Japanese recipes and techniques. Peel the burdock, if desired, by scraping it with a back of a knife to keep the nutrients that are close to the skin. Soak scraped burdock in a bowl of water with vinegar while you prepare the rest to retain it’s white appearance and to remove some of the bitterness. Also, the young leaves in spring can be cooke…

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