Wild Edibles

Florida Pellitory

"One is tempted to say that the most human plants, after all, are the weeds." -- John Burroughs

Foraging for wild foods is a fun way to add variety to your diet.  If you have wild areas on your property, encourage these plants to grow there.  Many wild forms of garden plants listed elsewhere in this website (e.g. Amaranth, Blackberry, Chicory, Nettle, Lotus, Violet, and Water Lily) can also be found.  If foraging in an area that is not on your property, be sure to get permission first.  Every bit of land these days belongs to someone and you don't want to be a trespasser or give foragers a bad name.  Also, never overcollect wild plants - be sure there are plenty left for others and for the plants to reproduce.  Obtain a field guide with pictures to aid you in identifying plants. If in doubt, do not eat!  There are plenty of other plants out there. 

Some wild edibles you may find are:

Acorn (Quercus spp.) -- The fruit of the oak tree.  A nutritious flour can be made from Acorns, though it takes a bit longer than preparing most wild edibles.  When you get them home, dry them in an oven with just the pilot light on or at the lowest possible temperature in an electric model.  This will kill any bugs as well.  To prepare, shell the nuts and soak them in water for a few days.  Adding wood ashes to the water will speed the leaching of bitterness.  Change the water at least twice a day and check the flavor.  When they are no longer bitter, grind the wet nuts in a meat grinder or food processor, then spread the coarse meal out on cookie sheets and dry in the sun or in an oven at very a low temperature. Use instead of flour or mix with it half and half.  Acorns baked very dark can be used as a coffee substitute.  The wood of the oak tree makes an excellent building material as well and bark can be soaked in water to produce a solution for tanning leather. 

Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) -- Grows up to 5' tall in open sunny areas.  Leaves are 1' long and 4" wide and close at night.  Boil or bake roots to destroy mildly poisonous compounds and bacteria.  Also a source of high-quality starch.  Often eaten in Hawaii.

Birch (Betula spp.) -- The soft inner bark of birch trees can be harvested in spring and eaten raw or dried for later use in soups.  The form is similar to egg noodles.

Cattail (Typha latifolia and T. augustifolia) -- In early spring, peel young leaves off to reach the growing stem, which can be eaten raw or cooked.  Later in the year the green male flower spikes can be cooked & eaten like corn. The pollen can be used alone or with flour for pancake batter, fritters or bread.  Gathering much of it takes time and work but it is very nutritious.  Try putting the pollen-filled heads in a bag one by one and shaking off the pollen.  Pour through a strainer to remove chaff before using.  Male flowers (the ones on top with pollen) last only a short time, leaving the female flowers which develop into the brown cattail.  The tough rhizomes can be made into flour any time of year.  Clean and dry them in sun several days or in an oven or food dehydrator at 200 degrees for 2-4 hours.  Pulverize in a grain mill or between two stones and sift or pick out stringy fibers.  If you decide to grow your own, they are best in their own tub, since they will quickly try to take over a small water garden.

Chickweed (Starwort, Stellaria media) -- One of the most wide-spread and nutritious wild greens in the world, with high vitamin and mineral content. Google for a picture.

Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.) -- Dandelions have been regarded as weeds in recent history, but were important tonic greens not so long ago. Though they are awful pests in lawns, with a taproot that is very hard to get out completely, there is now a revival of culinary interest in these plants. Fancy seed houses are even selling cultivated varieties for the kitchen garden! Every part of the plant is edible. The nutritious leaves (high in iron, beta-carotene, and potassium) are most palatable in cool weather, when they are young and not yet bitter. The root can be toasted and ground, then used as a coffee substitute, and has also been used medicinally. The flowers can be used to make wine. Also, according to Brigitte Mars, writing in The Herb Companion of April/May 2000, dandelion flowers can be washed, dusted with flour seasoned with salt and pepper, then pan-fried in a little butter for a mushroom-flavored dish. We don't often have dandelions growing wild here, but you can order seeds and try growing them yourself. 

Florida Pellitory (Up Against the Wall, Parietaria floridana) – One of my favorites.  It grows in wet or dry areas in sun or shade and prefers fertile soil, which is why it quickly covers any bare ground in garden beds.  The leaves are small and the stems translucent. The entire plant can be washed and eaten raw or cooked. The leaves are a little fuzzy but not off-putting. It tastes somewhat like Cucumber. One caveat – this plant should come with a label, "Warning! This plant picks up more dirt and holds onto it harder than anything you have yet experienced!" It's even a good deal worse than beet greens, but still worth it, in small quantities. For this reason, I like to harvest from older, taller plants, since the leaves are farther off the ground and have less dirt on them. Leaves can get up to 1" long on these larger plants, making them look somewhat different from younger ones. I welcome and encourage patches of Pellitory in my partly shaded herb beds. Smaller ones in other areas are pulled as weeds and eaten when they are in the way of something else I want to grow. Greens will keep in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.  Warning: Apparently, some people itch when they eat this plant, so go slow at first.

Juniper (Juniperus spp.) -- Eat berries raw or roast the seeds for a coffee substitute.  Use dried and crushed berries as a seasoning for meat. Young twigs are good for tea. 

Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodim album) -- European native with leaves that taste like spinach. Leaves are very nutritious and have often been used as a famine food. Sometimes this plant will show up as a weed in our garden beds. Often there are not enough to make an entire side dish of, but I like to add them to salad greens or stir fries where the quantity doesn't matter. Seeds can also be eaten raw or ground into a flour, but again, there is not usually enough of it for this use. You can use 2 teaspoons of leaves to make a cup of tea.  There are a few cultivaed varieties - look for 'Magenta Spreen', with pink-tinged foliage

Mallow (Malva neglecta) -- Leaves of this common wild plant can be eaten raw or cooked. They are mucilaginous and soothing, so can be used to thicken soups, or in a tea or syrup for sore throats or ulcers. The pretty pink or white flowers are also edible, as are those of most plants in the mallow family, such as Hibiscus, for example. They are lovely whole as garnishes, or shredded in a salad if the petals are large. Even the seeds can be eaten raw or pickled. If you grow mallow plants of other kinds and would like to eat them, do check with the seed company because some, like Malva sylvestris (which came with a warning, probably because one would expect them to be edible), may be poisonous. Be sure, and be safe!

Nutsedge (Cyperus esculenta) -- This is a common grassy weed you may have seen growing in your garden.  The mature plant has a soft, yellow-brown burr-like bloom.  The 1/2" to 1" tubers which grow at the ends of the roots are edible raw, baked or boiled and can be ground and used as a coffee substitute. 

Pine (Pinus spp.) -- Seeds of all species are edible.  Young male cones are borne in spring and can be boiled or baked.  Peel off bark of young, thin twigs to reach the juicy inner bark, which can be chewed for its sugar and vitamins.  It is especially good in spring when the sap is rising. 

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) -- Grows in open sunny areas in fields, forest clearings and along roadsides.  Young leaves and stems are edible cooked - boil them in two changes of water, discarding the first.  Fruits are edible if cooked and their juice can be used as a dye.  Large stems can be peeled, boiled and made into pickles. Warning:  All parts of this plant are poisonous if eaten raw and underground portions should never be eaten at all!

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) -- Chances are you have this plant growing in your yard as a weed. But it is a valued salad green in Europe and you can buy seeds for especially large, succulent strains for the kitchen garden. It is related to showy flowering Portulaca but purslane's flowers are tiny and yellow. All parts are edible. Wash and boil for a tasty vegetable or eat raw in salad. It has a lemony flavor. The tiny black seeds can be used as a flour substitute or eaten raw. Purslane is high in vitamin C, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids, and has also been used medicinally. Warning: If you are pregnant or suffer from digestive problems, do not eat Purslane!

Saw Palmetto (Palmetto Palm, Sabal Palmetto, Serenoa repens) -- Fruits are edible raw and seeds can be ground into flour.  The heart is a nutritious food source, harvesting it involves cutting off the top of the plant, thus killing it.  Standardized extracts are sold in health food stores for benefitting the prostate gland.

Sea Blite (Suaeda linearis) -- Succulent plant that grows on beaches and in salty marshes.  Leaves are very salty.  Try boiling, pouring off the water and reserving it to add to soups and juices.  Then boil the plant again in fresh water for about 5 minutes.  It can also be added to other foods in small amounts raw and chopped for a salty flavor. 

Sea Purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) -- Grows on seacoasts and looks similar to regular Purslane but leaves are thicker and longer and not as wide and the entire plant is larger.  It can be eaten raw or cooked.  If it is too salty, boil in two changes of fresh water, discarding the first. 

Sea Rocket (Cakile edentula) -- Mustard look-alike that grows on beaches.  Leaves are fleshy and bluntly toothed.  Flowers are small and either purple or white, with four petals.  Tender leaves can be cooked in very little water about 10 minutes or until tender and seasoned however you like them.  They can also be used raw in salads for a peppery flavor. 

Seaweed -- Many kinds are edible.  Look for them attached to rocks or floating free in the water.  Seaweed stranded on the beach may be decaying and should not be eaten, though it can be taken home, leached of its salt and used as a very good mulch or compost ingredient.  Thin, tender varieties can be dried in the sun or over a fire until crisp, then crumbled in soup or broth. Thick, leathery ones should be washed, boiled to soften and eaten with other foods.  Large amounts can cause stomach distress. 

Here are some kinds you may find: 

Common Green Seaweed (Sea Lettuce, Ulva lactuca) -- Wash in clean water and use like garden lettuce.  Native Americans fry it in fish oil and serve it in a bowl like spinach.  It can also be torn up and added to rice and soups, or dried and crumbled for use as a salty condiment. 

Dulse (Rhodymenia palmata) -- Found attached to rocks or coarser seaweeds, usually at low-tide level.  It has a very short stem which turns into a thin, broad, fan-shaped dark red area that is divided into several short, round-tipped lobes.  The consistency is leathery and the taste sweet.  It can be dried and chewed. 

Edible Kelp (Alaria esculenta) -- Usually found below the high-tide line on submerged ledges and rocky bottoms.  It has a short, cylindrical stem and thin, wavy brown or olive-green fronds one to several feet long.  Boil to soften, then mix with vegetables or soup. 

Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus)-- Usually found just below the high-tide line and often cast up on shore.  It is brown with a tough, elastic, leathery texture.  When dried, it shrinks and becomes crisp.  Boil for eating. 

Laver (Porphyra) -- A common seaweed usually found on he beach at low-tide level.  It is purplish brown, dark purple or red, with a satiny sheen.  Clean and use as relish or boil until tender.  It can also be pulverized and added to crushed grains and the mixture fried like flatcakes.

Sugar Wrack (Laminaria saccharina) -- Brown seaweed.  Use a guide to identify. 

Spanish Needles (Bidens pilosa) -- This common weed has 1" single, white daisy-like flowers and produces needle-like seeds that stick to clothes and fur.  They can be found in fields and beside roads everywhere.  Tender young leaves can be cooked and eaten, preferably with a very tasty seasoning, as they have a strong flavor of their own.   


For many more wild edible profiles, check out Green Deane’s excellent website, Eat the Weeds.


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