It’s estimated by the American Association of Poison Control Centers that around 60 or more people in the United States die each year from eating poisonous plants and mushrooms. That number might seem worth note but not alarming. More concerning, however, in 2010, nearly 50,800 people were exposed to toxic plants, and almost 6,000 to poison mushrooms.
Foraging in nature for food is a fantastic idea. However, never eat something unless you’re sure of what it is. It is particularly important to know what you’re eating in the case of plants and fungi. If you cannot identify it with complete certainty, do not eat it.
While hiking or camping, always keep a book to identify edible plants with you. Taking survival courses with experts is also a great idea.
Essential Caution Before You Eat Anything from the Wild
One rule to follow in general is to avoid bright colors unless it’s a known-safe flower. Whether it’s a plant, sea life, or insect if something boasts bright colors it is usually nature’s warning that eating it could kill you, or at least make you very ill. The poisonous dart frog is one example of this.
There are some exceptions with flowers, such as a bright yellow dandelion, and colorful blue chicory flowers. Have identification guides with you so you can be 100 percent certain what you’re foraging is safe.
Plants Can Be Tricky to Identify
Keep in mind that flora, that is, plants, are often harder to identify than fauna. Several species of plants look very similar to others, with one being edible and the other not.
Yarrow and hemlock have comparable visual qualities, but yarrow has medicinal uses while hemlock is highly toxic. Be familiar with a list of edible plants for your region and how to identify them with certainty. It is vital to obtain this knowledge before venturing out and foraging.
Excellent Foods to Forage in the Wild
There are quite a few options you’ll have out there. Let’s take a look at a few specifics.
Amaranth is generally considered a weed. However, amaranth is a vegetable and grain eaten for several centuries around the globe. People have harvested the seeds since ancient times in the New World and the Himalayas. Cultures used the leaves across Asia for ages, as well. Even young amaranth leaves are edible. The seeds are usually ready to eat in mid-to-late summer and early fall.
Cattail, also known as bulrush, is popular in wetland areas in several parts of the world. Cattail is especially prevalent in the Great Lakes region and is easy to recognize from the cigar or hotdog shaped heads. You can grind cattail roots into flour high in protein, carbohydrates, and the omega-6 linoleic fatty acid. Inside the stocks, you will find young shoots that are said to taste like cucumber and can be eaten raw or lightly roasted or sautéed.
Clovers are not only a symbol of luck but can be your fortune in food if you’re in a grassy, clover-laden area. Most clovers are 100 percent edible. You can eat clover greens as a salad. The leaves and are surprisingly high in protein.
The dried clover flower and seed pods are nutritious ground up as a flower or mixed into other foods. You can also make clover tea. One point of note: while white clover can be safe in cold, northern climates, the same white-flowered clover can be toxic in warm regions. Consult an expert manual before eating.
Dandelion might seem like an annoyance in your yard, but these weeds are also entirely edible. The yellow flowers, hardy leaves, and roots can all be eaten and have high nutritional value.
Take a look at some grocery store salads, and you can often find dandelion greens in the mix. Be sure you are not foraging from an area that is prone to chemical sprays like weed killers or other toxins before consuming dandelion. These plants are prevalent from spring through summer and into early autumn.
Chicory, known for its beautiful blue-purple flowers, is a member of the dandelion family. Chicory boasts leaves great for salads, some popular varieties known as Belgian endive and radicchio. You can consume the leaves raw as well as the flowers.
Do not eat the roots unless they are boiled, however, because they are not edible raw. Chicory can be bitter but boiling and discarding the water can reduce some of the bitter flavors. Chicory is in season in summer but also quite prevalent in fall.
If you have a lawn, you may know the perils of the weed ground ivy, popularly known as creeping Charlie or creeping Jenny. However, this plant is high in vitamin C, and for centuries people have revered it because of its nutrition.
Since ancient times, people have treated conditions ranging from asthma and colds to bladder issues, and even melancholy with ground ivy. The young leaves are consumable even without cooking.
Pineapple Weed and Chamomile
Pineapple weed, which looks quite similar to chamomile, is an excellent food for hikers. Pineapple weed’s peak season is late summer. The flower heads and leaves are edible. If you’re worried that you’re mistaking pineapple weed for chamomile, rest easy. The flowers and leaves of chamomile are also edible and often used in calming teas.
Wild leek or forest ramps can look more familiar to your refrigerator than many things you might find hiking. Wild leeks and ramps can be found deep in woodlands. The bulbs form broad light green leaves. You can identify them from their smell which is nearly identical to an onion.
Ramps are in peak season in springtime. You can eat both the leaves and bulbs, but consume them in small amounts. Just as eating a raw onion could cause sharp stomach pains, the same can happen when devouring too many uncooked leaks or ramps.
Prickly Pear in the Harsh Desert
If you’re hiking in the deserts of North America, the prickly pear cactus can be a sight for sore eyes. Not only is prickly pear very palatable but it’s nutritious and will aid in your hydration. The fruit looks similar to a slightly purple pair. Naturally, exercise caution to remove the spines before consuming the succulent inside of this cactus.
Joe Pye weed can be found in moist forests and along streams. The whole plant is edible when cooked, including the root. The Native Americans made tea from this weed for several maladies. Joe Pye weed looks like a wildflower and is as a “butterfly plant” because of its sweet nectar. It boasts beautiful pink and occasionally violet colored flowers at the ends of the stems. The weed is prevalent in late summer to early fall.
Common yarrow is often considered an aggressive weed. They have small, white flowers that remain most of the summer months and into early autumn. Often found along the roads and in fields, the leaves of common yarrow can be eaten raw. Be warned, however, yarrow can have a bitter flavor. People used yarrow for ages to treat several conditions and such a pain relief and assisting in restful sleep.
Common sow thistle, also known as Sonchus, can be found as far north as Alaska. The common sow thistle has hollow stems and a short taproot. With bright yellow flowers, these plants have seeds with silky-textured white hairs. The leaves are edible raw and excellent for you as they are high in vitamin C, protein, and carbohydrates.
Milk thistle is not only an exceptional natural food in the wild but is medicinal in many ways. Milk thistle can aid in digestion and is well-touted for cleansing the liver and removing toxins from the body. You can identify this plant by the purple flowers atop with the thistle head and from its light green leaves with white veins. The roots, leaves, and stems can all be eaten raw.
Foraging for Non-Plant Protein Sources
While it might make some people’s skin crawl, insects are often safe to eat. Insects can offer a fantastic source of protein. However, other bugs are not a good idea. To find an insect, look for a three-part body with an exoskeleton, six legs and one pair of antennae.
While insect bodies can sometimes be difficult to discern the three distinct sections, it must have six legs to be identified as an insect. If you can’t stomach the idea of eating them raw, insects can be roasted or added to numerous recipes to help disguise them.
Insects Can Be Good, but Bugs Are Bad
Other bugs such as spiders, scorpions, and ticks have eight legs. If they have several legs such as centipedes, do not eat them. Avoid eating bugs in the eight legs or more category. Steer clear of eating anything hairy like a bee, as well.
A couple of bug exceptions do exist, however. If a bug has a crunchy exoskeleton, such as ants and crickets, for example, they are generally safe. Of course, avoid fire ants or anything that could cause distress to your mouth.
Foraging in Winter Months
During cold winter months, finding edible food in the wild may seem impossible. However, there are some options if you know where to look. Many plants might be scare but plan before you go and you can still find some tasty natural treats with snow on the ground.
The needles of evergreen trees are often the easiest to find and forage in the winter. The majority of conifer trees are edible except the yew tree. Yew bushes are toxic and have poisonous red berries. However, pine, fir, spruce, and redwood all have needles that you can make into tea or cook into soup.
Photo of poisonous yew licensed on Morguefile
You can also find the bark from birch trees even when other food sources are scarce in the winter time. Make the bark into a tea, and try grinding the inner bark into a flour substitute. Be cautious not to take too much bark from one tree. Removing an excess of bark is harmful to the tree itself.
Maple trees are prevalent in many colder regions, and you can draw their sap with the right tools. Maple syrup is derived from maple sap, after all. You can tap trees such as black walnut varieties, also. Tapping maple trees is a harvesting practice near the end of winter when temperatures rise just the slightest amount. Birch trees are usually tapped earlier than others, generally in late winter.
Yellow Chanterelle Mushrooms
Yellow chanterelle or winter chanterelle mushrooms are in the ranks of the most popularly eaten variety of wild mushrooms. Yellow chanterelle mushrooms are yellow, white, or even orange and have a meaty texture. These mushrooms are high in vitamin D—a much-needed nutrient in dark winter months—as well as niacin and iron.
Oyster mushrooms grow on fallen logs and dead trees. A severe frost will kill them, but if temperatures have not dropped too far, these mushrooms you can often find them in forested areas during winter months. Always be sure of the type of fungus you have by double checking a guide before consuming.
Commonly Mistaken Plants: Edible Versus Poisonous
Of course, take caution before eating anything in the wild without consulting expert information. Furthermore, it’s essential to be sure you have the correct plant or mushroom, and not a lethal imposter. It’s an excellent idea to be aware of some common poisonous flora that looks similar to edible varieties.
Sweet Versus Bitter Almonds
People enjoy sweet almonds in the United States and several other countries as a healthy snack. While there is a minuscule amount of cyanide in them, it’s considered harmless. Bitter almonds, however, are shorter and broader and have 42 times as much cyanide as sweet almonds.
True Morel Mushrooms and False Morels
Genuine morel mushrooms, also known as sponge mushrooms or hickory chickens, look surprisingly similar to the Verpa
bohemica and Gyromitra esculenta mushroom species. They might look alike.
However, the false morels can lead to extreme sickness, liver damage, and in some cases death. Both real and false morels have a brain-like texture on the surface of their caps. Even true morels should be cleaned and cooked before consumption.
Photo of morel mushroom licensed on Morguefile
Carrot and Parsnip Versus Hemlock
Before you pull up what you believe is a wild carrot or edible parsnip, be sure you haven’t harvested hemlock. Hemlock root can look similar and is often found growing on the roadside, in ditches, and livestock rangelands. Hemlock is very toxic and can be deadly. Wild parsnip is also a plant to use caution with, as it has poison risks and can cause severe burns to tissue such as your skin.
When in Doubt, Do Not Eat
Foraging while hiking or camping can be great fun and an excellent way to feel connected with nature. However, with so many toxic plants, fungi, and bugs in the wild always double or even triple check with reliable guidebooks to be sure you are safe. Look for the small details that can differentiate a safe plant from a lethal lookalike. Remember, not all edible wild plants are fit for human consumption in their entirety.
Consult expert manuals with pictures to not only be sure you have the correct flora but which parts are edible. Moreover, exercise the necessary steps of caution:
With a healthy dose of caution and preparedness, you can enjoy nature and its abundant sources of whole foods. You gain not only a sense of gratification in foraging your own food, but you can also devour lots of essential vitamin and nutrients missing from store-bought, processed foods. Find chemical-free areas for vegetation, seek out safe plants, and you can eat healthily for free.