Eat Your Trees: How to Wild Forage from the Largest Plants in the Forest

When you wild forage you tend to look down to the ground, but maybe it’s time to look up and eat your trees.

If you know what to look for you can find a virtual bounty of wild foods in fields and forests.  But our focus always tends to be on plants underfoot.  There are certainly many low-growing plants that provide good nutrition and health benefits, but many trees exceed those benefits in significant ways.

Of a fundamental level, trees provide food sources in one of 4 ways:

1. Fruits

2. Nuts

3. Leaves

4. Bark

Most trees provide nutritional benefits across more than one of these levels.  You’ll also find that the occurrence of certain tree food sources are seasonal such as fruits, nuts and some leaves with the exception of pines.  Bark is a year-round food source.

Most importantly trees provide a good amount of calories from their fruits and nuts.  Many green, leafy wild plants offer good nutrition but a cup of dandelion greens, plantain leaves or clover only provide 25 calories per cup.  When you consider that the average, active adult needs up to 2500 calories a day you can see why trees can make things easier.  In fact, nuts from trees provide calories from fat which is critical in winter due to the fact that calories from fat produce more body heat, and they sustain that body heat over a long period of time.

While most of the food sources can be consumed raw, some simple recipes and preparation can enhance both the taste and variety of foods from trees as a resource.  Recipes we’ll cover include:

  • Teas or infusions
  • Jams, jellies and preserves
  • Flours and nut butters
  • Pancakes
  • Syrups and sugars
  • Juices and ciders
  • Seasonings

But before we get to what we harvest and ways to enjoy the fruits and nuts of our labors, we should probably do a quick review of some of the trees that offer the most nutrition and options.  They include:

  • Pines
  • Maples
  • Honey Locust
  • Sumac
  • Black Walnut
  • Gingko
  • White Willow
  • Slippery Elm
  • Chestnut
  • Oaks
  • Mulberries
  • Crabapples
  • Wild Plum

Most of these trees appear across North America.  We’ll cover the nutritional benefits and general preparation of each and then go into some basic recipe approaches that will allow you to make the most of your harvest.  But before we get into that, it’s important to understand basic tree identification.  There are a variety of ways in combination to identify a tree:

  1. Its height
  2. Its shape
  3. Its bark
  4. Its leaves
  5. Its fruits or nuts
  6. Its location

Some common trees we have come to know include maples, pines, oaks and willows.  Others are a bit obscure like Honey Locust and Gingkos.  Your best bet is one of the field guides that are pocket sized.  There are also digital field guides you can download to a mobile device but seeing a digital photo on a sunny day can be a challenge.  You may be better off with one of these printed field guides in your pocket or rucksack:

Proper identification is important.  Like any wild foraging there are tree species that are toxic like Poison Sumac and Poison Oak.  There are also parts of some trees that are toxic or become toxic at certain times of year, and the Peterson Field Guide does an excellent job of identifying what and when you should avoid certain trees.

We’re also going to focus on wild trees rather than domesticated trees that produce much of the fruit produce you would find in a grocery store.  With all of that being said, let’s review what and how to harvest these wild trees and then we’ll cover some foundation recipe approaches that you can apply to what you have gathered.

Pines

Pine Forest

Pines are the oldest trees on Earth.  They blanketed the planet during the Coniferous Period and their decomposed and compacted remains are the source of all of the coal and oil we use today.

A benefit of identifying any pine is their evergreen nature.

Various evergreen Pine needles 

This makes them easy to identify year-round unlike a deciduous tree that surrenders its leaves in late Autumn through Winter and into early Spring.

  • The needles of any pine can be infused into a tea but avoid Yews, a common garden shrub. The Yew berries and especially their seeds are toxic.
  • The inner bark layers also known as the cambrium and Phloem layers can be dried and ground into a flour.
  • The tender, new shoots can be made into a candy. (Quick tip: Boil the shoots for 2 to 3 minutes and toss in granulated sugar or one of your maple sugars that you’ve made and serve.)

Juniper berries on the tree

 

  • Juniper berries can be infused into a tea after being crushed and served hot or cold. You may notice something familiar about the taste.  Juniper berries define the flavor notes used to make gin.

Maples

Maple leaves

Maple bark

  • The young, tender and emerging leaves of maples can be incorporated into a green salad.

Emerging Maple leaf

  • The sap of maples is boiled to create maple syrup. The sugar maple is best.  Be forewarned.  It takes 30 to 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup.  We’ll cover the process later in this article.
  • Other trees like boxelder, walnut and chestnuts also produce a sweet sap that can be boiled down to a syrup. When the boiling sap reaches 220 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s done.  If you continue boiling to 230 degrees, you will create sugar.  The sap can also serve as a water substitute when water is scarce.

Honey Locust

These trees are typically very tall, and while the young, green pods are edible in the Spring they can be hard to harvest due to the tree’s height.  Some honey locust trees also have large and very sharp thorns so be careful out there.

  • The green immature seed pods of the Honey Locust can be boiled and eaten like a large, flat green bean.

Sumac

Red Sumac berries on the tree

Make sure you know your sumacs.  Poison sumacs are toxic and have white berries.

  • Red sumac berries are edible and a vivid red and can be infused to make a tea or juice.

Red Sumac berries

  • The dried, red berries are also crushed and used as a seasoning in many parts of the Middle-East and Africa.

Crushing Sumac berries

Red sumac berries are often used as a rub on meats and fish.

Black Walnut

Black Walnuts

Black Walnut bark

The nuts of the black walnut are a little smaller than a tennis ball.  The nuts are surrounded by a green husk.  Crushing and rolling the green nut under your shoe or boot will typically remove the green husk.  The walnuts are then soaked in two changes of water for 20 minutes each time.

  • The nuts can be eaten raw or roasted but be careful, the nuts can explode due to trapped moisture when exposed to heat. They’re also hard to crack but two stones, a hammer or a vise will do the job.
  • The roasted nuts can also be ground into a flour.
  • The sap can be boiled down to a syrup or sugar the same as maple sap.

Gingko

Gingko leaves

The gingko is the oldest deciduous tree on Earth.

  • The leaves of the gingko tree can be infused to make a refreshing and healthy tea. The leaves are usually crushed before the infusion or hot-water soak.

White Willow

White Willow Exterior Bark

Like all willows, the white willow prefers damp, soggy soil often next to a river, lake or pond.

  • The tender and thin, inner bark of the white willow known as the cambrium layer makes a refreshing tea that also has remarkable medicinal properties. There is a chemical compound called “Salacin” in the cambrium layer.  Salacin is the primary, active ingredient in aspirin making the inner cambrium layer of white willow bark a powerful pain reliever and fever reducer.

Slippery Elm

Slippery Elm Exterior bark & leaf

Another source for a tea with pain relieving properties.

  • The inner bark of the slippery elm can be infused into a refreshing tea.
  • This thin, inner cambrium layer can also be dried and ground into a flour.

Chestnut

Be careful here and make sure you’re harvesting from a chestnut tree and not a horse chestnut tree.  Horse chestnuts are toxic.  This is another example of why a field guide is a good idea when wild foraging.

  • The nuts can be eaten raw or roasted.
  • The roasted nuts can also be ground into a flour.
  • The sap can also be boiled down to a syrup, sugar or consumed as a water substitute.

Oaks

Various Oak leaves

Burr Oak Acorns

There are a wide variety of oak trees but make sure you can identify a poison oak.  The leaves are toxic and can cause a rash similar to poison ivy.  The primary food source from any oak are the nuts.  Some trees like the burr oak and the white oak have nuts that are naturally sweet and can be eaten raw.  Most oaks have very bitter nuts due to high concentrations of tannic acid.  These tannins can be leached out of the nuts by soaking in water for 30 minutes with one change of water and another 30-minute soak.  The nuts can then be eaten raw or roasted as well.

  • The nuts can be eaten raw or roasted but most require a soak in water.
  • The roasted nuts can be made into a flour.
  • Young, emerging oak leaves can be tossed into a salad.

Baby Oak leaves

Emerging oak leaves usually have a vibrant red color.  They can also be eaten raw for a quick snack on the trail.

Mulberries

Mulberry leaves

There are essentially two types of mulberry trees.  The red mulberry and the white mulberry.  Both are edible.  The ripe fruit of the red mulberry is actually a deep purple.  Both mulberry trees bear fruits in abundance.  The other great thing about mulberry trees is that they bear fruit for 4 to 6 weeks starting in early summer before other berry bushes and plants begin to ripen.

  • The berries can be eaten right off the tree; pressed into a juice, heated with sugar to make a syrup or processed with sugar and pectin to make a jelly or preserves.

Mulberries on the tree

  • Newly emerging shoots of stems and leaves can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable.

Crabapples

Crabapple leaves

Harvested Crabapples

You’d be surprised how often crabapples show up in the wild.  The crabapples show up in a variety of sizes and colors, but all are edible and are easy to harvest given the low average height of most crabapple trees.  There are even some crabapples of sufficient size to make a crabapple pie.

  • Eaten raw off the tree if of sufficient size and ripeness.
  • Squeezed and pressed into crabapple cider.
  • Crushed into crabapple jelly or jam.
  • Candied in boiling syrup. (Quick tip: 3 cups of water, 1 cup of sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks, few drops of red food-coloring and enough crabapples to come to the top of the water.  Bring to a gentle boil for 5 minutes.  Cool and serve or can and process with a hot-water bath.)

Candied Crabapples in syrup

Wild Plum

Another surprising find in the wild.  Wild plums often grow in dense groves making a bountiful harvest easy.  They’re smaller than store-bought plums but when ripe have a burst of plum flavor.

  • Eaten raw off the tree.
  • Pitted and dried into prunes in a dehydrator or in the sun.
  • Baked in a plum pie.
  • Squeezed and pressed for plum juice.
  • Juice can be boiled with sugar for a plum syrup or boiled with additional sugar, pitted plums and pectin to make plum jelly or preserves.

Preparation Foundations

These are basic recipes that can be applied to a wide range of fruits, nuts, bark and leaves.  Proportions and temperatures generally apply to all tree harvests.

Teas or infusions

Sumac Berry Tea

 This preparation is simplicity in itself.  It’s usually done in a cup, but you can use a teapot.

  1. The first step is to bring the appropriate amount of water to a boil to fill the cup or teapot.
  2. The next step is to place your leaves or the thin, inner cambrium layer of bark into the cup. You can also use Juniper berries, red sumac berries or pine needles.  Here’s an example of how red sumac berries are soaked and infused in very hot water:

    Sumac berries infusing 

  3. Anything that goes into the cup or tea pot should be gently crushed first in a mortar and pestle or crushed on a cutting board using the flat end of a knife to smash the ingredient against the board.
  4. The tree ingredient is dropped into the cup or pot and the boiling water is poured over.
  5. Allow the infusion to steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
  6. Strain through a fine mesh strainer or a coffee filter and sweeten with honey or maple syrup if you like. The infused tea can be enjoyed hot or cold.

Jams, Jellies and Preserves

Mulberry Preserves

Crabapple Jam

Jams and jellies are simple to make but there are some critical steps and ingredients that need to come together.  On a basic level, any jam, jelly or preserve consists of either fruit juice or juice with pressed fruit with fruit pieces intact that are added to sugar and brought to a certain temperature.  Sometimes Pectin is added either in powder form or a gel form to add body and viscosity to the jam, jelly or preserve.

Here’s the basic ingredients and proportions that apply to almost all jams, jellies and preserves with directions.

FOUNDATION INGREDIENTS: 

  • 2 ½ cups of juice or juice with bits of fruit
  • 2 ½ cups of granulated white sugar
  • 4 ounces of pectin either liquid or powder

BASIC DIRECTIONS:

  1. Add the pectin to the juice in a saucepan and bring the juice to a gentle boil while stirring constantly.
  2. After 5 minutes add the sugar and continue to stir constantly for 10 minutes. Make sure it’s a gentle boil that doesn’t splash.  Hot liquids with sugar added are extremely hot and can cause severe burns.
  3. Either let cool and serve or pour into canning jars and process while following standard hot-water bath canning instructions.

Flours and nut butters

Flours

Two food resources from a tree can allow you to improvise a flour.  One is the dried inner layers of bark known as the cambrium and phloem layers.  A second is the use of shelled nuts that have been roasted.  In both instances, the bark or the nuts should be baked or roasted in an oven or heated in a cast iron frying pan over hot coals.  The bark is then chopped into pieces and the nuts crushed into small chunks.

Acorns Harvested

To make the flour you can either use a hand-cranked or electric flour mill; a food processor, a mortar and pestle, or in the case of a survival situation -two flat stones rubbed one over the other with the bark pieces or nut chunks in between.  The flour should be screened through a strainer to separate remaining bark pieces or nut chunks which can be reground.

In a survival situation you probably won’t have kitchen equipment like a strainer, but the nut chunks can be left in the flour: the bark pieces should be separated and removed as much as possible.

Nut Butters

To make a nut butter, roast the nuts briefly allowing some of the natural oils to remain.  You can add a touch of vegetable oil to a food processor to turn the nuts into a butter the consistency of peanut butter.  Do this oil addition a few drops at a time and allow the processor to run constantly while you work.  You can blend different nuts or even add store-bought peanuts to the mix to create a hybrid nut butter.

Pancakes

When we think of any flour we usually think of bread.  Unfortunately, most wild flours whether made from bark or nuts don’t make the best bread.  This is because these flours lack gluten which is required to allow a bread to rise.  If you are looking for a gluten free bread, this type of flour might be right for you but any loaf will be very heavy and dense.

On the other hand, flours made from bark and nuts can make a decent pancake with the addition of some eggs and baking powder and baking soda.  Milk or water are also added.  In a survival situation flour and water will still deliver a decent pancake but it will be very thin and have a dense consistency and maybe even a cracker like quality similar to Matzoh bread.  Here’s the basic pancake recipe:

FOUNDATION INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup of nut or bark flour
  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup of canola or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 cups milk

BASIC RECIPE:

  1. Blend the wet ingredients in a mixing bowl
  2. Blend the dry ingredients and add to the wet ingredients
  3. Mix the ingredients until you have a pancake batter consistency
  4. Heat a cast iron skillet and add and wipe around a splash of oil
  5. Pour the batter into the skillet
  6. When bubbles form on the top of the pancake, flip it and finish until the underside has browned.
  7. Serve with honey, syrup or jam or jelly.

Syrups and Sugars

The classic syrup is made from Maple sap, but as we’ve mentioned other trees like walnut, chestnut and boxelder produce copious amounts of sap that can also be used.  This recipe applies to all types of sap.  Whether you end up with a syrup or a sugar depends on the how long you boil the sap to reduce it.

Remember as well that it takes anywhere from 30 to 40 gallons of sap to produce one-gallon of syrup.  However, you probably don’t need a gallon of syrup for anything and even one or two buckets of syrup will give you enough for quite a few meals and recipes.

Syrup and Sugar 101

You’ll need a very tall, 5 to 10-gallon metal pot to make syrup and sugar.  You’ll also need a very long stirring paddle.  You can improvise one out of a 3-foot furring strip made from untreated wood or a tree branch.  Here’s the basic approach:

  1. Add the sap to the pot and fire up the heat source. It can be on a stove, but it’s best done on a grate over a wood fire outside.  The evaporating sap is sticky and can and will coat everything in the surrounding environment including you.
  2. As the sap comes to a boil, begin stirring and gently stir constantly although you can take some breaks at the beginning of the process. As the sap continues to reduce, begin stirring constantly.  For syrup you want to bring the sap to 220 degrees Fahrenheit.  It will slowly start to darken to shades of beige and amber.
  3. Pull the stir stick out from time to time to assess consistency.
  4. When you are satisfied with the color and consistency remove the pot from the fire and pour into jars or bottles that have been sterilized and cap.
    From Syrup to Sugar

    Maple Sugar Crystals

  5. To make sugar, take some of the syrup and return to the fire in the pot until it darkens in color and thickens in consistency. The target temperature for sugar is 230 degrees Fahrenheit.
  6. Pour it into a lightly buttered baking pan and let cool and harden. You’ll have crystallized sugar with the consistency of hard candy.
  7. Pulverize the hardened sugar to make a granulated sugar if you like.

    Maple Snow Candy Pour

    Maple Snow Candy

  8. You could also pour the sugar syrup onto snow to make snow candy that will have the same hardened consistency.

Juices and ciders

Juices and ciders are also simple to make.  All you need to do is crush the fruit and strain it to extract the juice.  Forcing the bits of fruit through a sieve or strainer will extract more juice.  You could also use a blender to pulverize the fruit before straining.  Bottle the juice and process with the hot-water batch method or refrigerate and drink within one week.

Crabapples straining

Crabapples in the blender

Crabapple Cider Strained

Seasonings

Herbs tend to demonstrate more versatility as a seasoning, but trees can offer some surprises.  One excellent example are red sumac berries.  This is the classic Middle-Eastern spice that’s also popular in Africa especially in Morocco and Algeria.

Red Sumac Berries on the tree

The berries grow in clusters at the top of red sumac trees.  Pick them in late summer through fall when they are bright red.  It’s best to pick them during a dry spell because any rainfall will dilute the flavor.

Red Sumac Berries crushing

The berries are carefully removed from the cluster and dried in the sun or a dehydrator.  They’re then crushed in a mortar and pestle and either used as a standard seasoning on fish or meats or used as a rub or in a marinade.

There’s More! 

We’ve only scratched the surface here.  There are numerous other trees across continents that offer nutritional benefits and have provided people and cultures with a valuable addition to their diets.  The point is simple.  When foraging take your eyes from the ground and keep an eye on the trees.  Who knows, the trees may be keeping an eye on you.

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