We always assume that the best wild foraging will be far off in distant forests and fields. But if you look around you’ll find very edible wild plants growing in back yards, empty lots and next to sidewalks in the city.
Times can get desperate and other times just relaxing. Either way, it’s fun and probably a good idea to pay a little more attention to some of the wild, edible plants that surround us in many cities and suburbs.
The common assumption is that only a truly wild place will afford us a natural bounty of healthy, wild foods. Plants don’t think that way. If there’s soil, water and sun they’ll find a way to survive and thrive. This is particularly true with plants that we often refer to as weeds. Some of these weeds are the most nutritious, wild plants you can find. Botanists refer to them as indigenous plants or plants that grow and thrive naturally and commonly in certain areas. Stop thinking “weeds” and start thinking good food.
Just because it’s green and growing doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat. For the record, close to 90% of plants are toxic to varying degrees. Most won’t kill you but depending on your age and health -some can. The telegram is that you have to know what you’re harvesting with certainty. If in doubt, walk away or ask someone who knows.
Like everything, there are exceptions to some of these rules, but they generally apply to plants you should avoid.
- Milky or discolored sap emerging from leaves, stems or roots (although Milkweed pods are an exception)
- Spines, fine hairs, or thorns on both stems and leaves (Stinging nettle and most wild-berry bushes are also exceptions)
- Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods (domesticated, garden variety beans are an obvious exception)
- Bitter or soapy taste
- Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley-like foliage
- “Almond” scent in the woody parts and leaves (This is a sign of cyanide in the plant although apple seeds actually have a trace amount of cyanide)
- Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black colored spurs
- Three-leaved growth pattern (The 3-leaf appearance of clover is a notable exception to this rule)
You can also do a search on the Internet or buy an Audubon Field Guide to double-check. Once you become familiar with many of these plants the task will be easier.
And while we’re at it… many city-dwellers walk their dogs along parkways and sidewalks in the city. Most lift a leg on a fire-hydrant or a tree, but you never know. Make sure you rinse any wild-foraged plants growing on the ground in plenty of water and maybe add a little vinegar as a natural antiseptic for your wild harvests before eating. Food for thought.
There is also a standard caution that you should avoid harvesting from areas in close proximity to a street or areas that have been treated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Salt on the street from winter; car exhaust and all of the bad stuff in most lawn chemicals are not good to eat. That may be hard to do in some parts of the city, but open parks, fields, empty lots and areas closer to a home or apartment rather than the street should give you plenty of options. With that in mind, let’s start with some of the easy ones.
If you don’t know what a dandelion plant looks like you’re in luck. For many of us dandelions are a pain-in-the-neck. The curious thing about dandelions is that many parts are not only edible and delicious, but the nutrient profile for dandelions is on a par with kale and spinach. You can even find dandelion greens in some produce sections at grocery stores these days. The question is: why buy them when you can find them free?
Dandelions can be bitter.
The best time to harvest any part of a dandelion is before the flower or seed stalk emerges. Once that happens, the leaves start to become bitter. The longer the flower stalk is on the plant, the more bitter the leaves become. You can easily fix this by boiling the leaves or crowns in water for 2-minutes and then shocking them in ice-water. This will remove most of the bitterness.
If you want the leaves to be firm and fresh for a salad, soak them in a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water with a dissolved teaspoon of salt for 5 minutes and then rinse.
Edible parts of dandelion:
- The leaves are your first choice. The young, tender leaves of dandelions when they first emerge are fresh and vibrant with a natural, leafy taste and are great in salads, soups or as greens on a sandwich. Pinch off the stem and rinse them well in water before eating.
- Another option is the crown. This is the cluster at the base of the leaves where the leaves join the top of the root. You cut the dandelion at the root top and trim the leaves to about 1/2 -inch to one-inch from the tops. Rinse them well in water and a bit or vinegar and then rinse them again under running water. The base of the plant accumulates a lot of dust, dirt and stuff so get it out of there. Once rinsed, boil for a minute in water and shock in ice-water and drain. You can eat them plain or in a salad or sauté them in oil and garlic briefly.
- The flowers. The yellow flower petals can be pulled off of the flower top and tossed onto a salad, on a soup or dried to make a tea. Our pioneer ancestors used this tea to make dandelion wine. That’s up to you.
- The roots and stems. Not worth the trouble unless all you have to eat is dandelions. The Internet has some info on some of the obscure things you can do with these dandelion parts if you’re so inclined, and the stems have that milky sap that definitely does not taste that good.
2. Purslane or Portulaca
This should be number one but it’s not as easy to identify as a Dandelion. Purslane is a common and highly invasive plant. It also tastes great, but a touch sour and has a nutritional profile that is extensive. Here’s the telegram on Purslane and some thought on how to eat it based on a 3-ounce serving:
- More Omege-3 fatty acids than any other plant on Earth.
- Vitamins A, B, C and six times more Vitamin E than spinach.
- 7 times the amount of beta carotene in carrots.
- Anti-mutagenic or cancer fighting properties
- Mild diuretic activity for blood pressure management
All of these facts and statistics have been verified by legitimate and credible clinical studies. It’s a wonder they’re not sold in grocery stores in the United States. Many other countries around the world sell them year-round. There is also some historical evidence like this quote from Henry David Thoreau:
“I have made a satisfactory dinner…simply off a dish of purslane…which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted…. Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries but for want of luxuries.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Toss a cup of washed and chopped purslane into a chopped green salad and top it with a vinaigrette of a ½ cup of oil, a cup of vinegar and a tablespoon of water with about a half-teaspoon of salt and a half-teaspoon of cracked black-pepper.
Bring 4 cups of chicken broth to a boil and add a cup of noodles and when the noodles are done add a cup of chopped purslane leaves and stems for 2 minutes.
Bacon fried purslane
Fry 6 strips of bacon until crisp and then drain on paper towels. In the reserved drippings toss 2 cups of purslane leaves and stems. Chop the bacon and top the purslane with the bacon bits.
No, this is not that big banana you sometimes see at the grocery store. Plantain is a common plant with small but fairly broad green leaves and a distinguishing stalk of small, green seeds rising from the center of the plant on a thin, green stem. The leaves tend to be rounded in an oblong way from one to 2 inches in length. Plantain is another city plant that is often trodden underfoot in parkways, yards, empty lots and just about anywhere else dirt and water shows up.
But Plantain also has a secret.
Like dandelions, plantain leaves start to turn bitter once the seed stalk begins to emerge. The same solution is easy with a quick drop into boiling water for 2 minutes followed by a shock in ice-water. You can also do the 50/50 vinegar and cold-water rinse with a teaspoon of salt for 5 minutes if you want to use the leaves in a salad.
Eat them like you would eat spinach
Plantain leaves are also very high in micronutrients similar to spinach and can be eaten raw, cooked or any other way you would use spinach leaves.
This one might catch you by surprise, but lichens are good to eat and are great in soups. In Japan and other parts of Asia they are a standard ingredient in many dishes. They are also high in micronutrients and other nutrients and are real easy to find if you know where to look.
Unlike money, most lichens grow on trees. A lichen is actually a hybrid form of algae and a fungus and it has a root end and sometimes some bark that needs to be removed. This is more easily done after the lichens have been boiled for 5 minutes in water. You then chop the softened and de-rooted lichen and add to the soup of your choice or serve it as a chopped garnish on anything you like.
The best lichens to harvest are a bluish-green to dark green color. Avoid lichens that are yellow, orange or red. They are toxic.
Look for cattails growing on the edges of ponds, creeks, in ditches or the shallows of rivers. Every part of the cattail plant is edible at varying times of the year.
There is also a unique caution related to cattails. Any cattail plant will survive in any kind of water. This includes water polluted by sewage, fertilizers, chemical runoff or the other fun stuff we find in the city. Carefully, soak wash and disinfect any part of a cattail in the 50/50 vinegar solution for 5 minutes and then rinse again thoroughly under cold running water. If you know the water is possibly polluted, boil any parts you intend to eat for 5 minutes if that part of the plant has been immersed in the water.
Cattail roots can be harvested year-round and when peeled they look like a raw, French fry and can be eaten boiled, fried or sautéed. They can be eaten raw after they are peeled and washed and if they come from a clean water source, but they are very fibrous. It’s similar to eating a slice of potato wrapped in dental floss. That’s why cooking them in some way is recommended.
Immature Cattail flower stalks
The thing we most commonly identify with cattails is the tall, brown flower stalk that emerges from the top, center of the plant. When the flower stalk is brown, it’s not edible. However, when the flower stalk first emerges in the Spring it’s a tender, yellowish-green color. At this time the flowerhead can be harvested and either steamed or boiled, and if clean -eaten raw after careful washing. Many people eat this part of the cattail like an ear of corn and chew down the row of the flowerhead.
Young Cattail shoots
Another Spring favorite are the early parts of the cattail as they grow and emerge. The tender shoots where the stalks intersect are delicate and can also be cut up, boiled or steamed or eater raw.
Be particularly careful if you are tempted to eat the shoots raw. Even a pristine water-source in the wild will have its share of microbes swimming around in the water and they will often reside in the space between the leaves of a cattail shoot.
Sanitize them in vinegar and rinse well in cold, fresh water before eating unless you cook them.
Chickweed is another forgotten plant that we trample underfoot and often miss. It is a small plant with light, delicate leaves that come to a point and often show small, white flowers in mid-summer. Chickweed is high in many nutrients and can be eaten raw or cooked in a soup or as a garnish for a dish.
Burdock is easy to recognize by it burrs. The Burdock plant is sometimes referred to as “Cockle Burr.” An interesting side note is that the burrs on the Burdock plant were the inspiration for the invention of Velcro. If you’ve ever had one caught in your hair, you’ll understand why.
It’s also recognized by it leaves. They are sometimes referred to as “Elephant Ears.” The mature leaves can be used to wrap meats, fish or vegetables and then steamed in a natural, Burdock leaf package.
While the burrs define the plant, they are not edible. Don’t even think about it. If you think a cockle burr is a pain to get out of your hair, you sure don’t want to think about swallowing one. It’s also interesting to note that the dried, fibrous stalks of burdock were used by the Romans to braid their ropes. As you might suspect, you shouldn’t eat the stalks either.
The favorite part of the plant to eat are the young, tender leaves. In Japan they’re considered a delicacy and the leaves are harvested when the plant is first emerging. The leaves are smaller, and the flowers and burrs have not yet bloomed. In fact, the leaves will start to become bitter as the plant matures and goes to seed much like dandelions and plantains, so harvest early in the year.
Burdock is another nutritional powerhouse with numerous vitamins including vitamin-K (a natural blood-thinner). It also is a great source of folate, minerals and is also a very good source of fiber.
Burdock cooking suggestions
Burdock is served in soups, salads and as a side-dish. After the tender, young leaves are washed they can be torn into pieces for a salad, cut into strips as an addition to a soup, or the whole leaves can be boiled or sautéed in oil or butter and served on the side.
There are many varieties of clover in various sizes and even the clover flowers are edible in addition to the stems and leaves. They’re easy to spot due to their iconic, 3-leaf shape or 4-leaves if you’re lucky. They also seem to be another exception to the “Don’t eat 3-leaved plants rule,” but those actually aren’t individual leaves. They’re referred to as “lobes” and form one part of the true clover leaf.
Clover is another great source of vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients and once again shows up on the table in salads, soups and as a garnish for other dishes. The flowers are often dried and used to make an herbal tea and the fresh flowers make a great garnish for any meal.
Serving suggestions for clover
Like all edible, wild plants make sure you rinse the clover thoroughly in cold-water and either eat raw in a mixed salad, as a leafy topping for a sandwich, as an accent for soups or chopped and sprinkled on top of anything. They have a very mild, leafy taste and the flowers are actually a bit sweet.
9. There’s more
This list of edible wild plants you can find in the city is far from complete. However, these are some of the most common plants and some of the easiest to identify and prepare.
As your urban and suburban wild foraging continues you’ll probably learn about other edible foods growing along the streets and boulevards and parks where you live. Take note and take some time to learn more about them and see how much fun it can be to add some new, wild foods to your menu. You never know, you may really need to know this stuff in the future.