Part of self reliance and protecting your family’s food security is knowing how to use the wild things around you. Did you know that there are plenty of wild things to eat in the spring? Let’s talk about identifying, foraging, and using these helpful wild food sources today!
Why would you want to forage?
There are lots of reasons why you would want to forage for free food. For one, wild food has flavors and nutrients that you won’t find in the supermarket. There are several wild plants (AKA weeds) that have a nutrient content that makes traditional veggies pale in comparison.
Reason two, foraging wild food helps your cultivated vegetables go farther. You can add most of these wild foods to lettuce or spinach to make a salad. They will make your salads have more interesting flavor and more nutrients.
If you are concerned about food shortages, the next reason should be pretty obvious. Wild food is free food. You don’t have to go to the supermarket and spend lots of your hard-earned money on food. You can use wild food to substitute what you can’t buy.
Reason four, foraging is fun! Imagine going for a walk through the countryside, or through the forest, gathering food as you go along. It will help you get out into nature, get some sun, and get some exercise as well!
What can you forage in the spring?
There are lots of things you can forage in the spring. This will, of course, depend on your climate. Some of these things may be available in very early spring, or up to as late as June. So be sure to keep an eye out for these!
I hope you all can identify dandelions! You can forage dandelion at any time of year, but in spring is best for the tender leaves and flowers. The leaves are a nice, bitter addition to a salad or can be sauteed. The flowers taste slightly of honey, and are good raw in a salad, or battered and fried. Dandelion flowers also make a wonderful jelly. The root can be roasted to make a beneficial coffee substitute, but that is best done in the fall. The flowers are so cheerful, I thoroughly enjoy foraging dandelion for the flower heads. My friend Annie at 15 Acre Homestead has a whole post on using dandelions.
Chicory is a tall, somewhat spindly plant with bright sky-blue flowers. The base somewhat resembles a dandelion, with a tall hairy stem that grows from that. Chicory leaves are similar to dandelion, in that they are bitter. They can be used in salads raw, but cooking reduces the bitterness of the leaves. Chicory root is also a beneficial coffee substitute, but like dandelion, is best dug in the fall.
Foraging burdock in the spring can be a bit of a challenge, as it can look like many other plants when it’s small. This edible, medicinal plant has soft, light green, heart-shaped leaves. They grow in clusters. In the spring, they typically have 2 leaves with a rosette in the middle. The plant smells slightly bitter. In summer and into fall, the plant will have huge leaves and sticky, purplish “burrs” growing from it. Burdock is quite bitter, but some may enjoy small pieces of leaves sparingly in a salad. As with the previous two plants, cooking removes some of the bitterness, and will make it more pleasant to eat. The root is also edible, and less bitter, although you want to peel off the outermost layer. Roots can be eaten raw, or roasted.
Yellow Dock (Curly Dock)
Dock is one of the first spring greens to appear. They grow in a basal rosette, with long stems leading to oblong, wavy leaves. At the base of the leaves, there is a thin sheath surrounding the stem. When you peel this back a little, it will feel slimy. The root is very long, and bright yellow. Leaves are best to eat when they are young and tender. They will be slightly bitter. Cooking the leaves will remove some of the bitterness. The stems are also edible, though you will probably want to cook them and peel off the outermost layer. The yellow roots are edible but intensely bitter, and are best used for medicinal purposes.
Wild violets typically have violet-purple flowers and toothed, heart-shaped leaves. The drooping flowers have 5 petals, and can sometimes be more pale. They grow especially well in partially wooded areas with some shade. Violets grow in small clumps, and usually get 4-6 inches tall. The leaves and flowers are both edible, and have a delicate floral flavor. They can be enjoyed raw or cooked. As with dandelions, violet flowers make a lovely jelly.
Pineapple Weed (False Chamomile)
Pineapple weed, also known as false chamomile, grows well in even dry conditions. It looks very similar to chamomile, without the flower petals. The buds are yellowish green. It is a low-growing plant, with feathery leaves. When you rub the plant between your fingers, it smells like pineapple. Pineapple weed makes a lovely iced tea, and I love foraging it for this. When hiking, you can pluck off the buds for a tasty snack. And the unripened buds make a delightful addition to a salad.
Common mallow is a very common weed, especially in dry areas. They will often grow where nothing else will. Mallow is a low spreading plant with large, nearly round leaves. Leaves have 5-7 lobes and veins radiating out from the stems. Mallow leaves are often almost perfectly round, with sometimes a small indention where the stem meets the leaf. In the summer, this plant will have green round buds, and white or pinkish flowers. The buds are what gives mallow its nickname, “cheeseweed”, as they look like wheels of cheese. The buds are my favorite part of mallow to go foraging for, although the leaves are good raw in a salad, or cooked like greens.
No, I’m not talking the banana-like fruit! Though those are, of course, edible, I’m talking about the weed. Plantain grows almost everywhere on the planet, and is typically considered medicinal. There are two types of plantain, broadleaf plantain and narrow leaf plantain.
Broadleaf plantain grows in a rosette, with broad rounded oval leaves. They stay very close to the ground. The leaves have stalks leading out from the rosette, and veins that run the length of the leaves. In the summer, the plant develops a tall stalk that has tiny seeds on it.
As the name suggests, narrow leaf plantain has long, narrow leaves that can be from 2-12 inches in length. Each leaf has 3-5 ribs that run the length of the leaf. In summertime, the plant will get a very long stalk from the center. This stalk will have a cylindrical flower head with tiny white or yellow stamens.
Plantain leaves are edible raw when young and tender. If they get too mature, they will be stringy, and are better cooked. The seeds are also edible, but don’t have much taste.
Years ago, when I was a child, my mom would take us “asparagus hunting”. Asparagus grew wild around here, alongside farmers’ ditches. I haven’t been able to find asparagus growing wild here in a long time, due to most farmers burning their ditches. But you might still be able to find some!
Wild asparagus is just like cultivated asparagus, it just grows without help from humans. In spring, if you’re lucky, you can find asparagus shoots popping up where the soil is loose and has enough water. They look exactly like the asparagus you get in the store, and are eaten the same way. I encourage you to go try to forage some wild asparagus!
Fiddlehead ferns are young Ostrich fern shoots. They are simply ferns that haven’t unfurled yet. Ferns like damp, moist areas, and grow prolifically in wooded areas. Fiddleheads have a very distinctive look – they actually look like the head of a fiddle! They don’t grow around me, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what they taste like. But most people describe them as tasting like a mix between spinach, asparagus, and broccoli. They shouldn’t be eaten raw. Fiddleheads are best boiled, then sauteed in butter.
Chickweed is a delicate little plant with a very subtle flavor. It is perfect for beginner foragers. This plant is very low-growing. The leaves are tiny and teardrop shaped, with even tinier white flowers scattered on it. Its flowers have 5 deeply-notched petals, which makes it look like it has 10 petals. Each stem has a single line of hairs running down it, like a “mohawk”. Its subtle flavor makes it an easy, nutritious addition to a salad, or can be sauteed.
Purple Dead Nettle
Purple dead nettle is a prolific little herb that loves to grow in gardens nearly everywhere. It pops up at the same time as henbit, and is often confused with it. However, purple dead nettle has tiny purple flowers, and the top leaves are purple. The leaves are heart-shaped and serrated, and it has a long stalk. You can learn more about purple dead nettle here.
Lambsquarters (Wild Spinach, Goosefoot)
Lambsquarters is a very prolific weed. The best way to identify lambsquarters is the fuzzy, powdery coating on the leaves. As one of its nicknames (goosefoot) suggests, the leaves resemble goose footprints. Lambsquarters are best to eat before the plant goes to seed in late summer. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. I even found a good recipe for lambsquarters pesto.
Ramps (Wild Leeks)
Unfortunately, ramps don’t grow near me. So I’ve never personally had them. They grow more in the Northeastern part of the U.S. Ramps have been nearly over-foraged, and are now under special restrictions. If you are lucky enough to find ramps, please don’t take the bulb! Each ramp has 2-3 broad, smooth leaves. The stems are usually burgundy-colored, fading to white down near the bulbs. It does have a poisonous look-a-like, Lily of the Valley, so be careful in your identification. If you break a ramp leaf and smell it, it will smell pretty strongly of onions or garlic.
Ramps can be eaten raw or cooked. They are delicious added to a salad, and can be used however you would use spring onions or scallions.
Cattails have tall stout stalks, long leaves, and are peppered with long, cigar-shaped brown heads. They are a marsh plant, typically growing in ditches and swamps. The young shoots are edible raw, or cooked. The roots are edible as well, but have better flavor in the fall. While still green, the catkins can be boiled like corn on the cob. Cattail pollen is plentiful, and can be used like flour to add lots of nutrients.
Clover grows wild in a lot of places. It is identified by the leaves and the white flowers (for white clover) or reddish-purple flowers (for red clover). The leaves are clustered in groups of three (except the rare lucky four-leaf clover!) on each stem. Each leaf is medium green, with a V or crescent shape of white on it. The leaves are a bit of an acquired taste, but can be eaten raw or cooked. The flowers are the more desirable part, with a very slight honey flavor, and they make a very nice, nutritious tea.
Stinging nettle is a wild powerhouse of nutrients. It usually grows in shady, moist places. It is a dark, rich green, with alternating leaves on the stalk. Leaves are jagged and heart-shaped, and have lots of hairs on them that will sting you. You will want to use gloves when foraging for stinging nettle, and the leaves should be cooked to remove the stinging hairs prior to consumption. However, when cooked, nettle is very similar to spinach, with even more nutrients.
Okay, this one may not be considered “wild”, but if you are foraging your own yard or the local park, you might just be able to find some hosta shoots to eat. You will only want to consume the young shoots, when they are still tightly furled. Hosta shoots are best fried.
Queen Anne’s Lace
Queen Anne’s Lace is also known as wild carrot. The stems have short, white hairs, and no purple spots. The leaves are also hairy underneath, fern-like, and smell a bit like parsley. The white umbrel of flowers typically has a single purplish spot in the center. Please be very cautious when foraging for Queen Anne’s Lace, as it has a very poisonous lookalike, the Poison Hemlock. The flower umbrel can be eaten raw, or battered and fried. The seeds add a nice flavor to soups and stews. And the root is eaten like a carrot.
Sow thistle looks a lot like dandelion, and can be used in most of the same ways. It is, however, less bitter than dandelion. Sow thistle is less prickly than dandelion, and it is more “stemmy”. Instead of having a jagged leaf continuously down the stem, sow thistle has several arrow-shaped leaves along the stem. Since sow thistle is less bitter, it makes an even better addition to a fresh salad than dandelion.
Milk thistle is a stout plant that grows up to 3 feet tall. The entire plant has spines on it. It is characterized by the light purple, spiny flower at the top of the stalks. Although it might be quite the “prickly” experience, milk thistle leaves, stems, and roots can be consumed raw or cooked. Stems can be soaked prior to cooking to remove the bitterness. Milk thistle shoots can be eaten like asparagus. The leaves are a good spinach substitute. And the seeds can be roasted for a nutritious coffee substitute.
Wood sorrel looks a lot like clover, but has tiny, 5-pointed yellow flowers. Each thin stem has 3 heart-shaped leaves, gathered together by the points of each heart. Wood sorrel has a pleasant yet sour taste, which is very nice in a fresh salad. Cooking this weed destroys the sour flavor, so it is best eaten raw. This plant is high in oxalic acid, however, so you should limit your quantities.
Lilac plants don’t necessarily grow wild, but you can forage flowers off the bushes. These bushes are big, sprawling plants, with beautiful light purple flowers in the spring. Lilac flowers are usually quite pleasant to eat, though some taste better than others. They make a nice addition to a fruit salad or green salad. And they are LOVELY in a jelly.
Elderberry is a large shrub that can get up to 12 feet tall. The bark is smooth and grayish-green, with bumps all down the branches. Leaves are opposite, growing on both sides of the branches, and have “sawtoothed” edges. The leaves are oblong, dark green, and somewhat shiny. There is typically 5-7 leaves on each stem. In the spring, the elderberry bush has large white clusters, also known as “umbrels”, of tiny, off-white flowers. The flowers have 5 petals and typically have 5 stamens coming out of them. The stamens are long and have a yellow top. I have a more detailed post about using elderflowers here.
I just love honeysuckles. When I had some growing on a trellis, I would sit and pick a few and just suck on them. Their sweet, delicate honey flavor was a real treat! Honeysuckles are a vining plant, with yellow and white trumpet-like blossoms. Honeysuckle bloosoms can be used to make a tea, or added to a salad.
Again, I’m sure I don’t have to help you identify roses, but wild roses do look slightly different. Wild roses don’t have the double and triple rows of petals like the ones you likely have in your yard. Rose petals make a good addition to a salad, a topping for a beautiful cake, or a main ingredient in rose petal jelly.
This is another plant that I am going to assume you know how to identify! The tall stalks with huge flower heads are almost unmistakable. While most people think of foraging for sunflowers when they are big and full of seeds, the young, unopened sunflower buds can be steamed and eaten like an artichoke in the spring.
What “rules” of foraging should we follow?
There are some foraging “rules” that you should follow. Please be a responsible forager!
- Be sure to ABSOLUTELY know what the plant is before you gather it to eat.
- Don’t forage endangered species.
- Don’t take more than what you need.
- Always ask for permission to forage on someone else’s property. Don’t trespass!
- Don’t take the root unless it’s a vital part of the food or medicine that you are wanting to make.
- Try to forage away from roads, etc. to avoid pollution on the plants.
- Use scissors to avoid damaging the other parts of the plant.
- Make sure you know which parts are edible, and when.
- Don’t take more than 1/2 of the plant, or 1/2 of the plants in any given area.
- If you pack it in, pack it out. Make sure you leave the area the same as you found it.
- Be aware that some plants are a primary source of food for honeybees, especially in the spring. Save some for the bees!
Are you going to do some foraging this spring?
Foraging is a wonderful outdoor activity, that might just score you some free food. As always, with any kind of foraging, it is super, SUPER important to get a positive identification of any plant that you are going to pick. Some plants, like poison hemlock, are poisonous even just to touch.
If you have a smart phone, I would suggest getting a good plant identification app. If you don’t have a smart phone, or just want to have anytime access to plant identification, get a good field guide book for your area.
I actually have two copies of this book, and I really enjoy it! I have one copy on the bookshelf, and one in our camp trailer. Click here to check it out.
Do you enjoy foraging? What wild foods have you gathered for your family?
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