The next time you are setting up tent poles and emptying out your backpack remember that you are surrounded by wild foods. It is only our ignorance that separates us from that food. Now, we aren’t talking about a bounty that should be harvested and taken back home, but wild edibles that could be enjoyed by the campfire or during a camping survival situation.
These wild edibles show up in several different places and it’s important that you understand what type of land area you are in. Typically wild edibles will be different in areas near water versus the side of a mountain. But some species are tough and tend to show up everywhere.
Spending time in the woods is not only about the relaxation and separation from our constructed reality. It should also be about better understanding the woods around us. You should strive to become familiar with all the plants and creatures that live in these areas. This is merely one step in the journey to becoming a better woodsman.
At the very least, it is important to get to know the foods in your area as they could prove to be the only food available to you in a scenario where you find yourself lost or injured on the trail.
It’s like they say in litigation: Ignorance is no defense.
Starvation, dehydration, and exposure don’t give much leeway either!
As you can imagine there is a tremendous amount of food that grows around water. This is due to the fact that water is required to sustain life.
Case in point: human civilization.
Humans have always settled around water sources. That was not by accident. We need water to drink, to wash and to stay cool.
Plants have a few goals in their life. One is to survive. The other is to find ways to spread their seeds across the land. This can be done by attaching, blowing or even a quick journey through the digestive system. Animals are incredible vehicles for that. Since animals also frequent water you find an abundance of species and many are edible near the water.
The wonderful thing about the cattail or bulrush is that all parts of the plant are edible. The tuber or root is very starchy and often takes on the boggy flavor of the water it’s in. Roasted up they can become much tastier.
The shoot is delicious and tastes best in the spring when they are young shoots. They are surprisingly juicy and have lots of moisture inside them for hydration. Even the brown portion at the top of the plant can be roasted and eaten.
Side note: the dried-out heads are also great tinder.
When you are fly fishing for carp one of the best flies to tie is a mulberry imitation Of all the bugs and terrestrials you can tie up for this big goldens the mulberry works great at the right time of year. A few wraps of that dark mulberry colored chenille on a hook and you can really get into some huge carp on the fly rod. These trees tend to grow around water and if you can find them you will get your shot at their delicious little fruits. They come to bear around late spring early summer.
I have heard rumors that the under ripe mulberry can be mildly psychoactive. They can also give you a stomach ache but if you are bored……
This plant is also called spotted touch me not and when they shed their interesting flowers they will leave behind pods that are filled with edible seeds. They are pretty tasty and have a nutty flavor. When you touch the small pods, they explode sending the seeds everywhere so keep this in mind when harvesting.
Jewelweed is also a godsend when it comes to dealing with the itching resin of poison ivy. If you develop that uncomfortable, itchy rash simply mash up some touch me not into a poultice and apply it for relief.
Depending on the type of water you are near you could have the opportunity to harvest some protein. I am talking about bivalves like freshwater clams and mussels. I consider these wild edibles, though they may not fall into the traditional category of plants these guys are just as easy to harvest and the nutritional payback is better than any plant you can get your hands on.
Be sure to cook them thoroughly as they can cause serious foodborne illness if eaten raw or undercooked.
Though you might think forests would have a bounty of wild edibles I have spent time in some forests, particularly pine forests, in the highlands that can feel pretty barren. You don’t see lots of ground cover and the dense layer of pine needles sap much of the life out of the forest floor. Many forests will feature things like wild mushrooms that take a next level eye and skill to find.
Unlike waste areas and areas near water, forests won’t be as plentiful with ready to eat foods. Though with a little study and some practice you will be able to harvest some food in the forest as well.
Sulphur Shelf (Chicken of the Woods)
This is one of the only mushrooms I would give advice on for foraging because its presentation is so distinct that it’s hard to mix up. There are no gills on this mushroom and it usually grows off hardwoods. You will find it easily and find it delicious as well. Look for this guy in the fall or after lots of rain in the summer.
Never eat mushrooms that you are unsure about. They can ruin your trip or end your life. Also, inspect mushrooms as it’s not uncommon for them to grow fungus on them or even inside! Eat only the freshest mushrooms you can find.
They look like regular grapes but smaller. These guys are tangy and don’t have the same super sweet profile you may be used to. They are filled with sugars and fiber. You can eat the leaves as well. Keep an eye out for these vining plants. I have found them on hillsides and on the tops of mountains.
This plant is easily found by its sunny yellow flowers. They look like wild sunflowers and the benefit in finding them is that they are prolific. If you find one you have found a bunch. The root of the sunchoke, otherwise known as the Jerusalem artichoke, is big and starchy. It’s almost like a potato. While it can cause some stomach upset, eating them with other foods helps this.
It’s not uncommon for these to show up on swanky, acclaimed restaurant menus.
These vast areas of disturbed grounds make for some of the best foraging for greens throughout the seasons. They hold the wild edibles that we step over each day. The wild edibles we mow each week and the ones we have even labeled with the venomous title of WEEDS. These open waste areas may seem like something to dash across on your path to thickets and forests but trust me there is plenty to eat right under your feet.
The leaves of the dandelion are sold in markets all over the nation. People make bread and wine from them. The whole plant is edible and the root is sometimes used in medicinal applications. This humble weed, that meets its end at the dull edge of our lawnmowers blade, has a lot to offer.
More mower fodder. The plantain looks like nature’s wild spinach. The plant is growing in your yard right now. Trust me. When it gets old the big leaves get stringy. Still edible but not as good as those tender, young leaves. Sauté them up just like spinach or eat them raw. Plantain is a great vitamin source.
Were you aware that these popular flowers are edible? They can be confused with other similar looking plants so I would only recommend eating them when they have their beautiful purple blooms. They can also be used to flavor tea as well. Look for the 5 petals. There are lots of purple flowers out there but your violet will have 5 petals.
These guys are everywhere, if you catch them at the right time you will have a bounty. You can also make blackberry tea with the leaves which is tasty and good for you as well. Of course, you want to find these in the early to mid-summer when they are full of black fruits that taste great. You will be competing for these with the local wildlife so if you find them grab them quick!
The blackberry is nestled in tall barbed thickets so be careful when you are harvesting them.
We have covered three distinct land areas. These areas are the most common locations for campers to settle in. There are tons more wild edibles out there but this is an impressive list for the beginner looking to put something new on the menu or preparing to have food in tough times.
In part 2 of our woodsman course, we are going to look at poisonous plants and plants to avoid. There are a lot of misconceptions about some plants out there and we will take a similar look at various land areas and how to avoid these nuisance plants.
When we enter the wild we are at risk. With knowledge, we can mitigate that risk.