Wild Edibles You Can Forage for in the Wilderness – And How to Identify Them

By Nick Oetken
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Wild Edibles You Can Forage for in the Wilderness – And How to Identify Them

Nick Oetken
 
A young woman is collecting berries in the forest
A young woman is collecting berries in the forest
 
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Foraging for wild edibles can seem intimidating at first, especially to those who have never had to do it. We no longer have the wealth of knowledge previously passed on from our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and there is a valid risk of misidentifying species that can cause serious illness.

However, you shouldn’t let this scare you away. There are so many benefits that come from honing this ancient skill. It can provide you and your family with nutritious free food that is void of chemical additives and pesticides while strengthing your relationship with nature. Not to mention, it is also a pertinent survival skill for avid outdoor enthusiasts and a truly sustainable way to bring food to the table.

When you decide to tackle this rewarding skill, it is important to understand the process and preparation that is needed both prior to foraging as well as while out in the field. Here we will provide you with some information to help you dive in and fill your plates.

There are many techniques, environmental factors, and research you will want to consider prior to your first time foraging. Here are some things to consider before you set out into the wilderness.

Field Guides

A field guide is essential for any forager, whether you are a novice or an expert. All memory is faulty and it shouldn’t be your only go-to, especially when foraging for multiple types of edible plants, fungus, or fruits.

Knowing how to identify and prepare safe and edible plants is one of the most essential life skills you can learn
Knowing how to identify and prepare safe and edible plants is one of the most essential life skills you can learn

You want to choose a guide that includes the exact type of edibles you are looking for. This should include side-by-side comparisons with their potentially poisonous look-alikes as well as identifying pictures to give you optimal confidence before you cut.

The perfect guide will also be specific to your region and what types of edible plants each season brings. It also doesn’t hurt to have a second comparison guide because descriptions can vary.

Learn to Use Multiple Senses

While identifying edible species relies heavily on visual characteristics, it is important to use all of your senses. Fruits like wild strawberries have a strong scent that can be smelled before you even spot them. Other plants or fungi can be strongly identified by texture – whether scratchy, smooth, or even rubbery. Having a better understanding of these other sensory aspects leads to a more rewarding and accurate hunt.

That being said, taste should always be left until last! And only used when you are extremely confident in your find.

Know Your Environment

Assessing and understanding the terrain you will be foraging in is equally as important. For example, if you are foraging for water plants it is best to have prior knowledge of the water source. If the water source is potentially contaminated then so is your food.

Also, you should never harvest near busy roads, golf courses, manicured parks, or farms as these lands are often overly treated with contaminates/pesticides to get the perfect look. This all seeps into the soil and can affect the grounds even past the boundary lines.

It can also be risky if you are not aware of boundary lines and wind up on private property. No one enjoys finding unknown people on their land, and you may end up in a hostile situation if you don’t plan properly.

Similarly, if hunting in conservation areas or national forests, you must do your research on what can and cannot be harvested. Game wardens are no joke and have the full backing of the police force. Remember that ignorance of the law is no excuse!

Respect the Environment

Whether you are brushing up on your survival skills or simply trying to live a more sustainable life through foraging, you know the importance of respecting the environment. Our forests are a delicate ecosystem that we should take all precautions to preserve so we can continue a symbiotic relationship. Here are a few tips on how to do that while foraging.

Don’t Overharvest!

Sustainability and conservation are all about using only what you need. If you overharvest, you run the risk of destroying your own nutrition but also that of other animals, insects, and plant life. So, how can you avoid this?

Only take the edible part of the plant, fungus, or fruit! If you take your wild edibles up by the root you are ensuring their destruction. Leaving a majority of the leaves, stems, or underground mycelium means it will be no time before it regenerates.

Don’t wipe out an area! If you take out the entirety of a specific area you are reducing its ability to reproduce.

Make sure to spread spores/seeds when possible for future growth! When you are harvesting, make sure to give back by spreading seeds/spores where you harvested. You can accomplish this by using netted bags when mushroom hunting or by spreading a portion of the seeds you don’t use.

Learn about the plant’s role in the ecosystem! By understanding this prior to harvest, you will have a better idea of how much you can take without disrupting the balance.

What Plants Are Edible and How to Identify Them

Now that you are armed with some of the pre-foraging prep knowledge, it is time to look at some of the most popular plants, mushrooms, and fruits that are heartily available throughout North America.

While there are hundreds of species that we can add, it is best to start off with a select few and add more to your repertoire as your skills increase.

 

Popular edible mushrooms include:

Morels

Hunting for Morels has become a sport throughout America and Canada due to their inability to be cultivated coupled with their delicate and buttery taste. Whether you fry them up, sauté them in butter, or add them to pasta, these delicious forest nuggets are one of the most delicious foraged mushrooms you can find!

When sautéed, buttered, and added to other meals, morels are one of the most delicious mushrooms you can find
When sautéed, buttered, and added to other meals, morels are one of the most delicious mushrooms you can find

Characteristics:
● Can be grey, black, or yellow in color
● Have sponge-like, cone-shaped caps marked with deep pits and ridges
● Hollow
● Cap attaches at the stem

Locations:
● Found in forests throughout the U.S and Canada
● Prominent in areas with dying trees
● Grow individually on the forest floor or base of trees
● Usually around elm, aspen, oak, and ash trees
● Enjoy southern-facing slopes

How to harvest: use a sharp blade to cut off slightly above the root, preserving the underground mycelium.

Poisonous look-alikes:
● False-Morel
– Lacks pits and ridges in cap
– Cap is “free-floating”
– Not hollow
– Reddish/purplish cap

Season: generally from early April to mid-June

Chanterelles

Chanterelles are another extremely popular mushroom, both for their chewy, velvety, earthy flavor as well as their predominance throughout American woodlands. They are great in soups and stir-fries and contain a variety of B complex vitamins.

Chanterelles are an excellent addition to soups and stir-fries
Chanterelles are an excellent addition to soups and stir-fries

Characteristics:
● Forked ridges on the underside
● Gills are not true due to their blunt edges
● Ridges run down the stem of the mushroom
● Yellow or orange in color
● Inside is a pale creamy white
● Sweet fruity aroma similar to apricot

Locations:
● Predominate in well-established forests
● Found around older hardwoods
● Grow independently on the forest floor
● Around the bottom of small hills

How to harvest: use a sharp blade to cut off slightly above the root, preserving the underground mycelium.

Poisonous look-alikes:
● Jack o’Lantern mushrooms
– Have true gills
– Ridges don’t fork or run down the stem
– Always grow on wood
– Usually grow in groups

Season: varies throughout the country but usually from late spring through fall.

Chicken of the Woods

These delicious mushrooms derived their name from their pronounced chicken-like flavor and are extremely popular and easy to identify. They are often used as healthy meat substitutes.

Have you ever wanted to try mushrooms that literally taste like chicken?
Have you ever wanted to try mushrooms that literally taste like chicken?

Characteristics:
● Bodies are fan-shaped and semicircular
● Usually bright yellow or bright orange
● Gill-less underside covered in tiny pores
● Thick and soft flesh when young, hardening with age

Location:
● Found exclusively in eastern North America
● Grow in clusters at the base of dying hardwoods

How to harvest: these are best harvested when young by using a sharp knife and cutting slightly above the base.

Poisonous look-alikes:
● No reasonable look-alikes. The closest comparison is the Jack o’Lantern but these are easily distinguished by their gills instead of pores.

Season: generally through summer and autumn.

 

Popular edible greens include:

Lamb’s Quarters

Often referred to as “wild spinach,” this delicious plant has long been considered a weed in some areas. However, its abundance and earthy flavor have earned it the respect it deserves among foragers. It is similar to chard in flavor and texture and can be eaten in a salad, sauteed, or steamed.

Lamb’s Quarters can be distinguished thanks to the white powdery coating you will notice on the green leaves
Lamb’s Quarters can be distinguished thanks to the white powdery coating you will notice on the green leaves

Characteristics:
● White powdery coating on leaves
● Leaves have diamond or teardrop shape
● Tiny green flowers that grow in clusters on spikes

Location:
● Common garden weed found throughout North America and Canada
● Found near streams, rivers, forest clearings, fields, and disturbed soils

How to harvest: cut the entire top while young and tender while never taking more than ⅔ its full height

Poisonous look-alikes:
● None – all similar plants are edible

Season: spring through summer.

Miner’s Lettuce

Miner’s Lettuce is a small succulent plant with an interesting part in American history. During the gold rush, many of the miners seeking their riches in the west ate it to ward off scurvy because of the high concentration of vitamin C.

Many miners in the American Gold Rush relied on Miner’s Lettuce to ward off scurvy
Many miners in the American Gold Rush relied on Miner’s Lettuce to ward off scurvy

Characteristics
● Light green in color
● Round, disc-like leaves
● Stem passes directly through the leaf
● White or pinkish flowers grow at top of the leaf when in bloom

Location:
● Found in coastal and mountain regions of the western U.S. and Canada, especially California
● Found in moist, shady areas near creeks or streams

How to harvest: pick the stem as close to the leaf as possible, preserving most of the stalk.

Poisonous look-alikes
● None

Season: winter through spring.

Wood Sorrell

Wood Sorrell is another common weed and shares a striking resemblance to shamrocks. This is a delicate small green with a mildly tart lemon flavor and is great when paired with chicken or fish or used as a raw garnish.

Wood Sorrell works well with chicken or fish
Wood Sorrell works well with chicken or fish

Characteristics:
● Seed pods bend sharply upward on their stalks
● Stalks bend at a 90-degree angle from the main stalk
● Yellow flowers with five petals

Location:
● Grows in moist, shaded areas in most parts of the U.S. and Canada
● It is a common part of forest undergrowth

How to harvest: cut off maturing flowers and outer more mature leaves, leaving the inner leaves and stalks.

Poisonous look-alikes:
● None

Season: early spring through the end of fall in temperate climates.

 

Popular edible fruits include:

Brambles (Raspberries and Blackberries)

Raspberries and blackberries are both commonly referred to as “brambles”
Raspberries and blackberries are both commonly referred to as “brambles”

“Bramble” is a term used to describe any shrub-like plant that has thorns, produces edible fruit, and belongs to the Rubus genus, the most popular of which are raspberries and blackberries. Because these fruits are highly cultivated, they are easy to spot and are predominant throughout the U.S.

Characteristics
● Grow on long, prickly canes
● Cone-shaped clusters of individual fruits
● Both turn red or black when ripe
● Blackberries start green before they are mature

Location:
● Blackberries are primarily found in the east and coastal west
● Raspberries are found everywhere besides the deep south
● Generally in sunny areas on the edge of meadows and fields

How to harvest: pull berries straight from the bramble, leaving as much stem as possible.

Poisonous look-alikes:
● None

Season: ripen in summer.

Wild Strawberries

While wild strawberries may be smaller than their store-bought brethren, they pack double the punch of flavor. These adorable miniatures are extremely fragrant and taste like a stronger version of the strawberries we have all grown to love.

Not only are strawberries delicious, but they are also very recognizable
Not only are strawberries delicious, but they are also very recognizable

Characteristics:
● Three jagged leaves
● Five-petaled white flowers with yellow centers
● Strong strawberry scent when ripe
● Red berries with external seeds

Location:
● Found in every US state besides Hawaii
● Love full sun and rich soil
● Found in meadows, banks, forest margins, and rocky outcrops

How to harvest: pinch off strawberry at the base of the fruit.

Poisonous look-alikes:
● None

Season: they bloom from May until June

Pawpaws

These delicious tree-dwelling fruits can be best described as a cross between a mango and a banana. Their internal texture is creamy and full of sweet flavor with the added benefit of being higher in protein, minerals, and essential amino acids than most other popular fruits like apples and bananas.

Characteristics:
● Oblong green fruits 3-6 inches long
● Flesh is yellow with dark brown or black seeds
● Strong sweet aroma
● Grow on trees

Location:
● Grow in most of the eastern U.S. states
● Can be found as far west as eastern Texas and Kansas, as far south as northern Florida, and as far north as southern Ontario
● They mostly like the wettish environment of river bottoms but have recently been found in higher/drier elevations due to consumption by deer

How to harvest: you can pick them from the ground (most ripe) or pinch from the branch when light green/yellow in color and heavy.

Poisonous look-alikes:
● None, but seeds can be poisonous if consumed.

Season: generally ripen in midsummer

Final Thoughts

Foraging for wild edibles is a fulfilling and potentially lifesaving skill that, if you choose to take on, you will be learning the rest of your life. Whether you are looking to improve your survival skills, are simply looking for a more sustainable way to obtain your food, or are just testing out a fun hobby, foraging will connect you to the natural environment and the symbiotic relationship that we all share.

Just remember to prepare yourself with extensive research, and don’t try to learn everything at once. Discover the ecosystem involved with what you are foraging for and how you can help the natural process while also helping yourself. It is a rewarding feeling knowing you are a part of something so much bigger.

 
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