Foraging for Food: 10 Useful Plants to Look For

I've always wondered...

How "hit or miss" were our ancestors when it came to foraging for food? After all, someone had to be the first person to try eating a mushroom, or picking walnuts from a tree. I can only imagine the hard lessons learned during the trial and error period of early foragers—there must have been a lot of "uncomfortable" experiences.

But over time, we humans built up a base of knowledge about which plants were useful and which weren't...as well as which were deadly.

After industrial agriculture swept the globe and we began to live lives that didn't revolve around hunting, growing, or gathering our own food, foraging started to be seen as a weird activity—one that is far outside of social norms.​

But if you're reading this article, you don't care about social norms! Foraging is still a wonderful way to supplement your diet, get out into nature, and learn quite a bit about the plant world. Here are some tips for foraging as well as ten of the best plants to look for in your area.​

Research plants in your area

Knowing the difference between similar-looking plants can literally be the difference between life an death—or at least an uncomfortable reaction. Sometimes a delicious, nutritious wild plant and a poisonous plant look eerily similar. This is doubly true when it comes to foraging for wild mushrooms, as edible ones often look nearly identical to poisonous ones. Don't take chances - do your research.

Know where to look for wild plants

Where you decide to forage is as important as identifying plants correctly. Avoid harvesting plants that are growing in less than ideal environments, like polluted streams, roadsides, or near commercial farms.

If you decide to harvest these plants anyways, give them a thorough wash to remove all of the surface pesticides or contaminants...but you should probably just avoid them altogether. Venture further off of the beaten path to find abundant harvests that are safe from contamination.

Forage at the right time

Expert foragers are always aware of the weather and the time of year. The seasons will determine what you'll find out in your area. For example, berries and fruits often show up in autumn, while mushrooms and nettles are only available for short periods in the spring in most areas.

Don't be greedy

When you do find a stash of edible plants, don't harvest all of them. ​Use the "Take half, leave half" rule to ensure a bountiful harvest the next season. If you find plants that are edible but endangered, leave them be.

Learn to cook your foraged plants well

Some of your foraged finds are edible, provided they're prepared correctly. Make sure to consult a good recipe book or a trusted source for preparing your foraged harvest.

Cattails

Cattails are one of the most useful plants you can find in the wild. Experienced foragers will go absolutely nuts over these versatile plants, making all sorts of cattail recipes after their forage session. They're available year-round in most areas and are a fantastic source of starch.

Known as the "supermarket of the swamp", you can eat the shoots, leaves, rhizomes, and pollen. As for cattail health benefits, cattails can be used in antiseptic applications, to slow bleeding, and for skin health. But beware of foraging cattails from water that is polluted or stagnant, because cattails act as a filter—meaning that all of those toxins are taken up by the cattails.

Foraging Tip: Look for weeds growing 12 to 50 inches tall that are covered in hairs and have small green clusters of flowers. Collect these plants with care because of their stinging hairs, and boil the stems, leaves and roots to make a tea.

Yarrow

Yarrow, known as "nature's medicine," is a flowering herb that grows all around North America. You can usually find it in the spring or summer around fields and meadows. First used by the Greeks over three centuries ago, the benefits of yarrow are many:

  • Fights bacteria
  • Decongestant
  • Astringent
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Expectorant
  • Promotes digestion

Cooking with yarrow is also a great way to take advantage of its many benefits. It can be substituted for tarragon, worked into a tea, or even used in a dessert due to its natural sweetness.

Foraging Tip: Yarrow blends into the surrounding area well, so it can be hard to spot. You need to look for the distinct leaf pattern and plentiful flowers.

Mullein

Most people consider mullein a weed—and it is, growing all over the United States near roads and highways. However, it's still used in medicine (and herbal teas) for the following reasons:

  • Coughing
  • Lung Weakness
  • Chest Colds

It can grow to over six feet high and is highly recognizable due to both its height and yellow flowers covered in hairs. One of the funniest uses for mullein is as what's known as "cowboy toilet paper." You can also make a tasty tea from mullein to treat the above health issues, mostly focused around respiratory issues and coughs.

Foraging Tip: Mullein is easy to spot — once you know what you're looking for. The largest plants are up to 6' tall and is easily identified both by its height and the fuzzy leaves.

Rose hips

Most of us know the rose plant for its beautiful flowers, used both ornamentally and in teas and medicines for centuries. however, the cherry-sized rose hips produced by the plant can be eaten raw or used in a variety of recipes.

  • 50% more vitamin C than oranges
  • Mild diuretic and laxative
  • Astringent
  • High in antioxidants

These fruits can be found in late summer or early fall, and if you forage for them the right way you'll end up with a massive haul of these versatile fruits!

Foraging Tip: Look for rose bushes, which might only be found on commercial or residential property. But, most people don't use their rose hips, so you should be able to harvest them if you ask. Rose hips will only grow where a rose used to be.

Cedar trees

Cedar trees should be familiar to most people, gardener or otherwise. They're massive evergreen trees with needle-shaped leaves. These needles are much shorter than pine trees.

The benefits of cedar trees are many, from anti-fungal properties to:

  • Assists with inflammation issues
  • Increased stomach acid production, so treats many bloat and GI issues
  • Apply topically for acne, psoriasis, etc.

As far as cooking with cedar, it's best to make a tea from the leaves and soak your skin in the preparation. You can also use cedar woodchips as a natural insect repellent.

Foraging Tip: Look for weeds growing 12 to 50 inches tall that are covered in hairs and have small green clusters of flowers. Collect these plants with care because of their stinging hairs, and boil the stems, leaves and roots to make a tea.

Nettles

The humble nettle is a versatile herb that can be found practically everywhere in North America. They're wonderful for medicinal uses, such as:

  • Better decongestant than some prescription medications
  • Sold as an herbal treatment for prostate diseases
  • Roots used as a diuretic

Nettle tea can be used to treat congestion, stomach aches and diarrhea, and a decoration of nettle leaves can be used to clean infected wounds.

Foraging Tip: Nettles don't look or smell very good, but they're fantastic for foraging. They start popping up in spring in sunny areas with rich soil. If you're out in the wild, they'll most likely cluster around water sources like rivers and lakes. The stalks of mature plants can reach up to 8' tall.

Harvest them early in spring when they first pop up and before the plant is over 1-2' tall. Wear gloves while harvesting - they're prickly!

Dogwood trees

Dogwood trees are a unique plant to forage for. They're deciduous trees that have an odd, camouflage-like look to their bark. It flakes off and effectively mulches the area around it. You can make a tea from the bark to mitigate fever symptoms, but it's mostly foraged for its berries.

The large, red fruit has an interesting texture and taste...one that elicits a lot of debate among foragers! Some say it has an apple-like taste with a pearish texture, and others feel it's closer to a persimmon. You'll just have to forage for it and find out for yourself.

You can also use Dogwood twigs as a teeth cleaner and whitener (this was a favorite of Native Americans). By chewing on the twig, you'll break it into individual fibers and it'll act as a makeshift toothbrush.

Some more benefits of Dogwood include: 

  • Diarrhea remedy
  • Improves liver and kidney function
  • Antibacterial and antiviral
  • High in antioxidants

Foraging Tip: Dogwood has been planted as an ornamental in many areas of the United States - New York especially. Look for it in pots or landscaping, but you can also find it in the wild. It's very easy to spot due to its unique flowers and camouflage-like bark. The fruit is edible raw, and the leaves can be boiled.

Wild comfrey

Comfrey is a favorite plant of many gardeners and permaculture enthusiasts...and for good reason. Its uses as a fertilizer, mulch, as a companion plant, and herbal properties have made it a very popular addition to many gardens.

  • Leaves used for sprains and bruises
  • Pain relief if leaves are crushed and heated, then applied to body
  • Tea can be used for lighter injuries like stings or burns (do not drink this tea, however)

Comfrey is less popular in cooking, but it is edible and quite high in protein. In fact, it's only behind soy beans as far as protein content. Using the young leaves is best, and many country people have been making comfrey soup for generations as a way to supplement their diets.

Foraging Tip: It's not native to America, but because it grows so rapidly, it's possible to find it in the 'wild' if you look closely. If you live in the northeast region of North America, chances are good you'll find it along streams and lakes. It's fuzzy and has white and purple flowers that droop and form a bell shape.

Horsetail

Horsetail is an interesting plant to forage for. It has an underground network of rhizomes that shoots spring from in the springtime. They're around 2' tall at the highest and almost look like they're many shoots stacked on top of each other.

The primary benefits of horsetail have to do with its healing qualities:

  • Highest silicon content of any plant
  • Helps bones heal faster
  • Fantastic diuretic

In cooking, horsetail is mostly used as a tea. By pouring hot water over horsetail in a 2:1 ratio and letting it steep, you've made a horsetail tea that can help with many of the issues mentioned above.

Foraging Tip: Horsetail is easily identified because of the unique structure of the stems and nodes. At each node, a whorl (or spiral) of foliage will protrude. Stalks will reach over 2' tall, with giant horsetail growing to a massive height of 25'+.

Walnut trees

Although most of us consider walnuts a healthy snack, they have many more benefits than most typical consumers are aware of.

  • Walnut skin is extremely high in phenols
  • The particular chemical structure of the Vitamin E found in walnuts is different and beneficial
  • Protective against many of the 'diseases of affluence' we suffer from

On top of that, you can brew the leaves of the walnut tree to reduce symptoms of both constipation and diarrhea.

Recipes for walnuts are endless and very familiar to most gardeners, so I decided to focus on some of the less common uses in this piece!​

Foraging Tip: Use a site like Falling Fruit to see if there are any walnut trees in your local area. If not, ask around and see if there are any trees planted around town. Walnut trees are often easier to forage in urban environments than out in the wild.

Foraging for food can be a lot of fun...if you know what you're looking for. Forage for these ten plants and add them to your diet!
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