Gathering Wild Edibles
by Peggy Deland
If you know what to look for, the forest -- or even your backyard -- can be a
smorgasbord of gourmet delights. Before cultivation, hunter-gatherer societies
lived entirely off of game and wild plants. Although game seems like a more
plentiful food source, the bulk of a hunter-gatherer's diet came from plant
sources. Plants are easy to dry and store without modern conveniences, and
provide the carbohydrates and micronutrients necessary for good health.
Wild Morel Mushroom
- photo by Thomas Jones
A surprising variety of food can be found in the wild. Many wild edibles are
difficult or impossible to produce commercially, and are rarely seen outside of
the gourmet aisle in grocery stores. For example, morel, chanterelle, black
trumpet, and porcini mushrooms sell for $20 or more per pound, but are readily
available -- for free! -- in the wild. Wild hazelnuts, black walnuts,
blackberries, raspberries, and gooseberries can also be found throughout wooded
areas in the United States.
When you gather from the deep woods, you know that the plants you find haven't
been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. But wild edibles offer
more benefits than being all-natural.
Commercially grown plants have been selectively bred or genetically modified for
four traits --shelf life, size, appearance, and resistance to disease. As a
result, flavor and nutrition often suffer. The edible plants you find in the
wild won't win any prizes for their beauty, but they're often tastier and
healthier than their commercially produced cousins.
Wild strawberries are tiny, often only a little larger than a pea. But they're
plentiful, free, delightfully sweet, and pack far more flavor than a huge,
grocery store strawberry. Black walnuts are virtually impossible to find in a
store, but they have an intense, complex flavor that makes commercially grown
English walnuts pale in comparison. Wild carrots are ugly. They're not even
orange. But they're packed with fiber and, if properly prepared, delicious.
- photo by Jon-Eric Melsæter
Where to Gather
Wild edibles can be found throughout the United States, but the widest variety
can be found in the Midwestern states. If you have a few acres of wooded land,
no matter where it is, you should have no problem supplementing your family's
diet with wild fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs. Natural grass yards are
another place to find wild sources of food. Hint: don't kill the weeds -- many
Many national forests allow gathering, although there are sometimes limits
placed on how much you can gather. For example, several national forests in
Washington State allow you to gather a few quarts of wild mushrooms each day.
There are usually no limits on wild vegetables or berries. Call your state
forest service if you're unsure of the rules in your area.
Avoid gathering wild edibles from roadsides or grassy areas near parking lots.
Chemicals from exhaust fumes can contaminate porous foods like mushrooms and
berries. Although the food may be safe to eat, it's likely to have an unpleasant
flavor. Similarly, you shouldn't eat anything you gather from an area that may
have been sprayed with pesticides or weed-killing solutions.
- photo by Jef Poskanzer
Despite what media hype may have led you to believe, the vast majority of wild
plants are edible, or at least harmless. After all, who would read a news
article titled, "Man Eats Wild Mushrooms, Suffers No Ill Effects"?
On the other hand, there are a few poisonous plants to watch out for. Most of
the truly dangerous ones are mushrooms and berries.
With a little research and
plenty of caution, it's not hard to avoid becoming sick from eating wild plants.
Never eat anything you gather from the wild, unless you are absolutely certain
of what it is. It's even more important to be able to identify dangerous plants
than it is to identify safe ones. The National Audubon Society publishes several
excellent field guides to wild plants and mushrooms.
In general, don't gather from more than 75% of the wild plants you find. Don't
uproot mushrooms; cut them above the ground to avoid damaging the underground
network they grow from. Leave overripe berries behind, so the seeds can produce
more bushes and replace the ones that die during the winter. Cut only the leaves
from wild greens. Leave behind a few nuts for the squirrels, especially if you
It's easy to get carried away when gathering wild edibles, especially
hard-to-find gourmet mushrooms. If you pick bare every small patch you find, you
may find the area barren when you return the next season. Gather responsibly,
and the same fertile patch of ground will provide edible delights for years to