Gathering Wild Fruits and
by Peggy Deland
Hundreds of varieties of wild fruits and vegetables can be found in the United
States, many of which undoubtedly grow overlooked in your own yard. In fact,
most wild plants are edible -- in the sense that you won't be harmed by eating
it, though it may be unappealing -- and many are both delicious and packed with
Wild Greens & Vegetables
Some wild vegetables are well-known and commonly consumed, like dandelion greens
and nettles. Regional favorites, like fiddleheads and ramps, are gathered in
vast quantities and sold locally in farmer's markets. Very few wild vegetables
and greens are hard to find, but most are overlooked despite their culinary
Yellow wood sorrel, for example, is among the most common wild vegetables but it
is rarely eaten except by rural children who call it "lemon weed" or "sour
weed". This plant has clover-like leaves, small yellow flowers and seed pods
that look like tiny okra. It has a bright, lemony flavor that makes it a
delightful addition to summer salads.
Another surprisingly tasty wild plant is pokeweed. Most people in the Midwest
and the South are familiar with this plant as a nuisance weed that can rapidly
grow to a height of three feet or more, and it is often regarded as poisonous.
It's true that the dark purple berries and the roots of the pokeweed are toxic
and should never be eaten, but the leaves from young plants are edible when
boiled and taste much like spinach.
Prickly pear cactus plants can be found throughout the southwest, in parts of
Texas, and occasionally as far north as Missouri. The "leaves" of these very
common cacti are commonly eaten in northern Mexico, and taste like tender green
beans when prepared. Of course, if you plant to harvest cactus pads, wear gloves
and scrape off the spines before cooking!
Wild Fruits & Berries
The prickly pear itself is edible as well, but the wild cacti that grow in
temperate climates only rarely bloom and produce fruit. In the southwestern
states and the southernmost part of Texas, however, prickly pears are abundant
in the summer. Prickly pears have a sweet, seedy center surrounded by a soft,
thick skin that can be peeled off by hand. The green fruit is juicy and tastes
similar to honeydew melon, while the red fruit has a richer, berry-like flavor
and smooth texture. Both are delicious eaten out of hand, juiced, or made into
Wild orange persimmons can be found in the Ozarks, but be sure they're fully
ripe before you attempt to eat them. Even a slightly under-ripe persimmon is
unpleasantly astringent and inedible. When ready, persimmons are deep orange in
color, extremely soft and have wrinkled skin. They may be eaten out of hand or
made cooked into jam.
It's always important to be certain of what you're gathering before you eat it,
but this is especially true when it comes to wild berries. Some, like wild
blackberries, are readily identified and hard to mistake for anything but
equally-delicious wild raspberries and dewberries. Others, like wild grapes and
rose hips, can be tricky to identify correctly and have toxic lookalikes.
Wild strawberries are hard to spot but easy to identify. The plants grow in
widespread patches low on the ground and have small white flowers. The berries
themselves look like miniaturized versions of supermarket strawberries, but are
far sweeter and more flavorful. You may not find more than a handful, but they
are well worth the time spent.
These are just a few of the hundreds of edible delights that may be hiding in
your yard. As with any type of foraging, the most difficult part isn't finding
wild fruits and vegetables; it's
knowing what you've found. Most states publish
information regarding edible wild plants in the region, and field guides can
also be helpful in this regard. But the best way to find out what plants are
available and learn to identify them is by asking local residents, especially if
you live in a rural area.