Top 10 Edible Plants in Your Yard (and beyond)
Tasty (and free!) Greens to Expand your Palette, Increase your Nutrition and Shrink your Grocery Bill
Yes, our neighbors think I'm a little bit crazy. They see me out in the yard with my little basket slung over my shoulder, picking "weeds" to eat for lunch while they're out with their spray bottle of Round-Up trying (usually unsuccessfully) to poison away those very same "weeds"!
Over the last 70 years or so, since the majority of North American's moved to the city, we've lost touch with our roots -- Literally. Plants that our grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors for many thousands of years sought out for their nutritional and medicinal values are the same ones we now spend hundreds and thousands of dollars trying to eradicate.
Food prices are going up, people are going hungry, and there is free food all around us -- we just need to re-discover all the goodness that Mother Nature has provided.
Since the acorn drop this past fall I've been learning more and more about all kinds of edible plants, what to eat and when to harvest, how to prepare them and the best ways to eat them. Now I regularly supplement my diet with "foraged" food and I've never felt better.
The nutritional contents are WAY higher so I don't eat NEAR as much -- of which my waistline heartily approves!
The world of plants is vast and can be overwhelming, so here are 10 easy-to-identify, commonly found plants that are nutritious and delicious. I hope you'll give them a try!
(Okay, standard disclaimer here -- POSITIVELY IDENTIFY EACH PLANT FROM AT LEAST THREE DIFFERENT, RELIABLE SOURCES BEFORE GETTING IT ANYWHERE NEAR YOUR BODY!!! YOU are responsible for knowing what you're picking, and never take chances. If you're not absolutely positive, just leave it alone until you are. NEVER make exceptions! It just ain't worth it. Okay? Okay. Now check out these great tasties!)
The First Five...
There's a commercial for some lawn service company that starts off with a happy-looking suburban couple standing on their perfectly manicured lawn proudly proclaiming "We HATE dandelions..." Well let me tell you, those people don't know what they're talking about!
Dandelions are very tasty, exceedingly versatile, highly nutritious and as we all know, incredibly abundant!
Fresh dandelion leaves can be eaten raw in salads, added to a stir fry, or boiled or steamed like spinach. They have a "bitter greens" taste, like endive (especially once the flowers are out) but boiling them in a change or two of water can help take away that bitter taste. They make a great addition to soups or stews, either when fresh or after they've been dried. The flowers also make a tasty and colorful addition to salad (just remove the green part off the back) or can be sauteed battered and fried like a fritter, and the unopened buds can be sauteed in butter and garlic for a tasty side dish. Dandelion wine has been described to me as "the nectar of the gods", but watch out, because the only thing you'll remember the next morning is how good it tasted!
As for nutritive value, you can't get any better. According to Wildman Steve Brill, "The leaves are more nutritious than anything you can buy. They're higher in beta-carotene than carrots. The iron and calcium content is phenomenal, greater than spinach. You also get vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, P, and D, biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc by using a tasty, free vegetable that grows on virtually every lawn."
Now you tell me, why would you want to spray poison all over your lawn to get rid of such an amazing plant?! Hate them? I LOVE Dandelions!! Give them a try to you will too.
My favorite spring edible. The distinctive purple flowers of Wild violets make the easy to identify. Both the flowers and leaves are edible and make a delicious addition to salads. The flowers have a wonderfully sweet aftertaste -- for a special occasion you can candy them for a beautiful topping to cake or pastry. (Or just freak your neighbors out by stopping every so often while you're cutting the grass, pick a few and pop them in your mouth!) Plus, violet leaves are super nutritious. 1/3 cup of violets has all the Vitamins A & C you need for the day. In spring, when they're at their prime, violet leaves have about 10 times the vitamin A of spinach.
I was just introduced to chickweed this spring and am I ever glad! I prefer the basal leaves, but they're all edible. Another great addition to my spring salads -- chickweed apparently doesn't dry well so it's best used as soon as it's been picked. It's high in calcium, potassium and iron and has some traditional medicinal purposes as well. Chickweed is a cool weather plant; once the summer heat hits it's gone until the fall. You can find it sometimes during the winter I've been told, and I have no reason to doubt it.
Both White and Red Clover are high in protein, and are always easy to spot once the flowers begin to bloom. The flowers have a nice sweet taste -- when I was a kid on the farm we used to pick the petals and suck on the ends for a sweet taste-of-honey treat. The leaves can also be eaten raw, but I've read that some people have a bit of digestive trouble from eating too much, so most references suggest boiling them for a few minutes before consuming. They're at their tastiest when they're young -- before the flowers come out. The dried flowers and seeds can be ground into flour, which is a great way to add extra protein to lots of baked goods, or can be sprinkled over stuff like rice to add a bit of extra flavor and nutrition. You can also add the dried flower heads to teas and infusions. I've read many references to clover as a traditional medicine, so this is one of those that's probably best used sparingly rather than an everyday addition to your diet. Sure is a great spring treat though!
Mmmmmm, Plantain... Like spinach, but better!
Where to begin with this one? Delicious edible that can be eaten raw in salads or cooked up like spinach (or added to spinach), used in stirfrys, thrown in soups and stews -- just make sure you get the young leaves, as they get bitter as they get older. Some folks like to take out the "ribs" because they find it too stringy, but my experience is that it depends on what varietal of plantain you're harvesting, as there are many different varieties and they all look, taste and prepare up a little bit differently. But hey, feel free! The seeds have a sort of a nutty flavor, and can be ground up into a flour that you can add into muffins or pancakes or ash cakes, or just eat the seeds raw or throw them in a salad or stir fry. This one if very high in Vitamin B and Riboflavin.
Plantain is also a great plant to know as a "first aid kit in a leaf". It has way too many medicinal qualities for me to list here (I have only 5000 characters left to use!) and I'm focusing this lens on edible plants, not medicinals, but just cause it's so very cool, I'll include this link to a page that lists a bunch of them.
Here's just a few of the basics:
- It's a great styptic, meaning it stops bleeding and promotes fast healing of damaged tissue.
- It has contains a powerful anti-toxin and works great for bee stings! If you get stung, grab a few plantain leaves, chew them up (get lots of saliva mixed in there with them) and stick them on the bite as a poultice. (Back in the olden days it was apparently used to treat snake bites.)
- It is antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-inflamitory and antispasmodic, meaning that you can use it one way or another for almost anything! (I've even heard that, when prepared correctly, the seeds can be used as a laxative and the leaves make a killer wrinkle remover -- how cool is that?!)
A friend just told me recently that plantain is not native to North America, but a European import. He said it was known by Native Americans as White Man's Foot, because wherever white people set foot, plantain started to spread soon after!
So there's the First Five! Just scroll down to see the rest...
Must-have Plant ID Guides
Before you go chowing down in your lawn make CERTAIN you know what you're putting in your mouth! Never take chances -- always verify the plant's ID in 3 separate guides. These are some of my favorites...
There's a great self-published cookbook out there called "Purslane Pesto", and if you ever see a copy snap it up (or contact me so I can!) Among the many other great wild edible recipes it has a one for making a yummy pesto using this delicious weed.
Purslane grows abundantly where I grew up and when I found out that not only was edible it was so very tasty I couldn't believe that I wasted so many childhood hours ripping it up out of the gravel lane and from unwanted spots in the rock garden. I could have been eating it instead!
High in both Vitamin C and alpha-linolenic acid (one of those highly sought-after Omega-3 fatty acids) Purslane is a crispy succulent that has a wonderful spicy, peppery taste. It can be eaten raw or cooked and I have seen it recommended that you harvest purslane in the morning or evening, not in the heat of the day, to get the best flavor and juiciness.
There are more and more "mainstream" recipes that include purslane and a quick Google search came up with about 37,000 links, so more and more people are catching on to this one. Give it a try and help your heart with those extra Omega-3's!
7. YELLOW WOOD SORREL & SHEEP SORREL
Wood Sorrel was one of the first "yard weeds" that I tried and it is one of my favorites. People sometimes confuse it with clover, but the leaf shapes are different (wood sorrel has heart-shaped leaves, clover's are oval with a whitish chevron).
Sheep Sorrel has a very cool arrowhead-shaped leaf that make it super-easy to identify.
They both have a really nice lemony tartness that is perfect in summer salads or as a garnish on fish, meat or other vegetables. You can also eat them cooked, or steep the leaves and flowers to make a lovely lemony tea that is good hot or cold.
They are both high in Vitamin C, but don't eat too much at once, as Sorrels have a high oxalic acid content (like spinach) and can cause severe indigestion if eaten in large amounts. Make this one a special treat, or use it as flavoring rather than the main green in your dish.
8. WILD GARLIC
This one grows abundantly in our yard and is another one of those reasons our neighbors think we're a little bit crazy! I never have to buy green onions at the store this time of year because I just head out to the lawn with my knife and slice off as much as I need for salads, cooking, garnish -- whatever. The key here is to remember to use ALL your senses! There are dangerous plants that LOOK like wild garlic, but the don't SMELL like garlic at all. (Same goes for wild onion.)
I have no idea what the nutritional values are for this one; if the wild version has the same health benefits as it's cultivated counterparts, but the flavor is outstanding and you don't need to use nearly as much.
I've seen all kinds of articles on how to rid your lawn of this tasty herb, since it grows so much faster than grass and makes the yard "unsightly". I say when it gets too tall head out with your scissors and get ready for a spicy dinner! (Just make sure it smells right!)
9. LAMB'S QUARTERS
Lamb's Quarters taste remarkably like spinach, but earthier, and are one of the healthiest wild plants around. They contain calcium, beta-carotene, iron, potassium, several B Vitamins, Vitamin C and other trace minerals as well.
You can gather them from spring through fall and prepare them just like spinach -- fresh and raw in salad or steamed, wilted, seasoned and served as a side dish or tossed into a soup, stew or stir fry.
While I've read that you can eat the flowers I've never tried them so can't attest one way or the other.
Lamb's Quarter leaves shrink down quite a bit when cooked, like spinach does, so be ready for that. The small, young leaves are the best for eating raw (as they are for pretty much all wild edibles.)
Why pay crazy grocery store prices for spinach when this fast-growing, delicious edible is probably growing in your yard right now?!
Yes, I eat Pine trees. (I can't imagine why my neighbors look at us so strangely, can you?)
Pine is actually an amazingly versatile food! My favorite way to consume pine is as a tea. Pine needle tea is wonderfully refreshing and ridiculously high in Vitamin C! (4-5 times as much as OJ!)
The catkins (new growth buds) can be eaten right off the tree as a snack, used in a salad or candied. White Pine catkins have an almost sweet lemon taste. (Does that make sense?)
Pine nuts are all edible too, though on most of the eastern pines the nuts are smaller than the ones you buy in the store (they come from the Pinyon Pine) and you always have to fight the squirrels and other small animals for them! But when you can get them, they sure are tasty. You can eat them raw, roast them, add them to salads or stir-frys, into soups and stews, even grind them into nut-butter. They're very high in healthy fats and protein.
Pine pollen (that yellow powdery stuff you see covering your car for about 2 weeks in the spring) is super-nutritious and can be added to flour, soups and stews, mixed into ash cakes or sprinkled on top of food.
Even the inner bark (cambium) of a pine can be eaten if you're in a tough spot. It can be eaten raw, boiled like noodles, or dried and pounded into flour. It's high in sugars and several different vitamins. Apparently the Lodge and Red pines are the best options if you've got them in your area. I've tried the cambium layer of the pitch pine roasted, and it wouldn't be my first choice of survival foods, but it's good to know it's there if I ever need it!
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept it...
So there's your 10!
Now your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get yourself a couple of good field guides (see the Amazon list above for the ones I use), get out into your yard, family/friend's yard or local park and start identifying these plants.
One last caveat -- Remember to ALWAYS positively ID each plant from multiple sources, and stay far away from roadsides and areas that have been sprayed when you're collecting wild edibles.
If I've peaked your interest with this little article, and I hope I have, and you'd like to learn more, our school Practical Primitive offers several different one day workshops on Spring Foraging, Front-yard Foraging: An Intro to Common Wilde Edibles, Discovering Medicinal Plants and Medicinal Plant Preparations. We'd love to have you join us!
We also have all sorts of other cool, fun outdoor workshops for people with any range of outdoors experience (from 0 to 100!). Check out our list of courses and our Workshop Schedule to see what all we've got.
And if you've got any questions feel free to contact me -- we'd love to have you out!
The Best Books on How to Make Foraging and Wild Edibles Part of Your Life - And lots of great recipes too!
Knowing the name of a plant and that it is edible is one thing, but you never really get to KNOW a plant until you've identified, harvested, prepared and consumed it at least once. These are the books that will help you bring wild edibles into your world, your kitchen and your life.
Great Online Resources for Wild Plant Information
Good links for more info on Wild Edibles, Classes and Other Resources.
I'll be adding more links regularly, as my own plant journey continues, so keep checking back!
- Practical Primitive
Our school, based in New Jersey, teaches small-group workshops on all aspects of Primitive Skills, Traditional Living and Wilderness Survival.
- Foraging With the "Wildman"
"Wildman" Steve Brill has been living a Forager's life for ages. His books are great resources and his plant walks are famous for both their great information and his terrible jokes!
- Linda Runyon's Website
"Look down & Eat up!" Linda Runyon is an incredible woman who lived a full-on forager's life for 15 years in the Adirondacks. Feeding a family of 4 year-round, she learned an incredible amount of practical ways to eat and preserve wild foods. Inv
- Earthwalk Northwest
Karen Sherwood knows more about plants than anyone I've ever met. Her Plant Apprenticeship and Ethnobotanical Studies program is probably the most intense wild plant and herbal course I've come across. They're based in Washington state, so a great on
Have favorite foraging plants of your own that you think should be on the list? Let me know!
Got some good recipes for wild edibles? I'd love to try them!
Inspired by what you saw here to venture out into the wilds of your yard, field guide in hand? I'd love to hear about it!