When it comes to studying plants, I prefer the “patterns method” popularized by Tom Elpel, that approaches academic botanical study in nature but is a lot more fun. Using this method, you can learn to identify literally thousands of plants in minutes, though only to the family level, not the specific species. For example, learning to identify a member of the mint family yields you 1200 species of mints, all of which are edible (though maybe not palatable).
Here are some easy-to-learn plants (families) that you can find and eat almost anywhere on the planet. (It’s challenging to find an edible plant in Antarctica.)
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out Tom’s book Botany in a Day.
1. Coniferous Needles
Coniferous trees (also known as ‘softwoods’) are the classic evergreen tree, sporting waxy ‘needle-like’ leaves that don’t give up their moisture easily to evaporation, hence conifers’ ability to thrive in dry climates.
Conifers, called such because they are “cone-bearing”, are often incorrectly lumped in the vernacular under the term “pines”. Pines are their own subset of conifers, just as spruces, junipers and firs are each their own. Regardless, you can process and consume the needles of all of these conifers in the same way.
How to Make a Cup of Coniferous Tea
- Harvest the living (green) needles from a tree until you have an “OK” size bundle.
- Chop the needles finely (the finer the better, as we’re looking to unlock the juices within), aim for under ¼”.
- Steep the chopped needles in 8 ounces of hot water for 15 minutes.
- Drink. (You can either strain out the needles ahead of time…or use your teeth.)
Now a ubiquitous ‘weed’ of North America, the Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) is a native plant of the Old World. Dandelion (or dan de lion) literally means “tooth of the lion”, so-named for its toothed leaves. It’s is weed-like in its ability to spread but also offers us a wealth of plant foods throughout the year as well as a great example of the basic life cycle of the plant world.
In Spring, Dandelions leaf out early. Their young, supple leaves make great salad greens. As with any leafy green, you’ll definitely want to harvest them young, before they flower and become bitter. (As an early teacher of mine used to say…”Babies taste better.”)
Once the recognizable yellow flowerhead blooms, you can pluck and eat those as well. Raw, fried, blended. It’s all good.
Some have said the stem is also edible, which you’ll want to steam/boil, similar to noodles. There is a milky latex sap to the stem, which some may find they have a contact-dermititis response to.
When the dandelion dies back for the fall/winter, the root can be harvested and eaten. Digging them out of the soil intact can be a challenge, but there’s no shortage of dandelions to practice on. Peel the outer ‘shell’ off the root to reveal the core inside. Eat raw, roasted, steamed/boiled, etc. Some claim that the roasted/ground root is a replacement for coffee. I beg to differ.
3. Mint Family
Close your eyes. No, really. Close em.
Got em closed? Probably not, because then you wouldn’t be reading this. That’s fair.
So just use your mind’s eye and imagine the following.
You walk up to a plant that’s knee- to waist-height. Grasp the stem between your fingers and roll it. Notice that it has an oddly-square, rather than round, feel to its stem. And then you note that its toothed leaves are opposite-branching, meaning that where one leaf emerges, so does another on the opposite side of the stalk. A bit further up, another another pair of opposite leaves emerges, at 90-degrees to the first pair. And lastly, suspecting your quarry, you crush a leaf and sniff. Very odiferous. Not unpleasant. You’ve just found a member of the mint family:
- Square stem
- Opposite branching leaves
All 1200 of which are edible (or at least not poisonous…some might be too strong to eat). Mints are antibacterial, volatile, and edible. Most of your spice cabinet is filled with members of the mint family. Great for seasoning or making tea, as with the conifers above. Difficult to eat handfuls at a time.
4. Chenopodium genus
The Chenopodiums include goosefoot and amaranth, and are the most widely-found plant genus in the archaeological record of North America. Think of Chenopodium sp. as the spinach of the wild. You can eat its leaves raw, steamed, boiled…anyway you like. Seeds are great, too!
The genus includes quinoa, as well as domestic chard and beets. Look for a ‘weedy’ plant, whose flowers have been described as “globby or poky”.
5. Grass Family
It’s hard to imagine humans standing around ruminating on grasses, as cows do. But the seeds of virtually all members of the grass family (which includes 10,000 species) are edible to humans, raw, cooked, or sprouted. Interestingly, most of our commercial grains come from this family, including wheat, corn, barley, oats, rice, and wild rice.
A caution to beware of is the Ergot Fungus. It shows as a black or purple powder on the seeds. Consumption of ergot-infested grain is thought to have contributed to the Witch Hunts of the 1600s, as it induces an LSD-like effect. It may also induce abortions.
Cattail is another easily-recognizeable member of the grass family, with its long, broad leaves and ‘hot-dog’ like seed-head at the top of its stalk. At various times of year, the leaves, pollen, seedhead, and root (rhizome) of the cattail are all edible.
When harvesting plants, consider your impact as well as what the local wild animals need for their own survival. A good rule of thumb is to never harvest more than 10% of a plant’s bounty (or that of an area). Consider harvesting less (or none at all) if the area is frequented by other human foragers. Remember that harvesting a root (at any time of year), by its very nature, kills a plant or, more precisely, removes a plant from reproducing.