Food is one of the most important things a person needs in order to survive in any situation. In cases where one is unable to earn income for one reason or another, knowing what foods are available at no cost can keep a person – or even a family – alive until income is once again available.
It is extremely important to be certain of the plants before ingesting them. There are some poisonous plants that look similar to edible plants. Distinguishing these can be done by observing closely such things as feel, look, and smell. What size are the leaves? Do they have fuzzy leaves? What color are the leaves or flowers? What shape are the leaves or petals? Are the leaf edges serrated or smooth? Most of the plants that are dangerous to eat have fine hairs, milky sap, a bitter or soapy taste, an almond smell to the stem, some triple leaf patterns, or spurs of black or purple or pink on a grain head.
While the photos below may aid in identifying the plants, the best way to learn is to find someone who is familiar with all types of plants who can teach the differences in person.
It is also a good idea to make sure that the plants have not been contaminated by chemicals, so foraging by the side of the road is not a good plan. Remember, too, that even edible plants can have poisonous parts.
Common Yard Plants
This plant can often be seen in the wild, and is most notably identified by the seed pods, which are white disks. These have led to it being called Silver Dollar Plant by some people. Though it was native to Asia, it is now found nearly everywhere. It has bright pink flowers and grows about three feet tall and spreads out to about a foot wide. The seeds are edible with some minor processing with water, vinegar, or salt and have a mustardy taste. The root can also be eaten raw before flowers have formed.
It may be surprising to discover that asparagus grows wild in some places. Finding asparagus growing in the yard without having planted it is awesome. It is edible just like the asparagus that can be purchased in a grocery store.
Common cattails grow in wet, marshy areas – sometimes even in ditches – and have many uses, including food. The roots can be used for flour, the stems can be fried into a stir-fry or boiled or eaten raw, and the fluffy heads can be used for insulation or a diaper filler or firestarters. Lower leaves may be used for salad. The pollen that appears in midsummer can be used to boost nutrient content in baked goods.
Chickweed is often viewed as a weed that pops up in lawns and gardens where there are moist soil and sunshine or partial shade. It prefers cooler temperatures. It has oval leaves that grow in pairs on opposite sides of the stem, somewhat far apart on the stringy stem. The tiny white flowers have five white petals that have double lobes; they look a little like tiny carnations. Its taste has been compared with corn silk. It can be used raw or cooked and works great in salad or as a side dish like spinach.
Chicory blooms all summer, with only one or two flowers at a time that last for a day. The flowers are a light blue and the ends of the long rectangular petals look sort of serrated. Every part of the plant is edible. The leaves can be a little bitter but cooking them can reduce that. Its roots can be used to make a sort of coffee. The flower is very bitter but can be eaten.
The very recognizeable clover is delicious and nutritive. The puffy flowers can be plucked and eaten raw and are sweet. They can also be used in salads, soups, or stews. Overeating the delicious flowers can cause gas, but it can be rather difficult to eat that many.
Curly dock or yellow dock is a plant that is in the same family as rhubarb. Dock has a similar flavor. It grows in places with ground that has been disturbed, such as construction areas, edges, roadsides, and similar locations, as well as near streams and at the edges of parks. Remember to ensure that the areas are not being treated with herbicides and pesticides before eating plants found there.
All parts of the easily recognized dandelion are edible, from the flower to the root. They have many nutrients and also work as herbal medicine for many discomforts. The greens are less bitter if they are harvested before the plant flowers but are still edible after. The flowers are often used in jellies and syrups and can also be fried.
Black or dark blue berries on this plant that is part of the honeysuckle family taste very nice and have many health benefits. The plant has serrated-edged leaves and light or white flowers in clusters that become the berries. The berries must be cooked for safety; all other parts of the plant are poisonous due to the cyanogenic glycosides (like cyanide) that will build up in the body.
Brought to the US in the 1800s, garlic mustard is not good for animals, but it is edible for humans. It can be made into a sauce and as flavoring for other dishes. The young leaves are the best for this purpose, and taste of mustard and garlic. The leaves range from triangle to heart-shaped and are usually wide with toothy edges. The white flowers grow in small clusters.
Chives are an edible food for humans. The seeds are open pollinated and reach maturity in about 80 days. They are certified organic and non-GMO. They are a hardy perennial that can add a garlicky, onion flavor to your dishes.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana)
Also known as Japanese arrowroot or Chinese arrowroot, kudzu is a vine that grows very quickly and covers large areas, especially in the southern United States and is actually edible. Like other arrowroot plants, kudzu’s roots contain starch that is often used in food. The flowers can be used to make a jelly with a taste like grape jelly. Other parts of the plant contain antioxidants.
A fast-spreading plant, lamb’s quarters has a coating of white on the leaves that make it look dusty. Water is repelled by this coating. Flowers form on top of spikes, in clusters, and are green. All parts of the plant are edible, but seeds should be used sparingly. Eat less if eaten raw, as the leaves contain some oxalic acid (which is removed by steaming or cooking). The leaves can also be blanched and frozen or dehydrated to preserve.
Plantain grows wild all over. Wide leaves surround a stalk that ends in seeds. The leaves usually have three or five veins that run parallel along the leaf, converging at the ends. These contain compounds that are antimicrobial, anti-toxic, anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, and astringent making them great for poultices on wounds. They also have expectorant, styptic, and diuretic properties. The leaves are good in salads or cooked.
This leafy green plant is often viewed as a weed but it is very nutritious. Another name for this plant is pigweed. It has small leaves and red stems that produce yellow flowers. It contains a lot of water. Its taste is slightly sour and has been compared to spinach or watercress. It can be used in many of the same ways. It grows easily in many locations, including sidewalk cracks, gardens, and in soils that are not the best for plants. It is nutrient-dense and also contains omega-3 fatty acids.
Some varieties are known as pansies and these grow wild in many places. Unlike African violets (which are not in the Viola family), both leaves and flowers of these can be eaten. They are high in vitamins and have a pleasant flavor. However, the plant contains saponin, so moderation will limit the likelihood of digestive problems.
Also known as false shamrocks, the oxalis family includes over 500 different types. While some are ornamental, most are edible. As indicated by the name, the plants do contain oxalic acid, but this is also found in foods like chives, brussels sprouts, broccoli, grapefruit, rhubarb, and others.
To plan out a yard or garden full of edible plants, this book offers information about trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, and flowers that will look great and also fill your plate.