Get to know wild edibles in your backyard and beyond
Forage the wilderness and your own neighborhood this spring
By Michael J. Foster/WDFW
With spring marching on, we here at WDFW wanted to introduce some foraging opportunities that might be just outside your door or just a bit beyond. Whether you are out fishing, hunting, or just taking a hike, there are a number of wild edibles that present themselves in the woods and even your own backyard that can be brought into the kitchen.
Below you’ll find a starting point for working with some of the more common edibles so that you can introduce them to your dinner table and maybe help out a little on the grocery bill. Some of the edibles here are already appearing while others can show up later in the spring.
The most common wild edible found near the home needs little introduction: The dandelion is found in nearly every yard, whether it’s welcome or not. The scourge of those trying to keep a manicured lawn, one of the best ways to be rid of this plant is removing it for use in the kitchen.
No matter how you feel about the dandelion, it is one of the most versatile plants out there. Every part of it is edible, though the back of the flower bud isn’t very palatable. There are uses for the fresh, young leaves, the flowers and the sizable taproot that gives gardeners a challenge.
Young leaves picked early in the year are best for salad greens and sandwich toppers. Dandelion leaves have a bitter taste that can grow with age, so stick to young growth and mix them with milder salad greens like miner’s lettuce or chickweed (below). Even larger, more bitter leaves can be cooked to take some of the edge off.
The root, which can be a project to remove from the ground whole, can be used as a vegetable by roasting it as you would new potatoes. Alternatively, the roasted root can also be ground and used to make a hot beverage like coffee. You can even make beer and wine from this useful plant.
This plant can be found in many environments, but it is a common weed in lawns with distinctive arrowhead-shaped leaves that can be nearly succulent when large. The leaves have a great tangy flavor that makes them a welcome addition to salads.
Both red and white clovers are useful plants common in many areas and yards. The leaves again want to be harvested when young and can be used much in the same way as spinach. The older leaves, especially of red clover, can become quite bitter. The edible flower heads of clover can also be used in making tinctures.
A common weed in flower beds, chickweed has a crisp texture and mild flavor that make the leaves and stems useful as salad greens or in adding a little crunch to a sandwich. Its mild flavor makes chickweed a good counterpoint to salad greens with bitter flavors, such as dandelion.
As the name implies, miner’s lettuce has a history of being used as a salad green. Even more so than chickweed, miner’s lettuce has a pleasant, mild flavor and a crispy texture so it can be used in much the same way to balance more bitter greens or as a crunchy sandwich topper.
Breaking away from greens, one berry that will ripen in many areas near June is salmonberry. Reminiscent of large raspberries, the uses for this berry are many. It can be eaten right off the plant, made into jams, jellies or baked goods, and is traditionally eaten with salmon as it often ripens at about the time spring chinook are being caught in coastal streams.
In addition to these plants, there is a mushroom that can be dependably found later in the spring. The oyster mushroom is a distinctive white to gray or light brown tender mushroom that can commonly be found growing from decaying alder trees in the spring. If the conditions are right, one log can produce several pounds of mushrooms that are great sautéed and served over meats, among other uses.
The oyster mushroom can appear in the same area year after year, if not the same log, and one log can produce mushrooms again later in the year. There are few lookalikes to the oyster mushroom in Washington. Fortunately, the main one, the thin and fragile angel wing mushroom, is not toxic, it’s just less palatable and robust than the oyster mushroom.
Another hallmark of spring, though often more challenging to find than the other edibles listed here, is the true morel.
This treasure of the mushroom hunter has an affinity for disturbed ground. Foragers looking for morels often target sites of recent wildfires and logging activity as well as river bottoms with alder or cottonwood trees where the soil gets disrupted by seasonal stream flow spikes. Some morels can even be found hiding at the edges of hiking trails. Given the spring timing of all three, morels often go hand-in-hand with turkey hunting and shed antler hunting.
It is important to note that morels have lookalikes that are toxic or at least require specialized treatment to make them edible in some cases. These false morels occur in several species and are more common than the true morels in some places.
Generally speaking, true morels are best identified by their honeycombed caps that are completely hollow, mostly symmetrical, and attached to the stem completely. Meanwhile, false morels have irregular, wrinkled, folded caps that are often detached from the stem. In cross section, the cap of a false morel is revealed to have chambers instead of being completely hollow like a true morel.
Given the prevalence of these lookalikes, it’s crucial to be sure of your species identification if hunting for morels and ideally you’ll want to confirm your find with someone well-versed in morels until you gain the necessary experience. Read on for more information about safety considerations to make when foraging for wild edibles.
Once you’re sure the mushroom you have is a true morel, then you can dive into the many different culinary preparations out there for this tasty treat. A favorite is to cut them in half lengthwise, stuff the halves with a soft cheese, wrap the halves in bacon, and bake them to create a delicious appetizer.
There are several safety considerations to make when getting to know wild edibles:
· Confirm your identification: Find a good field guide at your local library or bookstore and learn the ropes of identifying plants and mushrooms to make sure what you have is definitely the edible you think it is. If you have a friend or family member who is knowledgeable on the topic, show them the specimen before eating. Before long you’ll be confident in making your own identifications, but when in doubt, skip harvesting.
· Wash it off: Just as you would with produce from the grocery store, wash your edible plants before cooking or eating them. With mushrooms, you’ll usually only need to brush off debris.
· Eyes on the road: Automobile exhaust can settle on plants near roads, so be mindful of where the nearest road is when harvesting wild edibles.
· Read the label: Be aware of whether any pesticides or fertilizers have been applied in the area you’re foraging. If possible, read the label to determine if enough time has passed between the application and your harvesting.
· Start small: If you’re new to harvesting wild edibles or just trying a new one, start by trying a small portion. While the edibles listed here are perfectly safe, if it’s new to your system, you could have a mild adverse reaction and you’re better off then if you only ate a small amount. The same goes for if you find you’re allergic or a misidentification was made in your harvest.
Following these steps can make for a great start on the path toward harvesting the abundance of wild food around you. This list of edibles is just a portion of what’s out there, but we hope it helps you get out to explore the wilderness in your own backyard and beyond.
Gathering and consuming wild plants, mushrooms, seaweed or shellfish includes inherent risks, including potential for misidentification or allergic reaction. The contents of this post are suggestions for a safe and fun day in the field — they are not a guarantee of safety or intended as legal guidance. Always review relevant landowner and harvest regulations and consult with additional resources before harvesting and consuming wild plants, mushrooms, seaweed or shellfish (including Washington Department of Health guidelines).