Foraging wild plants is possibly my favorite activity of all time, with or without kids. I have always loved finding free food in the woods, but when I get to take my kids out and share the bounty with them, the sense of satisfaction is even deeper. Not only do I get to teach them what I have learned about surviving and thriving with the natural world, but their innate ability to make every activity fun and full of silliness makes the experience that much more rewarding. I started foraging in my twenties when I was experimenting with living as wild as I could. Now that I am fully domesticated (well, mostly) and busy with multiple jobs and children, it is more of an occasional hobby, something I do mostly to get us outside and moving around. It is the perfect way to bond with kids and to instill a sense of appreciation for the resources of the natural world. And because it engages their love of scavenger hunt type adventures, it is fun and rewarding for them.
And in case you were wondering, you do not have to have years of experience to enjoy the primitive satisfaction of foraging. There are many plants growing prolifically in semi-rural, suburban and urban areas that are easy to identify, gather and use. In fact, some of the most nutritious and versatile plants are most easily found in “disturbed” areas, such as old agricultural fields, trailheads, ATV roads, even yards, and soccer fields. The key to gathering in these areas is to make sure they haven’t been sprayed with pesticides and aren’t contaminated by road exhaust. Highly public areas such as parks and playing fields are almost always sprayed periodically, so they are best avoided unless you know the spray cycle and can harvest ahead of it. Roadsides are best avoided unless you can get far enough away to escape fuel and carbon build-up. The best places to look are usually around trailheads where weed control isn’t being used (since weeds are what you’ll be eating!) or along trails, old roadbeds that are being recovered, or in a yard or field where you’re sure the owner doesn’t spray (you can usually tell by the type of vegetation and the usage of the land).
You also don’t need a lot of specialized knowledge to use these plants. Many, such as chickweed and mint, can be used raw in salad or tea, or just munched as trail food. Others such as lambs quarters should be cooked briefly before consuming and can be used like spinach. I have compiled a list of five of the most widespread and easy to use plants in North America. You can click on the name of the plant for an image and further information to help you with identification and usage. If you try a few of these and decide you want to get more serious, I have provided a list of my favorite guide books at the end. All of them are available in editions for every part of the country and can usually be found at the public library. I’m confident that you and your kids will have a fun, enriching and memorable time trying out these wild foods!
1.) Chickweed: Probably my family’s favorite wild snack food- chickweed is downright yummy. Although I’ve heard it can be cooked, I’ve never bothered because the raw flavor is so lovely and refreshing. It likes sun, so look in meadows or open fields. In mild climates, you can find it almost year-round, but it prefers the cool of spring and fall in most places. Use it like sprouts on sandwiches, in a salad, or alone as a snack!
2.) Lambs quarters: If you have a garden, you have probably met this plant! It loves to show up uninvited in gardens around the country, and although many consider it an annoying pest, I see it as a free gift of nutritious food. Packed with vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and Folate, this plant is similar to spinach in many ways, including that you don’t want to eat a large amount of it raw due to the presence of oxalic acid. I often snack on some in the garden, but if we want to use more will cook it and add it to soups, sauces or stir-fries.
3.) Red clover: One of the most common and easily recognizable plants in North America, most everyone has at least met this plant in passing. But I would venture to say that most people are unaware of it’s incredible nutritional and medicinal qualities. Chock full of vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A, B1,2 and 3, and C, as well as magnesium, potassium and much more, this little plant is tasty to snack on and downright amazing as a tea. In fact, the tea is used as a powerful medicine for a variety of conditions ranging from PMS to heart disease- but you can drink it with your kids just because it’s yummy!
For our purposes, filed mint, peppermint, and spearmint are the easiest to identify and use. The link will help with your identification, but if you know that all mints have square stems, your nose will go a long way to telling you if you have the right kind. Often you can smell it before you even see it, as it tends to spread out in huge patches around creeks and rivers. You can use the fresh plant to make tea, either hot or sun-warmed, or hang a bunch in your kitchen to dry for later.
5.) Pineapple weedYou have probably stepped on this plant more times than you know if you have ever walked on a cracked sidewalk, dirt parking lot or weedy roadside. Also known as “false chamomile”, this plant absolutely loves disturbed soil- the more disturbed the better. I personally have a lot of respect for a plant that can grow in conditions too rough even for dandelion! True to its a common name, it does smell of pineapple, though the taste is faint. It has very mild sedative qualities, hence the reference to chamomile. The best edible parts are usually the new buds, and other areas can be bitter, especially if it’s growing in very dry or rocky conditions. As with any of these plants, make sure to avoid toxic foraging habitats. Fun as a raw snack or as tea.
Though none of these plants have poisonous look-alikes, it’s always best to I.D your edible food with a reliable guide. There are several solid guides to look for, all usually available at the library or cheap online. If you enjoy this hobby, you will get in the habit of taking your favorite guide with you everywhere!
1.) Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Available in various regional editions
3.) The Forager’s Harvest, by Samuel Thayer