Being able to forage during a survival situation can mean the difference between life and painful starvation. Foraging or wildcrafting skills are just as vital to your food security survival plan as the long-term stockpiling of food, hunting, fishing, and trapping.
While you cannot garner as much protein from foraged plants, herbs, berries, “weeds” or roots, you can consume more than enough protein and other vital nutrients to survive another day.
You do not have to be bugging out in the woods or lost in the wilderness to exercise your foraging skills.
Being able to forage what is growing in your own backyard, neighborhood (even in suburban and urban areas) or decide to grow as a SHTF wild food source are all excellent ways to engage in survival foraging.
Foraging wild edibles can be done year round. Yes, there is even food growing during the long cold months of winter.
Learning what and how to forage is only the first part of this aspect of your survival food plan.
You must also master how to both prepare and preserve the wild edibles to not only make extended use of your free food supply, but also make sure the foraged food does not make you sick… or kill you.
Table of Contents
Top 7 Wild Edible Plants
There are literally hundreds if not thousands of plants common in all regions around the country that can be foraged for food.
The wild plants listed below are among the most easily spotted, commonly available, and carry the highest nutrient count to help keep you healthy and strong during a survival situation.
These plants grow across the United States and in most regions of North America. Cattails boast high percentages of Vitamin C, phosphorus, and potassium.
The pollen that is collected from cattail plants can be used to make flour. It often was during World War II when soldiers were faced with a lack of food.
Cattails have a mild starchy flavor due to their high manganese count, which is actually a bit higher than that found in potatoes. The bottom white stalk, young tips, rootlets, and primary root spurs are all edible.
If you are in dire need of protein, check the base of the cattail plants and on the underside of the leaves for the grubs and beetles that frequently call these parts of the plant home.
Although to lesser percentages than the nutrients noted above, cattails do also have above average amounts of both vitamins A and B.
In addition to using cattail plants for food, the dried spores can be used as tinder or it can be light as an emergency torch.
Wild onions are chock full of nutrients and taste delicious. If you can find a patch of wild onions you can easily and quickly pick dozens of bunches and tuck them away in your bugout bag to eat while you hike on.
There is a poisonous lookalike to the wild onion that you never want to eat named death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum).
These poisonous plants boast an incredibly musty smell and, upon closer inspection, have daffodil-style flowers instead of the typical wild onion blooms.
Wild onions are found not only in pastures and slightly shaded wooded areas but in most backyards.
Wild Blackberries and Black Raspberries
These wild berries grow along the edge of the woods in full sun to partial shady areas. Five-point flowers on blackberry bushes will grow dainty and beautiful white blooms in the early spring.
Berries do not start to appear on the bushes until June. The wild fruit will be ready for picking from July through the early days of September.
This wild plant is far too often forsaken as a useless weed. Purslane is a prime source of omega-3 fatty acids, and can easily be used as a lettuce substitute in salads and other recipes.
Purslane is not difficult to find in rural, suburban, or urban environments. It often pops up between cracks in concrete, vacant lots, and in neglected parts of any yard.
It can be eaten raw or cooked, and has a great taste and texture either way. Purslane leaves, stems, and flowers are all edible. There is one dangerous poisonous look alike – spurges.
Purslane boasts more protein and iron than kale, it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and even contains more potassium than bananas.
You will definitely need gloves to harvest this wild edible.
The spiky hairs on the stem and leaves of stinging nettles plants will prick any part of your skin that it touches and also provoke a hay fever style histamine reaction in some folks.
Once the stinging nettles have been washed and either cooked or boiled, the stinging effect is gone, and they are safe to eat in their raw state or cooked.
This wild plant tastes a lot like spinach. It is often brewed into a tea, used in any recipe that calls for spinach, or used as a nutrient rich flavoring in any recipe that calls for spinach as well as a plethora of soups, stews, or casseroles.
Stinging nettles are a rich source of manganese, calcium, iron, potassium, as well as vitamins A and C.
Plantain is not only an easy to find wild edible that doesn’t have any dangerous lookalikes, it is also a sole or active ingredient in many natural home remedies.
It is the more mature leaves of the plantain plant that are often used in home remedies like tinctures, salves, and teas. These older leaves also can be quite tasty if roasted, broiled, or sauteed with some garlic and onions, including wild onion bulbs and greens.
Plantain can be used as a substitute for any type of vegetable greens, and to be used as a salad base like lettuce.
The leaves on the plant are the part that is most often eaten, but every part of the plantain is edible. The younger the leaves, the tastier the meal.
Plantain has lots of iron, oleanolic acid, vitamin C, beta carotene, vitamin K, ascorbic acid, linoleic acid, vitamin A, allantoin, sorbitol, baicalein, and aucubin.
This is another great wild edible that can be found in nearly any environment or climate across the United States.
You must, however, learn to differentiate between dandelions and false dandelions – which are extremely poisonous.
The leaves, stems, roots, and flower heads of dandelions are all edible. Dandelions contain high percentages of vitamins A, C, and K.
This often unappreciated “weed” also boasts more than average amounts of vitamin E and B, folate, potassium, iron, magnesium, and calcium.
Dandelion flower heads can be used to make either a hot of cold tea, or wine. The roots can be roasted and eaten as a snack or used as a coffee substitute.
Dandelion leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked and consumed in the same way you would any other vegetable green.
Best Places To Forage
Your Own Land
The easiest place to start foraging is right in your own backyard. Not only is it quite handy from a distance perspective, you know for sure that no chemical sprays have been used on the property.
Never, ever, even if you are nearly starving, should you ever forage in a space that you are not certain is free from agricultural and other chemicals.
The plants you pick can be dehydrated to preserve them in a shelf stable manner – while creating a long-term and lightweight source of food to put in your BOBs and get home bags.
Allowing your land to grow more than you normally would and leaving it untreated will pave the way for wild edibles like dandelions, purslane, plantain, stinging nettles, and wild onions to grow.
You can also plant some cattails on the banks of your pond along with other non-traditional crops around your survival homestead to create a food forest to pluck from when needed. Unlike traditional plants, you will not need to tend to the edible weeds.
Livestock Pastures and Hay Fields
These types of areas will not likely be subjected to any type of harmful chemical sprays because doing so would endanger the livestock that graze or browse the space for food.
In full sun areas like these you will often find:
|wood sorrel||Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrots)|
|daisies||black eyed susans|
|wild onions||sow thistle|
It is unlikely that chemical spraying has occurred near creeks, streams, ponds, and lakes – but do not simply assume the wild edibles growing along the banks of a waterway are chemical free – such a mistake could be fatal.
In such areas you often can forage for wild edibles such as cattails, wild rice, watercress, water pepper, wasabi, bulrush, water spinach, taro, water caltrop, and water celery.
Foraging for wild edibles in urban and to some extent, even suburban areas means access and selection will be limited, but feeding yourself from nature’s bounty is still quite possible.
The biggest obstacle to overcome when foraging in an urban environment is the likelihood that chemicals will have been sprayed upon the so-called weeds that you will want to eat by a governmental entity.
Foraging on private property in a survival situation also brings with it a significant chance that commercially manufactured and non-organic herbicides, pesticides, or insecticides have also been used.
Unless the spraying is extremely recent, there really will be no way to look or smell that you are about to consume a plant that has a chemical agent on it. See the universal foraging taste test below to learn more about safe consumption of questionable foraged items.
When foraging in an urban environment, the nutrient rich plants below are the ones you will most likely be able to consistently find anywhere in the United States.
Top 5 Plants for Urban Foraging
Dandelions – The root, stems, leaves, and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked. They are rich source of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and iron.
Wild Spinach – This hardy and heavily drought resistant plant boasts a high percentage of calcium.
Wild Asparagus – This plant contains significant amounts of potassium, vitamins A,C, and K, as well as folate.
Clover – Like dandelions, clover may boast natural anti-inflammatory properties. Clover is also rich in vitamins A, B2, B3, and C properties.
Ground Ivy – This wild edible has a slight mint flavor and has sizable amounts of both vitamins A and C.
Foraging during a SHTF event will likely mean that society has broken down, and the rule of law is far less important to a starving survivor.
During such a scenario, you would likely forage wild edibles from anywhere you can safely find them.
But, until such a scenario ever materializes, learning what laws generally govern foraging activity can save you from getting a steep fine, or arrested.
While laws vary not only from state to state, they can also be quite different from municipalities in even the same county.
Now is the time to review state and local laws in your area to determine where you can legally forage now to develop a stockpile of wild edibles to preserve before a disaster strikes.
The foraging rules below are an example of those common across the United States. Laws in your area may be more lenient or less stringent.
These foraging rules will likely impact suburban and especially urban foragers more intensely than rural foragers.
- If the wild edible is located on public property you can usually harvest it – but there may be exceptions in regards to state and national forests.
- If a nut or fruit producing tree or bush is on a neighbor’s property but branches with some of the crop are hanging over your property, you might be legally allowed to harvest the food.
- If branches of a tree or bush or edible portions of a plant are hanging over public property even if the tree, bush, or plant is on private property, you may be legally able to harvest the wild edibles.
When you are first learning how to forage wild edibles, it is a sound idea to make a list of rules for yourself to follow to help ensure you are not tempted to harvest wild edibles that you cannot identify with 100% certainty.
If you have not mastered differentiating between wild edible and poisonous mushrooms, one of your beginner foraging rules could be to neglect picking any mushroom until you have enough knowledge to do so safely.
Sometimes, a simple but well memorized set of rules – or ones written down on a piece of paper, will cause you to pause long enough to avoid making a potentially deadly mistake when tempted to harvest a wild edible that may or may not be what you hope that it is.
Here are some basic foraging guidelines that could be included on your self-imposed wild edible rules list:
- Never, ever eat any wild edible if you are not confident that it has been identified with 100% accuracy.
- Forage for only a handful of wild edibles that you know grow in your region AND that you can accurately identify. This rule will help prevent you from wandering around for hours investigating every plant or berry you see in the woods, and hoping you can identify them once you sit down later and pull them out of your pack.
- Always be aware and alert when foraging in a new landscape, even in the ones in which you are familiar. It can be easy to get distracted, especially when exceptionally hungry, while foraging during a survival situation – so much so you could trip in a hole or fall into a travine when looking around but not directly down at your walking path.
- Make or print out a list of common wild edibles in your region. Ideally, you should make four lists so you know exactly what Mother Nature has to offer in each of the four seasons.
- Keep a good field guide or informational material you have collected in your bugout bag so you know exactly how to harvest, prepare, and store the edibles being foraged.
- It is always wise to let someone know the area you will be foraging in, and when to expect you back. If you become injured or sick while foraging, help can only be on the way if someone has at least a general idea of where you are.
Learning how to avoid deadly plants will help ensure your foraging activity is not only successful, but safe. Unfortunately, many common wild edibles have poisonous lookalikes.
The number of deadly plants are simply too numerous to note for each region of the United States – let alone the world. But, the top five deadly plants noted below are among the most commonly stumbled upon when foraging… and the most deadly.
Top 5 Most Poisonous Plants
1. Canadian Moonseed
This deadly plant is a lookalike for wild grapes. Canadian moonseed is also commonly referred to as “Fox Grapes.”
Sometimes, these poisonous grapes even grow to become intertwined with safe to eat wild grapes. All parts of Canadian moonseed are toxic.
The main difference between this poisonous plant and true wild grapes are the single crescent shaped seed – even though the fruit is still nearly identical in color and shape as an edible wild grape.
Canadian Moonseed contains dauricine and isoquinoline alkaloid whose the consumption of can be fatal.
These poisonous mushrooms look incredibly close to the delicious morel mushrooms folks spent two weeks hunting for in the woods each year. Consuming false morel mushrooms could be a deadly mistake.
False morels have a “brain” style look to their top and not a uniform cap that has a spongy feel to them like true morel mushrooms. The cap on true morels is at least as long as its stem, this is not the case with false morels.
Both types of mushrooms are found in the same wooded environment, with false morels typically appearing about seven days before true morels.
This extremely poisonous plant looks very similar to wild carrots (Queen Anne’s Lace) and, to a little lesser degree, yarrow. Poison hemlock kills within a three hour window with symptoms presenting, usually within only 60 minutes.
You can become poisoned by hemlock not only from ingesting it, but absorbing the deadly spores into your nose or eyes. Poison hemlock grows in shady spots in moist soil near a waterway of some type.
Wild carrots and yarrow grow in full sun in a dryer soil – the vast majority of the time. Poison hemlock blossoms are larger, and separated into multiple sections that attach to a series of single stems instead.
The generally safe to consume lookalikes have just one flower head per plant, each containing many smaller white blossoms.
Touching this plant and getting the sap on you almost always causes a severe skin rash that can cause scarring and intense sensitivity to the sun for many months.
In the South, pokeweed is often carefully foraged and cooked, but eating any part of this plant raw will cause a toxic reaction.
This poisonous plant has purple to red blotched stems, an enormous taproot, and even though it is technically a bush, it can grow so tall that it is often mistaken for a tree.
You can find even more poisonous plants here.
This dangerous lookalike will not kill you if eaten, but will make you incredibly sick, causing dizziness, vomiting, headache, hypotension, and other ill effects.
False garlic does not have a sweet onion or garlic smell but stinks like mildew. These wild plants have flowers with six petals that grow on separate stems coming from a single stalk.
To learn more about these top 5 deadly plants as well as how to identify 10 more, read our Poisonous Plants to Never Forage article.
What NOT to Forage
- Do not harvest any wild item found in the woods that smells like almonds – it will likely make you sick … or worse.
- Do not forage anything wild item that has either a discolored or milky sap.
- With the exception of wild berry bushes that you are certain have been positively identified, do not forage items with thorns, fine hairs, or sharp spines.
- Unless you are 100% positive that you can identify both poison hemlock and poison parsley, do not forage any item that appears to resemble carrots, parsley, dill, or parsnips.
- If you find plants that boast grain heads that have purple, pink, or black colored spurs, it is best to walk on by and not collect them.
- Leaves of three let it be. This is poison ivy and you definitely do not want to eat it no matter how hungry you are or how many times you have touched this wild plant and not gotten a rash.
- Do not eat yellow berries or the plants that produce them.
- Do not eat beans or wild materials that have a bean style pod.
Foraging Universal Edibility Test
Although the universal edibility test for foraging has been tried and true for centuries, that does not mean it is foolproof.
The best way to make sure you are only eating safe wild edibles is to know what poisonous plants are growing in your region and keep a good guide book handy to reference before popping anything into your mouth.
It is best not to eat anything for at least a few hours before taste-testing a wild edible just to make sure any good or bad reaction from consuming the foraged material is solely from it.
Step 1. Separate
Take apart any foraged item you are going to taste test into its five basic parts – roots, stem, flowers, and buds – if present.
Look the plant parts over for any signs of disease or the presence of insects. If the plant has parasites crawling all over it, the interior is likely rotted or rotting, and should be discarded.
Step 2. Contact
Test the foraged item on your skin – preferably on the hand or arm. Wait at least 15 minutes to see if you experience a stinging sensation, rash, redness, blisters, etc.
If no initial bad reaction develops, it is still advised to wait for at least several hours before moving on with the next steps in the foraging universal edibility test.
If you do wait a few hours to see if a topical reaction does develop, drink only water, but do not eat during this time to avoid any potential interaction.
Should the area where the plant material was gently rubbed onto the skin remain problem free, it is time to move onto the next step in the taste test.
Step 3. Raw or Cooked
Some wild edibles can safely be consumed only after they are cooked, like stinging nettles and pokeweed, but others are safe to ingest only in their raw state.
Test the material by first holding it raw up to your closed lips for three minutes. If there is no burning or other ill feeling, you can move on with the other tests, generally.
This is the one step of the universal edibility test that I feel is the most problematic. If you hold poison hemlock up to your lips, the transfer or spores into your mouth or nose can occur.
Because it takes roughly one hour for symptoms to appear, you may already be eating some of this plant not knowing that your fate has been sealed either by the test itself or the false thinking it was safe to eat.
Again, there is no test or any other type of substitute but clear knowledge when foraging. Use this same pressed lightly to the lips process with cooked or boiled version of the food if you believe the foraged material is of the type that can only be safely eaten.
Step 4. Taste
Now is the moment of truth. Taste just a small amount of the foraged item. Place it onto your tongue and hold it there for at least five minutes before spitting it out.
Wash your mouth with water immediately. This is sound advice, but do not forget that with some highly toxic plants, putting them inside of your mouth for even a few seconds is enough to kill you.
If you experience any burning, tingling, swelling, or similar ill effect from having the plant matter on your tongue, flush your system with as much water as possible and do not eat any more of the wild item.
A bitter taste should not be confused with an allergic or toxic reaction. Many safe to eat and nutrient rich wild edibles do have a lingering bitter taste, especially when consumed in their raw state.
Step 5. Chew
Place the item in your mouth again if it passed the taste test without any negative results, and chew but do not swallow. Spit out the item after it has been vigorously chewed upon for at least one solid minute.
Flush your mouth out with water. Wait 15 minutes again to see if any allergic or toxic reaction along the lines of stinging, swelling, nausea, or blistering occur after chewing the foraged item.
Step 6. Swallow
If step five went well, place the plant matter in your mouth and chew on it again until it is soggy. Keep the item in your mouth for 15 minutes, and swallow only if no ill side effects like those noted above, materialize.
It is recommended not to put anything in your body but water for a full eight hours before eating more of the foraged material. If you get nauseous at all, flush your system with water after making yourself vomit.
Step 7. Eat
After the eight hours have passed, eat a small amount – about one fourth of a cup of the same plant material you have been testing.
Do not assume any other part of the plant is safe to eat except the portion that has now been as thoroughly tested as a forager can do in the field.
Once eight hours more have passed without any ill effects, you can consume more of the foraged material.
Knowing how and where to forage, along with how to taste test what you find, can keep you and your loved ones alive during a long-term disaster or a short-term emergency situation.
Foraging is a sustainable way of increasing your food security options, but only if you take time to learn the basics and then master identification of wild edible and toxic plants where you live.
The time you invest in learning how to forage and the money spent on quality foraging guide books will be a wise investment in your preparedness arsenal.
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, ‘Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out’, Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.