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Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America

A Complete Wild Food Guide

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Bracken (Pteridium) - "fiddle heads". Many people eat Bracken fiddle heads, and reportedly they are very tasty. But they contain a carcinogenic glycoside called Ptaquiloside. Read my story here. (Hirono, I. 1989. Carcinogenic bracken glycosides. Pages 239-251 in Cheeke, P. R., ed. Toxicants of plant origin. Vol. II. Glycosides. CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton, Fla., USA. 277 pp.) and I A Evans, B Widdop, R S Jones, G D Barber, H Leach, D L Jones, and R Mainwaring-Burton (1971). "The possible human hazard of the naturally occurring bracken carcinogen". Biochem J. 124 (2): 29P–30P.

Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum). Although listed by many as an edible green – the leaves and stems cooked, and the young stalks peeled, I say why bother taking the chance. First of all, the plant contains chemicals on it that when touched and the area exposed to sunlight, can result in bad, blistering sores. Secondly, many people seem to be allergic to it. Thirdly, even if you pick it with gloves and long sleeves to avoid the burns, and are not allergic to it, many people find the smell of it unpleasant. Fourth, it can be confused with the Giant Hogweed if you are not experienced, or worse yet, the Water Hemlock possibly.

Dock, Curly or Yellow (Rumex crispus). The leaves of this plant are recommended as a green by many sources. True, the leaves of this plant when young, early in the season, if cooked in at least two changes of water are safe in small amounts, if you are not predisposed to kidney stones. The issue is, the leaves of this plant have very high levels of oxalic acid. The reason Rhubarb leaves are said to be poisonous is they have even higher levels of oxalic acid. Since I am prone to kidney stones, I don't eat this one, so I cannot recommend it to others, but if you are not prone to kidney stones, and you follow the above instructions, you should be OK. But, since there are other greens that taste better, come out the same time of year, and don't have the oxalic acid issue, I have to wonder why bother at all with the Dock?

Fiddle Heads: I suggest avoiding any other "fiddle heads". Even if they are not the carcinogenic Bracken mentioned above, others can break down vitamin B in the body. If you do make the choice to eat them, I suggest keeping the quantity very low.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Many people recommend eating the cooked greens, and it is traditionally used both for the greens and the seeds as a spice like flavoring in parts of Europe where the plant is from. I do not use it, or recommend it. For one thing, it has high levels of cyanide in all parts of the plant. Another reason is the taste; although it is garlic like, is not a nice garlic like in my opinion - I think of it as the bad side of garlic taste, like second hand garlic. Also, it takes over the taste of anything it is cooked with, and there is a sickly quality to that taste. By the way, I love real garlic raw or cooked, so it is not an anti-garlic thing. But for me, the main reason is, I find it makes me feel slightly sick - like eating something that had gone a bit off, with an after taste of it that won't go away. This could be due to variations in taste depending on the soil where it is growing, I just don't like it, or it has morphed as a plant since coming to North America. Plants can change when they are in different environments. I don't know, but I truly cannot recommend it, and the high levels of cyanide in it are the final straw for me. Besides, there are way better greens to be found - for instance the White Mustard (Sinapis alba) which has a great fresh taste, adds some zing, plus if you want some garlic taste - add some garlic. Do more research and make your own choice, but I think there is a good reason why one of the names for Garlic Mustard in Europe is "Poor Man's Mustard".

Ground-ivy, Gill-over-the-ground or Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea). Known also as Alehoof, Catsfoot, Field Balm, Run-away-robin and Tunhoof. This is listed as not recommend to eat because there is a question of whether in food quantities it is safe for the liver and kidneys. I use this plant as a medicinal myself, and find it quite useful, but this is a book on what to eat as food, not a book on herbal medicines. If you keep the quantity low in the occasional teas, or using a few fresh leaves on a salad or cooked meal, it is safe. Think of this one as a medicine, not as a food you can gather a couple of cups of, cook and eat like spinach.

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). This is recommended by some as edible. They say they peel and eat the shoots in the spring. Really? Lets just say they taste really, really awful and bitter and are dangerously high in oxalic acid - like Rhubarb leaves. The Japanese do collect them, but before they eat them, they prepare them by soaking them in Magnesium chloride (called Nigari in Japanese food stores) and water for a day. This does two things, it draws out most of the bitterness, and according to some, removes the very high levels of oxalic acid from the plant. My opinion is, there are much better things to eat the same time of year that do not require processing with expensive Magnesium chloride, and taste better even when they are processed. And one more caution. This is a very invasive species that many towns and counties spray with poisons to eradicate.

Jewelweed. Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and Yellow Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida). I've seen either version of this plant listed as edible. Never eat this plant raw - the most likely outcome will be throwing up, and later the scoots. When listed as edible, it is noted that you have to boil it in two changes of water to get out the chemicals that make you sick, then use it in other meals. I don't know why anyone would do that, as the texture and taste is not pleasant. Also, even if you do boil it in two changes of water, you should only use the leaves and shoots from very young plants. This plant is not worth it for food, however it does have its uses, see here.

Penny-cress (Thlaspi). This is listed as a wild edible by many sources. Not poisonous in itself, and it is edible, but this plant has the remarkable ability to extract from the soil and accumulate heavy metals in the leaves - toxic heavy metals including the highly toxic Cadmium. It is so good at doing this, it is known as a hyperaccumulator. The problem is, how do you know what metals are present in the soil the plant is growing in? Even clean soils can be naturally high in metals. If you know for sure there are no heavy metals in the soil you find Penny-cress growing in, then it is a safe edible.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Some books on edible foods and websites list the young shoots and leaves in the spring - properly prepared - as an edible. Just avoid this one. If you get it wrong, it will make you very sick. You have to get the very young leaves and shoots before they become too poisonous. Even if you do get the timing right, you have to remove the poisons by repeated boiling in water, and pouring out at least three times. From my perspective, it is not worth chancing it.

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum). The young shoots are edible if boiled in water, but the leaves are poisonous and can cause vomiting. The plant is rare in many woods now due to over harvesting of the root for medicinal use, so best just to let this one be.

Trout Lily or Dog's Tooth (Erythronium). Known also as the Fawnlily. There is an entry for the bulb of this plant Under the "Roots & Tubers" section. I have seen references to the leaves being edible as well. I don't suggest eating them for two reasons. One, you have to cook them and pour out the water, but even then it can make you feel sick, and depending on the quantity, throw up. If you do choose to eat them, keep to low quantities, which is not hard, as the taste is strong. The other concern is this plant is known to cause an allergic skin reaction on some people. I don't know, but if it causes a reaction on the skin, it seems reasonable there is the possibility of a worse reaction internally.

Winter Cress or Yellow Rocket (Barbarea). There are a few species of Barbarea in North America.

Until the last few years, I would eat this plant. However, there are recent studies that show eating it can cause Kidney problems. Until this issue is resolved fully, I suggest avoiding it altogether. If you choose to eat it, I'd suggest boiling it first, not using the water, and keeping the amounts you eat small.

Canada Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) I've seen this listed as a root for flavoring food because it tastes like regular ginger, but it is known to be carcinogenic.

Cow Parsnip roots (Heracleum maximum). First, it can look a lot like the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). Second, the plant when touched leaves the skin sensitive to bad blistering sunburns. Third, some people are very allergic to the plant. Fourth people have died mistaking the root of the Water Hemlock for this one. It just isn't worth it to me.

Trout Lily, Dog's Tooth or Fawnlily (Erythronium). There are two that I have eaten on the east side of North America: The Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) and the White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum). There are a couple of others, but I don't know their edibility.

I had to think whether I should put the corm of the Trout Lily in the edible section, or the not recommended. I decided to put it here in the not recommended just to be cautious. If you do eat it, only eat very small amounts. More than a little can make some people throw up. Where I live, this plant is very common in the woods, so there is little chance of wiping it out from harvesting too much, but I understand there are areas where it is rare, so please take that into account if you decide to harvest some.

Raw, the corm tastes cucumber-ish - sort of. It can also be cooked in with any kind of meal, but toasted lightly, they taste not bad.

The leaves are up only in the spring, but if you know where they are, you can dig them almost any time of year you can get at them. For such a little plant, it is surprising how deep these corms can be - up to 15 cm (6 inches) deep is not unusual. The leaves are very straightforward to identify: they are green and purple-red mottled on the upper surface, and green only on the underside.

Season: Year Round if the soil can be dug

Urban, Rural or Both: Rural Mainly - in Woods


Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.

White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit root (Arisaema triphyllum) – this is listed in some books and websites as edible with proper processing - months and months of drying the thin tuber slices in a warm place, or hours in an oven. However, I very strongly suggest leaving this one alone as it can cause a lot of pain, sickness or possibly even death (if you have kidney health issues) if not prepared perfectly. Besides, this plant can live decades, and gathering the tuber kills it - all for about the same amount of starch as a small potato - why do it? (By the way, don't listen to anyone who says you can make them edible by boiling - it is not true)

Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) – the root is the relative of the carrot, but there are good reasons to stay away from this one. First touching the leaves on the plant can leave the area where you touched vulnerable to sunburns. Second, the root is only good in the first year (it is a two season plant). The problem is, it is harder to identify in the first year, and there are plants that look like it in the first year that are poisonous. Also, even if you do get it right, it is not worth it in my opinion - don't think "nice crunchy fresh carrot". More like, tiny, woody carrot. Grow white carrots instead if you have the place to do it.

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum). Although listed in some places as an edible tuber, you have to change the water a few times while boiling to remove the poisons that will make you feel sick. Also, in many woods, the plant is rare, and it is best just to leave it be.

Water Parsnip (Sium suave). Sadly, I have to recommend not eating this one. It is too easily confused with the Water Hemlock or Cowbane, which are close relatives. A mistake could mean your life, and it's too big of a chance to take for the sake of a little food. Parsnips are easy to grow, and cheap to buy, so if you want that taste, just buy or grow a Parsnip - that's what I do. If you do decide to harvest and eat the Water Parsnip, make sure you are 100% sure with each and every aspect. Some people believe you can tell if it is Water Parsnip by smell, as the Water Hemlock has a foul smell. This is true with the Spotted Water Hemlock, but not true with the Cowbane or Northern Water Hemlock. The Parsnip like roots of the Cowbane have a sweet Parsnip taste and smell, and the leaves have a pleasant Dill like smell when crushed. If that is not bad enough, there is also the poisonous Stiff Cowbane which grows in the same places as the Water Parsnip, and has the same flowers and many of the same characteristics - it too is a close relative. See here for more on the Water Hemlocks and Cowbanes.

Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa). This was the hardest one to put in the not recommended section. I love Parsnips, and technically, it is the same plant as the domestic version. But, I put it here for good reasons. First off, you don't seem to get much with them in the wild. They are usually tiny and thin - like rat tails. Second, you have to get them in the fall of the first year when they are not flowering. When in flower, they are much easier to identify. There are many similar looking plants that are very poisonous, and getting it wrong is serious. Third, if you are gathering the first year ones, there is very likely to be second year ones around. If the greens of the second year ones touch your skin, you can get very nasty burns with long term scars. Again, parsnips are easy to grow, and cheap to buy, so if you want that taste, just buy or grow a Parsnip - that's what I do. Make sure you pull all out of your garden by the end of the first year. If you do decide to harvest and eat the Wild Parsnip, make sure you are 100% sure with each and every aspect in identifying and be very careful not to let the greens of second year ones touch your skin - wear gloves and a long sleeve shirt and long pants and wash your clothes when you get home. For a full description of this plant go here.

Burning Bush Berries (Euonymus alatus). See theBarberries page as well.

There is one shrub/small tree that has fruit that looks very similar to the Barberry shrubs, and is ripe at the same time. It is the Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus). Known also as the Winged Spindle & Winged Euonymus. This is a landscape small tree that has naturalized all over Eastern North America, and is often found in the same places you would expect to find a Barberry. It seems the fruit from the Burning Bush, though not outright poisonous, is not generally accepted as edible. Seems from what I can gather, small amounts won't hurt you. Regardless, you don't want to mistake it and end up making a pile of jam from this one. Most of the time (but not always) you will see what appear to be wing like structures running along the branches. Also, this one does not have thorns, and there is a pair of what look like small Maple keys over the fruit (although they could have fallen off by the time you see it). I have included a picture, so you know what is not a Barberry. When the Burning Bush is small, it can really look like a European Barberry except the fruit is not in big clusters. Also, there are many cultivars of the Burning Bush, so the description is broad.

Pictures on the web of the Burning Bush here (Google images) and here (Bing images).

Pictures on the web of the Burning Bush Fruit here (Google images) and here (Bing images).

This is the Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus). Note the wing like structures on the branches, no thorns, and the Maple key like structure over the fruit, and the fruit is not in clusters of many berries - this is how you know this one is NOT a Barberry.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) berries are not recommended by me. The seeds in the berries are very poisonous. I have read about making juice from the berries, then straining out the seeds, but I can't see why bothering to take that chance.

Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea). Although not poisonous (not really tasty either), I very strongly suggest staying away from the berries of the Red Osier Dogwood. They can look almost identical to the berries from the Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). The Poison Sumac is a far more dangerous plant than Poison Ivy, Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), as it has the same toxin (Urushiol), but in higher concentrations. Poison Ivy berries look like them too. The berries also look remarkably like the poisonous White Baneberry or Doll's-eyes. They also look a lot like the Round-Leaved Dogwood (Cornus rugosa) berries. I am not sure if those berries are poisonous, but I have never found a reference to them being edible, so best to assume they are inedible.

Pictures of Poison Sumac berries on the web here (Bing images). Ignore the pictures of the Red fuzzy berries - those are not Poison Sumac.

Pictures of Poison Ivy berries on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).

Pictures of White Baneberry or Doll's-eyes berries on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).

Pictures of the Round-Leaved Dogwood on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) - Not Recommended.

I suggest not eating the berries from the Red Elderberry, as the seeds are apparently quite toxic. The berries have been used as food by native Americans, but they were very careful to never consume the seeds. If you choose to eat these berries, make sure they are cooked and make sure you do not consume the seeds. I will say, that in doing research on the berries of this plant, there is a lot of conflicting opinions on the toxicity. Some say the berries are toxic raw, some say they are OK raw if you don't eat the seeds, some say the berry and seeds are safe if cooked, some say the berries are safe if cooked as long as you strain out and don't eat the seeds. I don't bother with them at all, but if you choose to, go the safest route and eat only cooked with the seeds strained out.

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