Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Basic Rules and Cautions
Know what you are picking. Get the right books or study pictures and descriptions of the plants mentioned on this site on the internet and have someone who can show you without doubt. If you are not sure, and you are going to harvest one of the plants mentioned and eat it, follow the links, look at many pictures and know the plants that can look like it. Some plants can make you very ill and some can kill, so, when in doubt: throw it out. Also make sure you know the common poisonous plants so you can avoid them. This can take time, and if you are not willing to put in the effort, I do not suggest just hoping for the best and going out and picking what's around.
- Do not pick from ditches along roads. They are just too polluted with all sorts of chemicals to be worth it.
- Do not pick from areas where there is a chance of chemical spraying, that is, along fence lines of parks etc.
- Always start with small quantities. Some people are allergic to certain plants. If you have never had something before - you don't know. Don't find out by eating a large quantity. Each season start again by eating a small amount. People change. When I was young, I was very allergic to White Cedar trees (Thuja occidentalis). Just touching one would make my skin turn red and bumpy. Now I have no reaction at all. When I was young I could eat corn, now even small amounts make me quite sick.
- With any food, I suggest eating it in moderation, even if you are not allergic. I believe that is a good policy for almost anything.
- I do not recommended fiddle heads. Some varieties are safe, some break down vitamin B in the body, some are considered carcinogenic. One of the most commonly eaten Fiddle Heads is the sprout from the Bracken Fern. It has been associated with stomach cancer, and even the British Horticultural Society warns against eating it. For almost five years I lived in the woods of Central Ontario south-east of Algonquin Park. In my yard around my garden were huge patches of Bracken, in fact, the whole area was just full of it. It was a nuisance, as it kept trying to invade my garden with its powerful runners. Local old-timers from there kept telling me how good the fiddle heads were from those Bracken, and one told me he used to pick them from my yard decades ago every spring, starting when he was young growing up nearby. Every one of those old-timers who told me they ate Bracken either had bowel cancer or stomach cancer. In a region of Japan, where Bracken fiddle heads are commonly eaten, they have one of the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world.
- The best place to start is with field plant leaves, seeds and nuts and berries. This will not kill the plant, and there are fields almost everywhere.
- Be knowledgeable of what plants to avoid at all cost. Obviously, Poison Ivy and Western Poison Ivy comes to mind, know them well. Poison Ivy can take different shapes and sizes. They can be little forest floor plants and they can be red haired vines climbing up the sides of trees. Western Poison Ivy is shrub to small tree sized, and I've even seen one that was about 4-5 inches thick at the base that was a small tree, on the side of the Thames River just west of London, Ontario - it was 10-12 feet tall. Sometimes I find it is very hard to tell a baby Manitoba Maple (Acer negundo) from a small Poison Ivy as the leaves are incredibly similar, so don't touch unless you are sure. Please read the section Dangerous Plants to Avoid Touching for all the plants I'm aware of that are dangerous to touch.
- Poison Oak (Toxicodendron pubescens) is a plant you should recognize. It's a tree, and the leaves are really oak like. This is one tree you should never touch.
- Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) as well. Be especially careful of the Poison Sumac if you are going to be gathering in very damp or wet areas. This plant has the same toxins that affect the skin as Poison Ivy and Oak, but in higher concentrations. This is one nasty plant. Know it well.
- Carrots are a close Relative of Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), but you had better be sure that you have identified them properly before consuming as they have close relatives (Poison Hemlock and Water Hemlock) that can kill you. Also, the root is only good in the first year before the flower heads come out, which is the easily identified part, so this is one plant I do not recommend. Even handling them can cause ultraviolet light sensitivity on the skin where touched, causing burns later on the skin after sun exposure.
- And speaking of the Water Hemlock (Cicuta), know this one if you are in a marshy area, along streams, ponds, or where the land is wet in the spring. This plant is beautiful to look at, and can grow up to eight feet tall. Do not touch it, and do not bring one indoors, even if you pick it with gloves. There is a story of an artist picking one, bringing it in for a still life painting subject, getting sick and having seizures just from the smell of it in his studio. A very dangerous plant.
- Another plant to know and avoid is Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). It looks like a very big version of the Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum). Both have chemicals on them that when touched and the skin exposed to light can cause nasty blistering burns with long term scars. The Giant Hogweed can cause blindness if you rub your eyes after touching it.
- One of the plants listed to eat in this book is the Burdock for it's root. The edible roots come from the first year of the plant which do not have burrs, but there will be second year plants all around, and unless you are careful, you will spend hours trying to get burrs out of your clothes, shoe laces, and anything with you. Don't let a dog in with these, you will probably have to cut them out of the fur. I suggest going on a cool fall day to collect them (First year roots in the fall are the only roots worth gathering) with rubber boots and plastic pants and jacket with rubber gloves. You will look so cool.
- If you are going to gather in fields and take a pet with you, be sure you have done your research on the grass plants in the "Hordeum" family, commonly called Foxtails. There are a few grasses called Foxtails, so be careful when using the web as a resource. A good place to start is here. I have seen web pages showing the wrong Foxtail plant in pictures on web pages warning about this issue.
- Every mushroom gatherer should know about the Destroying Angel mushrooms (Amanita bisporigera) and (Amanita ocreata) in North America. They are deadly poisonous to humans, but squirrels can eat them without harm apparently. There is a story of a small German village being entirely wiped out a couple of hundred years ago by a similar European species - accidentally eating some of these in a stew - and these people knew their mushrooms well. In the section on mushrooms I will tell what mushrooms you can use from the wild that are reasonably safe to identify, and just stay away from the rest until you are quite good at mushroom identification, and that does take time. I've been studying mushrooms since 1987, and they still surprise and stump me.
- Be careful of small holes in the ground when picking - it could be Yellow Jacket (Dolichovespula) and (Vespula) nests, and they are nasty little things.
- Don't eat root plants from flood plains of rivers in urban areas or downstream of sewage treatment plants.
- Ask permission if the plant you want is on private land. They are usually happy to see it gone, or don't care. I remember on a Shagbark Hickory nut picking day seeing a fairly young (50 years or so) Hickory tree with an amazing amount of fallen Hickory Nuts lying around it on the front yard of a house in the country. Knocked on the door and asked if they were going to pick them up or if I could have them. They said go for it, and were so thrilled I was cleaning up the yard, making it easier to mow, they went to the garage to bring me more boxes when I ran out. Ended up filling the back seat and hatchback section to overflowing. Filled up four large garbage cans when I got home (If you've ever had Shagbark Hickory nuts, you know how happy I was that day).
- Speaking of Shagbark Hickory nuts, if you find a good amount, do the world a favour: each time you go out for a walk in a woods, take a few with you and push some into the ground here and there. All you have to do is push them into the soil a couple of inches, cover and step on it.
- Start with substituting an ingredient in a recipe with a wild alternative. For example, using Lamb's Quarters instead of spinach (They are very closely related). Always start with very small amounts.
- Do Not assume if some animal eats it, it is safe for human consumption. Just consider this: Goats can eat poison ivy without problems, squirrels can eat mushrooms that are deadly poisonous to humans, birds can eat Buckthorn berries that will make a person very sick. Chocolate can kill dogs. Garlic is deadly toxic to both dogs and cats, but good for humans. ASA (Aspirin) can reduce the risk of stroke in some people, but is deadly to cats. Grapes and raisins are poisonous to both cats and dogs, Avocado is poisonous to cats, Onions are poisonous to cats. The list goes on, but the important point here is: Never think something is safe for you if it is safe for some other animal - and the other way around. Moral of this story: Don't assume a berry is safe if you see birds eating them, or a mushroom is safe if you see a squirel eating them, etc.
Take precautions to avoid ticks. Black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) carry Lyme disease, and it can be nasty. Flu like short term, and serious long term health issues are possible. This is not a small issue. Any walk in the woods or fields can bring you into their territory. Often, the same people who want to eat healthy, clean foods are the same ones who will not use DEET based repellents. I don't personally agree with that. I feel the Lyme disease is a far worse health threat than DEET. I would rather not use DEET myself, but if it comes to having Lyme disease or using DEET, I know which way I go. If there are alternative products you trust to replace DEET, at least use them instead of nothing.
What I suggest, is tucking your pants into your socks and spraying your clothing at the very least. Hopefully, if a tick does land on you, the DEET will make them jump off instead of trying to find a way in to skin. If you are going to go into these areas in shorts because it is hot, I really do suggest putting insect repellents on. Ticks get on you when you rub plants as you walk by. So, open paths with no plants rubbing you are safer that walking through overgrown fields where you are brushing against everything. Laying down in a field exposes you as well. Get to know all the Barberry shrubs. They attract Black-legged ticks, and your chance of getting a tick on you is greatly increased by close contact with this shrub. It is very common in both urban and rural environments, as the Japanese Barberry is a very common border shrub sold at nurseries.
Be careful of "simple rules". One of the worst I've heard is, "If you can peel the skin off the top of a mushroom, it is safe to eat". This is not true, and there are many of these simple rules floating around. You have to know each plant, one by one. Another one of these rules is, "Leaves of three, let it be" for Poison Ivy. But if all you know about it is that, and you touch the red hairs on a vine on the trunk of a tree, or rub your face through the leaves of a Poison Sumac tree which doesn't fit the rule, that rule isn't much help to you. If you don't know for sure what it is, and if it is safe, do not eat it, and don't touch it - especially true in areas where the land is damp most of the year. Sometimes the people who use simple rules have been lucky, but don't chance it.
Start by knowing one plant well, then move on to another. Over time you will build a solid understanding. Simple rules just stand in the way of that solid understanding.
Oxalic Acid in Foods
Many common foods contain oxalic acid in varying amounts. Oxalic acid can turn into calcium oxalate in the body, the main constituent of most kidney stones. Some plants are so high in oxalic acid that they are considered poisonous - Rhubarb leaves for example. Many plants have levels that are safe for the average person (if normal amounts are eaten), but a person with kidney function issues, who are prone to kidney stones, or who have certain other health conditions can be negatively affected, in some cases seriously.
Oxalic acid is soluble in water, so if you cook a food in water and pour the water away, the levels of oxalic acid will be reduced - how much seems to be a matter of some controversy. Also a matter of debate is whether cooking reduces the total absorbed oxalates. I have read articles saying yes, for sure, and I have read articles saying no, not at all.
From my own research, after developing kidney stones a few years ago, there is still uncertainty if oxalic acid and oxalates are the sole cause of kidney stones, but at the very least there seems to be a correlation. I provide this information just as a "heads up" so you can look into it further and make informed decisions for yourself.
I've included two links to search engine results for "Foods high in oxalic acid" below. If you have had kidney stones, or have kidney function issues, or have a family history of either, I strongly suggest, at the very least, investigating this issue further. I can tell you, kidney stones are very painful to pass, so I want to help anyone avoid getting them.
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