Thursday, April 23, 2015

Eating Wild: Identifying the Wild Edible Plants in Your Own Backyard

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of plant and people faces! Mother Earth News Fair had an incredible turn-out of 18,000 people, welcoming folks from throughout the Southeast as well as a good number from up North who traveled all the way down to Asheville for the event. In Hot Springs, I had the pleasure of greeting a good smattering of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who had journeyed 275 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia and walked into their first town sitting literally on the trail.

Since the Mother Earth News Fair, I've had some requests for a recap of my presentation, Eating Wild: Identifying the Wild Edible Plants in Your Own Backyard. Here is that to follow. Please know that this summary is not complete with edible, inedible, and poisonous look-a-like information. Therefore, do not rely upon this summary alone before you go out picking in your yard. This is meant only as a recap. Thank you to all who attended!

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) - This species now includes several species once thought to be distinct. As a result, the flower color can range from purple to purple and white to pure white. Leaves will be long-stalked and basal.
The Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) with a purple and white coloration
Violets can be identified by their irregular, spurred flowers and can range in color from purple, purple and white, white, cream, to yellow. Many Violets will bear only long-stalked basal leaves, although some will have alternate. Leaves are almost always heart-shaped, with a few of our mountain species possessing rounded bases, and palmately veined. Leaves will most often be toothed, although some species will be lobed.

Typical heart shaped leaves of the Violet
The lobed leaves of the Early Blue Violet (Viola palmata)
There are nearly 600 species of Violet in the world, with as many as 30 in our North Carolina mountains and piedmont regions.

Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucllata) - look for this species beside streams, rivers, and seepage areas. The flower perches atop a particularly long stalk reaching above its still long-stalked basal leaves.
Canadian Violet (Viola Canadensis) - Look for this species at higher elevation, in woods, oftentimes amidst thick vegetation. This Violet will bear alternate leaves and can grow particularly tall, reaching 8" in height
Look for Violets in grassy areas such as on lawns or trailside, residing in partial sun to full sun.

All species of Violet (Viola spp.), except for those that bear yellow flowers, are edible. Even these may sometimes be consumed, but they cause some folks nausea and I find them to be more rare, so simply better to be left alone.

Viola sororia adorning deviled eggs with paprika and dill

Violet flowers can range in flavor from sweet to spicy to minty and are best eaten raw. They make a  fresh decoration to cakes, pasta dishes, salads, or as you can see here, deviled eggs. You may coat them in egg wash and sugar them for candied Violet. They look lovely frozen in ice cubes and added to lemon water or an herbal iced tea.

Leaves may be eaten raw or cooked (this is preferable later in the season when they become more fibrous), and have a spinach-like quality. Steam or sauté and add them to pasta, eggs, stir-frys, or bake in lasagna, quiche, or croissants. If you are picking leaves without the presence of a flower, worry not about discerning the yellow Violets from the other species. The 3 species in our region have very distinct leaves that look less desirable anyway, being hairy, rounded, or mottled, and simply tough.

The basal rosette of Garlic Mustard (Alliara officinalis)
Garlic Mustard (Alliara officinalis) will begin in its first year as a basal rosette sitting close to the ground. However in its second year it can grow up to 3 feet tall with leaves alternate on the stem. Leaves are heart-shaped, long-stalked with spidery looking palmate veins, and scalloped margins.

Flower buds of Garlic Mustard (Alliara officinalis)
 Being that Garlic Mustard is a member of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae), the same family as say, Broccoli, its parts bear a certain resemblance to its relatives. The flowering buds can look like little broccoli florets before opening up into small 4-petaled white flowers.

As many of the gardeners probably already know all too well, Garlic Mustard is highly invasive, taking over the edges of lawns, lining hedges or fence-lines, and lining roadsides. Originally from Europe, there are no insects here that naturally feed on it. It also produces a chemical that suppresses the mycorrhizal fungi that other plants require for health. This chemical of course does not affect native fungi. Deer also have no interest in this plant and do a good job of trampling the soil while eating all the plants surrounding it, and planting the seeds that the plant has flung.

Orzo pasta salad with Garlic Mustard pesto, cherry tomatoes, and black olives
The good news is that all parts of this plant are edible! The flowers, flowerbuds (which I find to be tastiest), and leaves all impart a flavor you would expect, that of garlic with a hint of mustard. Add the leaves, flowers and buds raw or cooked leaves to anything you wish to impart that flavor to such as eggs, chili, veggie stews,  salads and wraps. They also make any excellent pesto when pureed raw with your typical pesto ingredients (see my post: for a recipe). The roots have a strong horseradish-like flavor and may be used to impart heat to any dish.

Creeping Bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia)
Bluets (Houstonia) are weak-stemmed tiny plants with proportionately tiny opposite leaves. Flowers are 4-petaled, white to blue, and only 1/4 - 1/2" wide. There are two species in our region, Creeping Bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia) and simply the Bluet ( Houstonia caerulea) that are very difficult to discern from one another, however it matters not as far as edibility.

Look for Bluets amongst grassy areas, such as meadows, lawns, grassy trails, or amongst tufts of grass at the bases of trees. I tend to use these like sprouts, and it is easy to harvest a clump of them, given that they will often grow in mats or at least abundance. All above grounds parts are edible. Simply grab a handful and with a sharp knife, slice at base of stems. They are best added raw to salads or sandwiches, as they will not hold up to cooking.

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweeds consist of 2 genus, Stellaria and Cerastium, with Stellaria being the tastiest of the two. Flowers can grow from 3" to a couple feet tall. Leaves are opposite, stems are succulent with a clear juice when broken. Flowers are 5-petaled and so deeply cleft that they appear to be 10-petaled. Stamen are conspicuous, being brown-tipped, numbering 5-10. These are one of the first plants to flower in spring.

Great Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) - found in woods, oftentimes at higher elevations.
Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) - this species is best consumed cooked unless you don't mind a mouthful of fine fur, which covers the plant.
All of the above ground parts of Chickweed are edible and are best raw before the plant has gone to seed, and better cooked afterwards. The entire plant is sweet and crisp. Chickweed is a nutritional powerhouse containing Vit. C, B6, D, A, rutin, biotin, choline, magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphate, and manganese. It is also considered a traditional spring cleanser, increasing the efficiency of the entire glandular system. Add to salads, sandwiches, wraps, or stir-frys, or simply make a tea using 1 large handful of plant to 12 oz of water for nutritional benefits.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Cleavers (Galium aparine) is an all-over prickly plant due to its tiny rough hairs. Its stem is square and leaves are whorled, 6-8, and evenly spaced along stem. Two flowering stalks arise from each leaf axil, 2-3 flowers to a stalk. Flowers are white, 4-petaled, and less than 1/8" wide, and turn to bristly seeds come summer and fall.

Find this plant along the edges of your lawn or garden, and in thickets of weeds. Cleavers will create tall-standing carpets.

All above ground parts of edible and should be cooked so as to not irritate the throat. However, they may be eaten raw if rolled into a tight pill-ball first and then eaten. Otherwise, sauté or steam and add to eggs, stir-frys, oats or grits. Ol' timers considered it a spring cleanser as well and would stew it in oats to "increase lankness."

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion, the common sunny flower of our lawns and roadsides. Flowers are made up of a collection ray florets cupped by green bracts. Each plant produces just one non-branching hollow stem with one flower. The stem arises from a basal rosette of deeply lobed leaves, lobes downward pointing.

Dandelion leaves
Although this may be another loathsome weed, the good news again is that all parts are edible! As well as highly medicinal, however I will save that for another blog post.

Roots may be sautéed, boiled, or roasted and served with sweet veggies to balance their inherent bitterness. They possess inulin, a pre-biotic, when harvested in the fall.

Leaves may be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches when young or sautéed, steamed, or boiled as they age and become a bit tougher. They will become more bitter after the plant has flowered, however boiling in a couple changes of water will decrease this flavor, although you will also sacrifice its nutritional value. Dandelion leaves possesses Vit. C, B, E, D, biotin, inositol, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.

Veggie quiche with Dandelion leaves, florets, and Violet leaves
The flowers may be battered and deep-fried or used to adorn salads or baked goods raw. The florets pulled from the bracts are a nice addition to baked goods as well such as breads, cookies, and pancakes.

Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis)
Last but not least, there is Wood Nettle (Laportea Canadensis), not to be confused with the also edible, but also medicinal and non-native, Stinging Nettle (Urtica diocia). Although not at part of its common name, Wood Nettle is still distinguished by its many needle-like translucent stinging hairs. Leaves are alternate and egg-shaped, with toothed margins. Male and female flowers are on separate plants and gathered along racemes.

Fine needle-like hairs of Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) 
Look for this plant in your wooded yards or along the edges of woods, as well as streamside and trailside.

The leaves of this plant are incredibly edible once cooked rendering them harmless. Sautee, steam, or boil the leaves adding them to stews, stir-frys, eggs, casseroles, or croissants. Use as you would cooked spinach. They have a very mild green pleasant taste. They possess calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, silica, iodine, sodium, sulfur, Vit. C, A, and B.

The trick to harvesting Wood Nettle is to pluck with confidence! Or wear gloves. Check out my post: for more information on Wood Nettle.


  1. This is awesome! Very informative. Thanks!

  2. This is awesome! Very informative. Thanks!

  3. Can you recommend another forager/source that refers to Bluets as "everything above ground" edible? Thank you!

  4. Can you recommend another forager/source that refers to Bluets as "everything above ground" edible? Thank you!

    1. I'm sorry I cannot. This information about Bluets is simply knowledge that was passed on to me from other local experts. However I can tell you I have eaten plenty this way and suffered no ill effects :)