You might focus much of your energy this summer on your garden, but it’s a season to remember all the amazing uncultivated plants growing at the edge of your fields. As you might expect, summer is teeming with wild plants—growing where you may or may not want them to be growing—that have edible as well as medicinal uses. Here are a few plants that have captured my attention this summer that you might want to look for while you forage. As with all foraging expeditions, eat only those plants that you can positively identify—when it doubt, don’t put it in your mouth.
1. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Common milkweed, otherwise known as milkweed, has been traditionally eaten by Native American tribes for nourishment as well as medicinal benefits. It’s also an important plant for monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, which use the plant as food, so when foraging, I like to allow several plants go to seed.
- How to Spot It: Milkweed has a tall, erect stem with large oval alternate leaves and a large, purplish-pink, globe-like umbel flower perched at the top. Seed pods are easily spotted because of their large horn shape and are filled with seeds that are attached to silken hairs. The plant gets its name from the milk-like sap that erupts from the stem when snapped.
- Where to Find It: In fields throughout the central and eastern U.S. and Canada
- Parts to Pick: young tender shoots, flower buds, flower heads, seed pods
- How to Use It: There are many ways to cook up this plant: steam or saute the tender young shoots, fry up the flowerheads, or use the seed pods boiled or in soups. However, avoid eating the mature plant raw as the milky sap that can cause skin irritation and/or illness. For more ideas on using this wild food, consult a forager’s guide.
2. Mallow (Malva neglecta and other species)
Mallows are in the same family as okra, and you will note the same mucilaginous, or slimey, quality in the plants. While they aren’t native to the U.S., they have naturalized here and can be found quite commonly throughout the country.
- How to Spot It: Mallow is a low-growing plant with somewhat circular leaves that resemble a cheese wheel, hence the nickname “cheese weed.” The leaves contain a lot of mucilage and will seem slimy when torn.
- Where to Find It: In disturbed areas throughout the U.S. and Canada
- Parts to Pick: all parts
- How to Use It: The tender leaves can be used raw in salads or cooked; the mucilaginous quality makes it a great stew thickener. The flower heads can be used in place of capers. I’ve even read that you can use a decoction of the roots as an egg-white substitute.
3. Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Chicory root is well-known as a coffee substitute because of its dark color and bitter quality. It came into fashion during the Civil War, when ports were cut off to New Orleans, limiting the flow of coffee imports, and chicory root was added to the morning brew to make it stretch a little further. But while history might play into this use of the chicory plant, it has many more edible and medicinal benefits to offer.
- How to Spot It: You will first start to notice chicory in early summer, when spindly, sparsely leaved stalks emerge from the ground topped with periwinkle, daisy-like flowers that open in the early parts of the day. The leaves resemble dandelion leaves and might be confused with that plant before the stalks shoot up.
- Where to Find It: In fields and disturbed soils throughout the U.S. and Canada
- Parts to Pick: leaves and root
- How to Use It: Chicory is a highly bitter plant that has been used medicinally to promote liver health and lower blood sugar. While you can use the leaves as you would any green, some people enjoy them better cooked, which reduces their bitter quality. They’re also less bitter when picked as a tender green earlier in the season. Dig the root at the end of summer, roast and combine with roasted dandelion root for a caffeine-free coffee substitute. For some fun, add milk and chocolate to your bitter brew for a chicory mocha!
4. Blackberry Leaf (Rubus fruticosus and other species)
Wild blackberries will be fruiting out this time of year, but don’t overlook the other parts of this plant that can be foraged, as well.
- How to Spot It: Blackberry bushes are brambles with canes that grow thorny, dense and up to 13 feet tall. The dark-green compound leaves are made up of three to five leaflets, with a row of thorns up the center ridge at the back of the leaf.
- Where to Find It: In all types of soil and growing conditions throughout the U.S. and Canada.
- Parts to Pick: berries, leaves, root bark
- How to Use It: The tart berries can be used in all things you might consider using berries for: pies, muffins, jams, syrups and more. The root bark, which is best dug up in the fall, is often used medicinally as a treatment for diarrhea, though the leaves can also be harvested throughout the summer for a similar, albeit less potent, purpose. The leaves can also be used for a mucousy cough, cold, fever and sore throat.
5. Horseweed (Erigeron canadensis)
I’ve seen this weed sprouting up in parking lots my whole life with no no knowledge of its use or even its name. It’s now an herb that has piqued my interest because of its intense spicy flavor and array of uses.
- How to Spot It: Horseweed has erect stems with many alternate oblong or lance-shaped leaves; the flowers—yellow disks surrounded by white rays—are quite small yet numerous and bloom June through September.
- Where to Find It: In disturbed soils throughout the U.S. and Canada
- Parts to Pick: flowers or green parts before blooming
- How to Use It: Horseweed is spicy, so it can be use as a culinary herb to add flavor to a dish. Medicinally, it’s a powerful intestinal antibacterial used for conditions such as dysentery and diarrhea, and it can also be used to stop postpartum bleeding or bleeding from hemorrhoids. The plant has been used industrially to flavor soda drinks and also boiled during Native American sweat lodges.