If you haven’t yet ventured into the world of foraging, it might be more within your reach than you think. Many of the best and most nutritious wild edibles grow right in your garden, along your woods or around your house, and like vegetables, each have their seasons. Lucky for us, some of the tastiest wild edibles grow—or at least mature—in the fall.
A Quick Note About Foraging
I think everyone should try foraging. It is a fun, seasonal activity the whole family can take part in. However, find several trusted regional sources to help confirm your finds. Many safe-to-eat plants have dangerous look-alikes, so avoid consuming anything you haven’t positively identified, and always start by tasting small amounts first. Also, never eat anything from areas regularly sprayed with herbicide or that grow along a busy roadside, as they can be contaminated.
Now on to the fall menu …
One of the more refreshing wild edibles, chickweed (pictured above) is a prolific treat. It’s great for salads, salves and garnishes, and often comes up when most other plants are going down for the winter.
What’s Edible: leaves and stem
How to Identify It: Chickweed is low-growing and green with tender oval, almost tear-drop-shaped leaves. There are several different types of chickweed, but the best tasting has leaves that grow out of the stem––not the hairy chickweed or the chickweed without a stem, which are both edible though not as succulent.
Where to Find It: fertile areas and gardens, typically growing in mounds when uncultivated
Growing Season: fall and spring
How to Eat It: A chickweed salad is a refreshing and healthful side dish, especially when topped with a creamy vinaigrette, some pears and toasted nuts. Chickweed is also known for its skin-soothing properties, so you can make any extra you may find into a nice skin salve.
2. Wood Sorrel
If you like a good herb, few are as bright and cheerful as the wood sorrel. It is tart, lively and just a little adds a lot of flavor.
What’s Edible: leaves, flowers, young seed pods and tender stems
How to Identify It: “There are no poisonous look-alikes,” as Chris Bennet notes in Southeast Foraging (Timber Press, 2015). Common lookalikes are clover or common phlox, but neither is poisonous. Wood sorrel looks similar to clover but with thinner, cleaner leaves on a taller plant. The sorrel flowers are small, yellow and edible, and the resulting seed pods are tart and tasty bursts of flavor when young.
Where to Find It: around the edge of the woods or in shady parts of the garden
Growing Season: spring through early fall
How to Eat It: Wood sorrel is best in salads, but it can also be added to juices or as a garnish to fish. This wild edible is also known for being a blood cleanser, as well as good for stomach issues like indigestion.
3. Rose Hips
I appreciate a plant that fights me all year long, scratches and scrapes me, then rewards me with a nice treat at the end of the season. Rose hips are that treat.
What’s Edible: the flesh of the red berries
How to Identify It: Rose hips are the bright-red berries that grow on most every rose variety. Rose plants in general are identified by their thorns and flowers throughout the year, then their thorns and clusters of red berries in the fall and early winter—before the squirrels and birds find them.
Where to Find It: on mature rose bushes at the edges of woods, near streams or around houses
Growing Season: fall and winter
How to Eat It: Although the seeds have been known to cause some intestinal distress, the flesh is a tart, tasty treat that can be nibbled off the raw berries (kids particularly enjoy this endeavor). Or boil rose hips––seeds and all––to make a tea high in vitamin C, then strain out the pulp and serve as is or add to a sauce, sorbet or soup. The hips themselves are also high in vitamins K, A and E, as well as manganese, calcium, magnesium and dietary fiber, according to OutdoorLife.com.
I know seeing this plant on the list has given some of you a double take—you can eat goldenrod? But yes, this ridiculously prolific, and sometimes unwanted, flower be fun and colorful to cook with—or dye with, but that’s for another article.
What’s Edible: the yellow plume of flowers
How to Identify It: In the late summer and into the fall, goldenrod starts sending out its flower plumes. These flowers are an earthy but vibrant yellow, growing about 4 to 6 feet high.
Where to Find It: Pastures and the edges of gardens with good sunlight.
Growing Season: late summer to early fall
How to Eat It: Use the yellow goldenrod flowers to make a bright tea by simmering them for half an hour or more. You can then drink this earthy tea, make a stock for soup or use it to poach fish––a fun thing to do with children for the bright-yellow color it produces.
Few things are more exciting to find in your pond or creek than a patch of fresh watercress. This spicy green makes a spectacular and somewhat spicy salad or garnish for pizzas.
What’s Edible: leaves and tender part of the stem
How to Identify It: Leaves are green and tender, occasionally with a slight red tint. On the stem, smaller lobed leaves lead to one larger, central round lobe. Stems are generally not more than a few inches in length––if you find a similar but taller plant, be careful as it could be the poisonous water hemlock. The leaves of water hemlock are more pointed, however, and tend to have a yellowish-green tint.
Where to Find It: shallow ponds and creeks.
Note, watercress should only be eaten from trusty water sources. Watch out for farm animal or factory runoff upstream.
Growing Season: fall and spring
How to Eat It: Watercress—like chickweed—is one of those exciting foraged greens that can be eaten in large bunches and makes for great salads or pestos. It can also be cooked and made into soups, sauces or even used to top pizzas or sandwiches.
“No green plant produces more edible starch per acre than Cat O’Nine Tails;” according to EatTheWeeds.com. “Not potatoes, rice, taros or yams.” Or put another way, we have all underestimated and under-appreciated our beloved cattails.
What’s Edible: lower stalk and roots (fall); the pollen and young stalks (summer)
How to Identify It: Look for the iconic “corndog” seed head, and follow that down to the oval base where you will dig the rhizome and cut the lower stalk.
Where to Find It: In swampy, moist edges of ponds and lakes. Avoid harvesting on roadsides or from sites near industrial runoff.
Growing Season: Different parts are edible all seasons. The rhizomes and lower stalk edible in the fall and winter.
How to Eat It: The young shoots are juicy and fresh, similar in taste to cucumbers. Use in salads or cold soups. The roots can be dried and crushed then used as a flour.
7. Wild Carrot
Although wild carrot, aka Queen Anne’s lace, is not exactly the same as cultivated carrots—as it is often more intensely and complexly flavored—the this plant can truly enliven a meal.
What’s Edible: roots and seeds
How to Identify It: Wild carrot is a biennial, but the goal is to harvest the root it in the first year, the seeds in the second. Many people worry about this plant because of its resemblance to the poison hemlock and fool’s parsley, but if you are very careful, and learn the difference, you won’t have any problems. For instance, wild carrots have hairy stalks, whereas hemlock does not. Instead, poison hemlock has a vertical line and a small white “bloom” that will rub off when touched. Wild carrot also smells distinctly of carrot in both the whitish roots and stem. Poison hemlock smells very faint, and fool’s parsley just smells inedible. As for the roots, wild carrots roots are white and tapered, whereas poison hemlock is not. For a really great breakdown of the differences, check out Samuel Thayer’s book Nature’s Garden (Forager’s Harvest Press, 2010).
Where to Find It: in disturbed ground, gardens, and the edge of pastures
Growing Season: roots (fall to spring); seeds (fall)
How to Eat It: Use the roots anywhere you would cook with carrots, though use less as they are generally more intense and often have a woody core that should be removed. Start soups and sauces with them. Put them in your kraut-chi. You will find a place for them, I’m sure. As for the seeds, use in place of fennel, dill or caraway seeds or toasted and thrown into curries.