If you were to walk through a nice landscape, surrounded by flowers, shrubs, trees and ground covers, your first thought probably wouldn’t be “what can I eat here?” Yet if things get ugly, it’s a really good idea to know what can be harvested and eaten in an emergency.
Not all of the following plants are tasty, but many of them are good to know in case of a meltdown – and even if things don’t get bad, there are some plants on this list that are quite tasty and worth adding to your diet. I’ve written before on edible landscaping and its value; today, I’m adding some great wild species as well. There are edible plants everywhere.
Ready to discover 10 plants you didn’t know were edible? Keep reading!
(WARNING: Just for legal reasons, I’m putting this here: don’t eat anything without checking with a local expert unless you’ve made proper funeral arrangements. And don’t sue us.)
Elephant ears are a common decorative plant across the nation. Up north, they’re often grow in containers or carefully overwintered. In the southern half of the nation, they’re usually a dieback perennial or even a year-round attraction for those lucky enough to live in mild climates. Yet despite their value as a landscape plant, there are many elephant ears that are also tasty. Some, like taro and malanga, are even staple crops.
Here’s the problem: it’s hard to know what kind of “elephant ear” you have unless you plant them yourself. Some contain high levels of calcium oxalate crystals that can seriously burn your throat and even hurt your hands if handled carelessly.
DO NOT EAT ANY ELEPHANT EAR RAW
I can’t stress that enough. It will hurt you. Badly.
That said, taro and malanga are both delicious root crops when prepared properly. You can usually find viable roots in grocery stores – and particularly in Asian markets – so plant those and read up on how to prepare them. I’ve had a wonderful dish called “Callaloo soup” down in the Caribbean which is made from liquified and cooked malanga leaves.
Unlike elephant ears, canna lilies aren’t going to burn you and they’re also easy to identify. They’re a relative of bananas and gingers, often grown for their showy flowers. Don’t get them confused with the poisonous calla lily, which looks quite a bit different, especially when in bloom.
The flower petals are great in salads, with a mild lettuce flavor. We use them regularly to add color and variety. The roots are also edible, though some sites will tell you they take a long, long time to cook well. I’ve thrown them in the crockpot in the morning and eaten them for dinner. Good, but they do have fibers in them. The starch is healthy and filling.
Green Deane has a good post on cannas here – and I’ve written a “Survival Plant Profile” with more information here.
There are sorrels all across the United States and beyond. It’s a common weed, but also has various members of the family which are used as ornamentals or even staple crops. All are edible, according to every report I’ve ever read. I’ve sampled many varieties and found the leaves tangy and tasty, with a nice lemony-tart flavor. In my nursery I grow purple oxalis, since it’s not only edible, it’s quite ornamental. You would starve before gathering enough leaves to live on, but as an addition to salads, soups and stir-fries, they’re quite good.
I’ve written on nettles before. Most people think a plant as stinging and scary as the nettle must be poisonous, but it’s not. Cooked, the greens are flavorful and very good for you. They’re also good for making liquid fertilizers. Read my previous post on them for more ideas.
Pine trees are usually a minor edible but they’re good to know about in case of an emergency. The needles can be made into a good vitamin-C-rich tea and the pine nuts are edible, though in many species they’re barely worth hunting down. Beyond that, they’re also a source of survival carbohydrates, as shown in this clip from the Discovery Channel:
Smilax, also known as greenbriars or just briars, are the bane of the land-clearing homesteader. The vigorous and thorny vines love to rip at your legs as you hike and cut your hands as you stagger through the brush, running from the chupacabra. However, the new shoots that appear in spring (and here and there through the summer and fall) are good eating. These are very good edible plants. The flavor is similar to asparagus (of which it’s a relative) and are good enough to eat on a regular basis. Break the soft new shoots off where they snap easily (and after the old, thorny growth) and steam or saute them. With butter and garlic, they’re a treat. We eat them whenever we have time to take a walk and gather some.
The American beautyberry is a lovely plant with berries that look so bright pink-purple that you’d assume they’re poisonous. Fortunately, they’re not, though the flavor is bland and mealy. They also have a little bit of a resinous flavor – but that doesn’t stop my children. They really come into their own as a jam and they’re hard to mistake for any other plant. The leaves are also reportedly good for mosquito repellent, though my cigar-smoking seems to work better.
Like smilax, this is another hated plant. Pigweed comes in different irritating forms that like to get into pastures, gardens and unmown fields. Some are really spiny and some are not. All are edible. As a cooked green they’re nutritious and healthy. Basically, pigweeds are a wild amaranth relative and can be used in the same way. We add the leaves to salads and our cooking, though the cultivated forms have much better yields on their leaves and seeds.
Cattail are classic wild edible plants, though many people still don’t recognize it for the survival plant it is. You can eat the inside of the stems and use the pollen from the mature heads as a protein-rich flower.
Again, Green Deane has a great article on them here.
Wild prickly pears aren’t easy to harvest, but they’re delicious. It’s hard to ID any particular species, but you can rest at ease knowing that there are no reports of any “pad” cactus being poisonous. I’ve eaten multiple types and enjoyed their refreshing taste. The green pads range in flavor from green peppers to okra and green beans. Some even have a nice bit of saltiness to them that’s quite good. For a look at their cultivated relative, check out my previous post on nopales.
Processing is a pain. I like to burn the spines off over an open flame, but you can also carefully cut them away with a knife, then wash the pads to get rid of lingering poky bits. Watch out for the tiny spines called “glochids.” They can get you before you realize it and they’ll wreck your afternoon. I once got them in the roof of my mouth when wild foraging.
Finally, no matter where you go, there’s something to eat. If there’s wildlife, chances are there’s something that can feed you.
Now go ye out and feast! (Whilst of course remembering thou my previous warning on sundry foodstuffs, experts, barristers, etc.)