Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- It’s crucial to correctly identify plants before consumption. If you are at all uncertain of any given plant’s identity or have any doubts about its safety, do not consume it. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and seek the advice of a local plant exper or your local health authorities.
- A wide variety of edible wild plants can be found across the globe, including the Prickly Pear Cactus, Pignut, Guarana, Cattails, and Black Crowberry.
- Preparation techniques vary by plant and can include removing spines, boiling, grilling, fermenting, drying, and more.
- Some plants also carry medicinal properties, like the Guarana plant, which is a powerful stimulant.
- Always be aware of potential risks, such as contamination of plants by soil or bacteria.
There is a wealth of edible wild plants to explore in every country in the world. While it’s impossible to make an exhaustive list of every wild plant, here are some of the most fascinating edible flora growing on Earth today.
Remember, never eat any wild plant you are not 100% sure you have identified correctly.
It’s best to find local experts in the plants of that area who can show you not only what a plant looks like but also how it smells and feels. Don’t just rely on a bad photograph.
Check out some of the most interesting wild edible plants below.
1. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia sp.)
The Prickly Pear cactus grows in the Mediterranean. It’s native to America but has naturalized in Africa and Australia. It has large, fleshy leaves that look like paddles. The flowers are usually yellow or pink. The fruits grow out of the paddles.
You can eat both the pads and the fruits. The pads are known as “nopales,” and the fruits are “tunas.”
You must remove the tiny glasslike spines before eating prickly pear; otherwise, you are in for an uncomfortable time. I have eaten some of these myself, and they stuck in my face for a whole two days.
Some tasty recipes include Nopale pockets, where you stuff the pads with cheese, onion, and tomato sauce, then boil or grill them. You can drink the juice, too. You can make jelly and turn the juice into lemonade.
2. Pignut (Conopodium majus)
Pignut grows in woods and grasslands in the UK and Europe. It’s a small, delicate-looking umbellifer, a member of the Carrot family of plants.
The flowers look like an upside-down umbrella and are white. Some plants in the Carrot family are poisonous, so do your research before you try them.
The edible part of Pignut is the tuber. This is about 20 cm (7.9 in) under the ground and looks like a nut. It can be eaten raw and tastes like hazelnuts.
This used to be a treat for the UK’s rural children. Now they are much rarer. It is illegal to dig up a wild plant without the landowner’s permission.
Peel the tough outer skin off your Pignuts to reveal the white inner root. You can ferment Pignuts in brine or dry them and grate them over dishes to give them a nutty flavor. You can slice them raw over a salad. Add them to the pesto in a pasta dish.
3. Guarana (Paullinia cupana)
Guarana, a powerful stimulant, is now a multimillion-dollar business. The indigenous Sateré-Mawé people of the Brazilian rainforest were the ones who first used it. Not only does guarana contain four times as much caffeine as coffee, but it also contains psychoactive substances that improve cognition.
Guarana has red-skinned fruits that best open when ripe, revealing a white fruit body with a black tip. It looks very much like an eyeball. It is native to the Maués region.
The guarana harvest starts when the Maués Acú river level drops, revealing the beautiful beach of Ponta da Maresia. The seed, which is dried, ground, and formed into batons, is used to make a sacred drink called capo.
4. Cattails (Typha latifolia)
Cattails are a wonder food traditionally used by the Paiute First Nation peoples and other indigenous peoples of North America.
They provide sustenance all year with edible roots, shoots, stems, and flower heads. They also have golden pollen that can be baked into cakes.
Cattails are tall water plants that are topped with a brown “hot dog” seed head come the autumn season. They have long, tough leaves that can be used for making baskets and mats. Their seeds are tufted with a flammable, waterproof down.
Cattails are classified as an invasive species. They propagate fast in slow-moving water and ponds.
5. Black Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)
There are several species of crowberry, but only one can be found in the Arctic Circle. These plants are in the Ericaceae (Heather family). They thrive in subarctic and boreal forest conditions.
Black Crowberry grows to 25 cm (9.8 in) tall. They are an important food source for native peoples of the subarctic and Arctic regions. Bears and voles will also eat them. The leaves are small and waxy.
The berries are acidic in flavor. They have a subtle taste and are better cooked or dried for use in recipes. They contain Vitamin C, which is hard to find in regions such as the Arctic, where not many edible plants can grow.
6. Bush Tomato (Solanum centrale)
The Australian Bush Tomato hails from the infamous Solanum family of plants. This includes not only the humble gardener’s tomato but also the deadly nightshade. It’s a small desert plant with five-petaled purple flowers.
Bush tomato foraging requires caution. They are all poisonous when unripe. Out of the 100 bush tomato species in Australia, only six or so are edible, even when ripe. Once you have located the right species, the fruits taste like—you guessed it—tomatoes.
Bush tomato is also known as “desert raisin.” It is an important food plant for the Aboriginal people of South Australia. The fruits are dried and ground as a spice for curries and casseroles.
7. Cossack Asparagus (Heracleum spondylum)
Cossack Asparagus is also known as Common Hogweed in Europe and the UK. It is related to Giant Hogweed, which is planted as an ornamental in large gardens.
Unlike its giant cousin, the Cossack Aparagus is not phytotoxic. This means it does not have sap, which burns your skin in sunlight.
Cossack asparagus has large, hawthorn-shaped, lobed leaves. It puts up tightly closed flower heads, which are good when steamed or battered.
The flowers are umbelliferous (upside-down and umbrella-shaped), which puts it in the Carrot family of plants. The seeds have a strong aniseed flavor and can be used as a dessert spice.
Russians use Hogweed in their classic borscht soup recipe. Hence the name “Cossack asparagus.” It is fermented, and the juice is added to the beetroot broth along with fresh shoots and a dollop of sour cream.
8. Carob (Ceratonia siliqua)
Carob is a tree native to the Mediterranean. It’s in the Fabaceae (the Pea family), as can be seen by its long seed pods. It’s also known as the Locust Bean or St. John’s Bread. It has pinnate, rounded leaves.
Carob seeds can be ground into a powder and used as a substitute for chocolate. It can be made into syrups, bars, and chips. A sweet, edible pulp surrounds the seeds.
The name St. John’s Bread comes from the legend of John the Baptist being hungry in the wilderness. It is said he ate “locust,” which is thought to mean the seeds of the Locust Bean Tree.
9. Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Sea Buckthorn is a drought tolerant shrub that grows in the Himalayas, Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, and China. It has small, narrow, waxy leaves and clusters of bright orange berries.
The berries are tangy and delicious, tasting like sherbet. They are full of Vitamin C, which is 15 times more than an orange by weight.
They are currently being researched for their anti-cancer properties. The berries also contain high levels of Vitamins A, B1, B2, B9, C, and K.
Sea Buckthorn also goes by the names of Siberian pineapple, sea berry, sallow thorn, and sand thorn. It has so many bioactive constituents that it has been developed into an anti-radiation cream for Russian cosmonauts.
10. Flying Spider Monkey Tree Fern (Cyathea lepifera)
Hikagehego is another name for this Asian fern. It also has another older scientific name, Sphaeropteris lepifera.
It’s a tree fern, so it grows 6 meters (20 feet) tall and has a trunk-like stalk. It has a crown of fronds and golden brown scales on the stems.
The young, curled shoots are edible. They are popular in Japan, where they are foraged in the wild. They are rich in starch and can be steamed, fried, or boiled.
This fern can be found in montane regions of China, the Philippines, Japan, New Guinea, and Taiwan. It enjoys humid and warm climates.
11. Japanese Spikenard or Udo (Aralia cordata)
Udo is a Japanese wild vegetable. It grows rapidly to 3-6 ft (1-2 m) tall in one season. It is found in Japan, Korea, and east-central to southern China. It has large, golden-yellow leaves and grows in dappled shade.
The shoots, roots, and leaves can be eaten. This plant is cultivated too, grown in underground tunnels in Japan to preserve its tenderness and juicy flavor. The shoots are a delicacy, tasting like asparagus.
It can be used in soups or to make a sauce with rice vinegar and miso. It can be tempura or used to make kinpira.
12. Golden Thistle (Scolymus hispanicus)
Golden thistle has golden flowers with compound florets. It’s native to the Mediterranean, so you can find it in Southern Spain, France, Italy, Cyprus, and Turkey too.
The golden thistle is in the daisy family of plants. It’s related to the globe artichoke, which is actually just a giant cultivated thistle.
The golden thistle is highly prized as a delicacy in Greece. It is expensive to buy. It is used in stews and to make traditional avgolemono sauce. This sauce is made with eggs and lemons and is used to dress dishes such as meatball stew.
The roots are used as a coffee substitute, and the flowers can be used to color food yellow. The part used for eating is commonly the central part of the basal leaves.
13. Arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.)
Arrowhead is found in Canada. It is a tender water plant with large arrow-shaped leaves. It grows in calm water in the foothills, montane regions, and plains of this area. There is another common species, Sagittaria lanceolata, with spear-shaped leaves.
Arrowhead tubers and rhizomes are edible, raw, or cooked. They will keep for several months when raw and unwashed. The roots can be sliced and dried for storage, then rehydrated and boiled.
First Nation American peoples such as the Chippewa and Maidu use arrowhead as a medicinal plant as well as an edible tuber. The Maidu people use it to treat wounds. The Cherokee used it traditionally to bathe feverish babies.
14. Giant Agave (Agave salmiana)
The Giant Agave is most well known for making a powerful alcohol known as “pulque.” It originates in Mexico and grows in the Southern part of North America. It is a succulent plant with a large rosette of pale pastel leaves.
Agave can be cut into sections and chewed like sugar cane. It contains a lot of natural sugars. The cuticle of the young leaves is used as a transparent wrapping for the festive dish “mixiote.” It can even be used to make vinegar and sugar.
Giant Agave can grow in poor soil. It grows in sandy and clay soils. It can tolerate drought but not shade, needing full sunlight.
15. Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
All parts of the Evening Primrose plant are edible. It doesn’t look anything like a primrose. It’s a tall plant with a spike of yellow blooms. It grows all over the UK and Europe. It is a biennial, so it lives for two years and flowers in the second year.
The roots can be eaten as a vegetable. The flowers make a nice addition to salads. They taste bland but have a nice texture.
16. Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera)
As you might guess, this herbaceous annual hails from the Himalayas. It was brought to Europe as an ornamental garden plant. It soon escaped and naturalized along ditches and watercourses.
It grows to 2 meters (6 feet) and produces pink flowers that look like Busy Lizzie flowers. In fact, these plants are related.
Himalayan balsam is highly invasive. It chokes out native wildflowers by spreading both vegetatively and by seed. The seed pods are explosive. It is targeted for destruction by conservation groups for this reason.
The seeds are delicious and taste like walnuts. They are equally fun to harvest. They can be sprinkled on salads and stir fries, or added to breads.
17. Fruit Salad Plant (Monstera deliciosa)
This wild plant found in New Zealand has arum lily-style white flowers. It has large, shiny leaves with perforations. It actually originates from Mexico.
The fruit salad plant is known as the Swiss cheese plant due to its leaves. It’s a popular houseplant, too.
The cone-shaped fruit tastes like pineapple and banana when ripe. Before it reaches maturity, it contains a poison that causes a burning sensation in the mouth. Once ripe, the green scales will all fall off, and the fruit will smell like fruit salad.
The fleshy center, which is rich in potassium and vitamin C, is edible. Chefs pair it with ice cream or cream. Unfortunately, indoor Monsteras rarely produce fruit.
18. Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)
Giant kelp is the largest species of seaweed. It can be found in kelp forests along the coast of California. You can eat the fresh parts of any kelp species.
Giant kelp can be 100 feet (30.4 meters) long. It provides habitat for many fish and marine species. It has gas bladders, which help keep it upright in the water.
Kelp contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It is also a source of iodine. It will give you 55% of your daily Vitamin K1 needs. Because it contains sodium alginate, the food industry uses it as a thickener.
19. Yellow Water Lily (Nuphar lutea)
The yellow water lily has a wide range, being found in Cuba, temperate and subtropical Europe, western Asia, America, and North-West Africa.
It is a water plant that grows in slow-flowing streams and ponds. It has yellow flowers and classic “lily pad” rounded leaves on the ends of long underwater stems.
The parts of the yellow water lily that are edible are the root and the seed. Native Americans would dive to gather the roots, which are 4-5 feet (1.2–1.5 m) down. The roots can be baked, roasted, or boiled.
The ripe, dry seeds can be toasted like popcorn in a pan over a fire. They swell up and taste just like popcorn, too.
20. Chocolate Vine (Akebia quinata)
The Chocolate Vine comes from the mountain forests of Japan and China. It has dense foliage and chocolate-scented burgundy-red flowers. It’s a slow-growing vine that takes three years to establish.
Chocolate vine flowers smell like vanilla and chocolate, but it’s the seed pods that you can eat. These seeds look like cucumbers. The soft inner pulp of the fruit is pureed and tastes like coconut milk. The outer pod can be fried and eaten or stuffed with other foods.
Chocolate vine was smuggled out of China by the infamous Scottish plant smuggler Robert Fortune in the 1840’s.
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- The Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) contains diosgenin, which can be used to create DHEA and estrogen. This is used in medicine to regulate female hormones.
- The humble tomato was thought to be toxic for more than 200 years after its discovery. The poisoning was in fact coming from the lead in people’s tableware, which mixed into the tomato juices.
- The Paiute Indians of North America used reedmace as a year-round food source and made their basketry and mats out of it.
- The cultivated Globe artichoke is simply a giant thistle. Thistles are all edible and sometimes prized as a delicacy.
- Goji berries are native to Asia. Five tablespoons contain 501% of your daily Vitamin A.
List of Edible Plants with Pictures FAQs
Are there certain families of plants that are safer to eat?
Cabbage family (Brassicaceae) plants are one of the most likely to be edible. They have star-shaped, four-petalled flowers. Many edible species are found in the Daisy family (Asteraceae).
The Carrot family (Umbelliferae), Tomato family (Solanaceae), and Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) are more likely to contain toxic plants.
Are all seaweeds safe to eat?
Most seaweeds are safe to eat and very nutritious. The only exceptions are when seaweed has bacteria growing on it because it is not fresh.
Some blue-green algae are poisonous, and these are known as cyanobacteria or microalgae. Macroalgae (seaweeds) are safe to eat.
Can other factors affect whether a plant is safe for consumption?
Factors such as soil contamination can affect whether plants, especially roots, are safe to eat. Heavy metals and chemicals can make their way into plants. Rats can infect plants with Weil’s disease bacteria, which is thankfully made safe by cooking.