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Warning! This article is meant to be a quick overview and not a detailed guide on urban foraging. Eating certain plans could lead to serious illness and even death. To learn more, consult with a reputable instructor or trained botanist
Tough times call for tough measures — sometimes, they may even call for a weed — and this is where urban foraging comes in. No we don’t mean the “medicinal” kind. We’re talking about the ones that grow annoyingly al over your lawn. Should the nation fall into an economic collapse and your month-long emergency supply of food becomes depleted, there’s no doubt that you and your family would be in real trouble. In a scenario like that, grocery stores would have long been emptied, and hitting your favorite drive-through would be a thing of the past. Without stores and restaurants, you’d be thrown back to hand-to-mouth subsistence, back to hunting and gathering. But there are few animals you’d want (or be able) to hunt in the city, and do you even know how to forage for plant foods?
At first look, foraging can seem scary, mysterious, or even nauseating. Yes, we’re suggesting that you eat the “weeds” from the gutter. Some of those weeds are edible, and some are actually tasty. With some patience, practice, and careful observation, you’ll begin to see wild food along the city streets, in your neighborhood, and especially in the park. Positively ID these plants, prepare them correctly, and you might even like them.
This is a quick list of wild edible plants that can be found almost anywhere, and it can form the foundation of your urban foraging skill set.
What is it: Acorns are the nuts from oak trees (the genus Quercus). All species of oaks produce acorns that are edible to humans, though a few are exceptionally bitter. Look for symmetrical, egg-shaped nuts with a two-part shell. One part is the shell covering the entire nut. The other part is the acorn cap, which only covers part of the inner shell.
Where to find it: Oaks are commonly planted throughout cities and suburbs, as they are strong and resilient shade trees. Native to the Northern Hemisphere, they can be found coast to coast in the USA. Luckily for the forager, oaks also produce a hailstorm of nuts in early autumn.
How to get it: Wait for them to fall, then scoop them up when they’ve piled up in a low spot. You’ll often find them on sidewalks and road surfaces directly beneath oak trees. A broom and dust pan makes quick work of collecting them; so can a square shovel and a bucket.
How to process, prepare, and store it: Acorns do require some processing to eat. Crack them, remove their shells, soak the nut pieces in water, and change the water several times a day. When the nut pieces are no longer bitter, they can be eaten as is, dried and ground into flour, or prepared in many other ways. Store the processed nuts by drying or freezing them. Acorns can still be harvested several months after falling, if the nut meat still looks good and solid. One pound of acorns (depending on the species) can provide almost 2,000 calories.
Possible dangers: Make sure you’ve actually found acorns. Buckeye nuts (genus Aesculus) look similar and are poisonous. Buckeye nuts have an asymmetrical shape, and their outer nutshell covers the entire inner nutshell. Another trick to identify a bad nut is that buckeye trees have opposite branching (most leaves and twigs have a “twin”), while oaks have alternate branching (leaves and twigs grow in a zigzag pattern, like most plants).
What is it: Chickweed (Stellaria spp.) is a small herbaceous plant with leaves in opposite pairs and little white flowers that appear to have 10 petals (but it’s just five, each deeply split). Chickweed is a great salad plant.
Where to find it: Widespread in Europe and North America, this plant can be found at the edges of pavement, parks, yards, planters, and almost anywhere. It can be found in full sun or in the shade. It’s surprisingly tough for such a small, tender, and juicy plant.
How to get it: Collect the tender stems (and the leaves along with them) by picking them as you would any other salad plants. They’re tender enough to pinch off what you need.
How to process, prepare, and store it: Wash the plants thoroughly, and eat them as salad or cook them as cooked greens. Fresh chickweed can be stored in the fridge for a few days, but doesn’t keep long. Let it stay alive and unharmed until you’re ready to pick it and use it. Being a salad item, chickweed is low in calories, but it does provide vitamins A and C.
Possible cons: Chickweed can have a mild laxative effect. Also, be cautious of where you go foraging. Cities and counties often spray herbicides and pesticides along roadways, and any chickweed not killed in the process could be contaminated with toxic chemicals.
What is it: Pine trees (the genus Pinus) are easily identified by having needles in clusters of two to five — and mature trees can also bear the tell-tale pine cones. Fresh green pine needles, the innermost layer of bark, and the seeds of large-cone species can be used as food.
Where to find it: Pines can be found in a wide range of soils and climates, largely in the Northern Hemisphere. Hit your nearest city park to find them, or a Christmas tree lot in December.
How to get it: Pine needles are the easiest pine part to forage, and they make a surprisingly tasty tea. Just tear them off the live branches. Pine nuts can also be peeled out of larger pine cones. Inner bark (the cambium layer) can be shaved from live wood, though it’s very damaging to the tree.
How to process, prepare, and store it: Use the needles fresh or dried for tea. Rip up a small handful of needles and drop them into a cup of scalding hot water. Let them sit for five minutes, strain, sweeten, and sip. This cup of tea should provide about 500 milligrams of Vitamin C. Don’t boil your tea, or it’ll become bitter and destroy the vitamins. The inner bark from the tree can be scraped from branches and tree trunks, dried, and ground into powder for a flour additive. The pine cones can sometimes be opened near a fire by the heat. These can be eaten as is, or stored in jars until used. One cup of pine nuts has over 900 calories.
Possible dangers: Pine needle tea (consumed regularly) is not recommended for pregnant women — some of the compounds may be abortive. Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) may also have some additional toxins, so these are no longer recommended for tea (for anyone).
What is it: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a lawn-loving weed native to Europe, but it’s also found coast to coast in the USA. They provide edible flowers, leaves, and roots.
Where to find it: This plant can be found anyplace sunny. Dandelion is one of the most common plants to actually grow out of cracks in the sidewalk. It’s widespread in parks and abandoned lots.
How to get it: Use a small shovel to pop the entire plant out of the ground. Cut the sections apart so that you can take advantage of the different uses of its various parts.
How to process, prepare, and store it: Wash the leaves thoroughly, and eat them as a salad or sauté them in oil for a nice cooked green. Fresh flowers only last one day in the fridge, but can be battered and deep fried for amazing fritters. The roots can be washed, dried, roasted, and brewed into a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The roasted roots will last indefinitely in a jar or paper bag. Leaves and other parts are low in calories, but packed with Vitamin A.
Possible cons: None that are inherent. However, because dandelions are so prevalent, be wary of possible contamination from herbicides and pesticides used in certain parts of your city.
What is it: Maples are beautiful trees that produce edible seeds in late spring and safe drinking water and sweet syrup in midwinter. Sugar maples and black maples offer the highest sugar levels, but any native maples can be used for sap and syrup.
Where to find it: Used similarly to oaks as shade trees, maples can be found growing along streets, in landscaping, and in yards and parks. Maples are commonly found in the eastern half of the United States and Canada, though they can be grown almost anywhere as a landscaping species.
How to get it: The “helicopter” seeds can be picked up or swept up beneath the trees in late spring. The sap can be tapped in February by drilling a hole into the tree and attaching a container. If you’re picking up seeds in an urban setting, no one usually cares. But if you’re drilling holes in trees and hanging jugs on them, make sure you have permission and that your neighbors understand what you’re doing. “Syruping” doesn’t harm the trees, but it’s very conspicuous and occasionally alarming — what with all the odd containers lying around and the propane tanks to run the outdoor burner for sap cooking. In Illinois, one family of syrup-makers had a SWAT team at their door after neighbors called in about the suspicious “meth lab” activity.
How to process, prepare, and store it: The seeds can be peeled of their helicopter housing, rinsed, and then boiled for 30 minutes to create a unique cooked vegetable. Sap can be collected in buckets or bottles and drunk immediately as a water source. The xylem tissue of the trees provides excellent filtration of ground water. The sap can be boiled and reduced dramatically to yield the familiar maple syrup. You’ll need to boil off roughly 40 gallons of sap to produce just 1 gallon of syrup, but it’s worth it. Real maple syrup is 825 calories per cup — and delicious.
Possible dangers: Don’t use the sap from a maple if it’s milky white in color. This comes from the invasive Norway maple (Acer platanoides), which is toxic.
What is it: This plant is often the sidekick to the ubiquitous dandelion. Plantain (Plantago spp.) is a low-growing herbaceous plant with leaves that bear several heavy parallel veins. There’s no relation to the banana-like fruit in the grocery store, just the same common name. The leaves and seeds are edible.
Where to find it: Lawns, sidewalks, parks, or any other sunny place where dandelions would normally be present.
How to get it: Pick the leaves and strip off the seeds by pulling the stalk through your hand — easy!
How to process, prepare, and store it: The fresh leaves can be chopped up and added to salad or cooked as a cooked vegetable. The cooked leaves also freeze well, and can be dried and rehydrated. The seeds can be dried and stored in a jar or bag. They can be used fresh or dried by grinding them up and stewing as porridge, or by boiling them alongside other grains (like rice). Fresh plantain leaves can also be mashed and applied to cuts, scrapes, rashes, and burns to speed healing. This mashed leaf poultice is even better at relieving the pain of bee stings and venomous insect bites.
Possible dangers: Like the dandelion, the plantain has none in its natural state, but could be affected by herbicides and pesticides.
Having taught people the art of foraging wild food plants for almost 20 years, I’m still surprised myself at the bounty of wild edibles within city and suburban limits. Flimsy concrete and sticky asphalt can’t hold back the eruptive force of the weeds trying to break free into the sunlight. In urban environments and in the wild, there’s food literally everywhere. You just have to be able to spot it, make sure it really is the right plant, and prepare it properly.
If times ever get so tough that you’re wondering if you can eat the weeds in the sidewalk cracks, we hope you had the foresight to hang onto every copy of OFFGRID. And please pick up one of the edible plant books mentioned in the sidebar. We might not find our favorite dishes out in a post-apocalyptic world, but there’ll still be plenty of food out around.
Not every plant wants to be your friend. Poison ivy should be a good enough example of the dangers of the plant kingdom. Just brushing against the plant can cause a severe rash (for those who are allergic to its oils). But this dreaded itch is a mere inconvenience compared to the real harm from ingesting the wrong plant.
Making assumptions: We all know what happens when you assume something. But with foraging, you’re not just making an “ass” out of “u” and “me,” you could kill us both. Assumptions about plant identity can lead to hospital trips — or even a trip to the morgue. If it doesn’t look exactly as it should, don’t assume you know what it is. And don’t eat it.
Eating multiple new plants: In your excitement to try new things, it’s easy to load up a plate with many new plants that you’ve never tried before. Don’t do that. If you’re allergic to one of them or have some other negative reaction, you won’t know which one is the culprit. Rather than play vomit-roulette, try only one new plant per day until you see how your body handles it.
Leading without experience: If you’re in a legit survival situation (or any other situation), don’t let the amateurs pick the wild food. Make certain that experienced foragers are leading the hunt for edibles and inspecting everything that their helpers collect. Of course, people can learn to identify plants fairly quickly, but hunger can make us less keen observers. Just as you wouldn’t send someone out hunting who’s never fired a shot before, make sure someone who knows what they’re doing is running the foraging foray.
Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson. Over 400 plants with detailed drawings, as well as thorough descriptions and usage information.
Edible Wild Plants, A North American Field Guide by Elias and Dykeman. Over 200 plants, arranged by season with beautiful color photos and solid usage information.
Edible Wild Plants, Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate by John Kallas. Great book on wild food preparation with excellent pictures of plant parts and growth stages.
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