Harvest Edible Wild Herbs: 16 Backyard Delicacies

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When he was young, Contributing Editor Jim Long's maternal grandparents encouraged his interest in plants, helping him identify delicious violets (shown here) and other edible wild plants in woods and meadows.

Photo by Rob Cardillo

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Violets (Viola spp.) are all pleasant and colorful in salads and can be candied for decoration on cakes and other desserts. Violets are easy to recognize once you look at the flower and leaf shape in a field guide.

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Chickweed (Stellaria media) can be gathered in springtime and cooked as a green vegetable; it can be frozen; or you can dry it and make it into a beneficial first-aid salve. This is one of the first plants up in the spring and you can look for it in your garden, along the foundation of your house and at the edges of the lawn. It is a creeping plant with a single, central stem. Gather it before warm weather; once the weather warms, this plant will begin to turn yellow, scatter its seeds and die. I like to mix chickweed with henbit and lamb’s quarters in approximately equal portions and boil them together briefly, season with some crumbled bacon and a teaspoon or two of vinegar, and enjoy as a refreshing, vitamin-rich, springtime vegetable side dish.

(Click here to  view a picture of chickweed .) 

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). You’ll find this in moist, rich fields, lawns and the edges of home gardens. Most likely you have this plant in your lawn or garden beds. As early as January in the Midwest, this plant is already green. By early spring, tiny purple flowers cover the plant. Skip the weed-killer on your lawn and snack on this weed. It dies when hot weather begins anyway. The nutritious whole plant can be harvested and used as a vegetable greens plant in early spring before it fully flowers. 

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Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), also known as pigweed, is often found as a weed in home gardens. Like mints, it is an exotic plant that can take over a garden, so don’t plant it. Unlike mint, it isn’t pretty in a container garden, but I leave three or four plants in a row in my garden, because I find it better tasting than spinach. In spring and summer, the leaves can be cooked like spinach or mixed with other greens plants. In the fall, the abundant seeds can be collected and used in breads, muffins and other baked goods, either mixed with flour or sprinkled on top like poppy seeds. This is a good-tasting, heavy-producing plant if you keep harvesting the leaves all summer. Spinach quits producing in the heat of summer, but lamb’s quarters continues to thrive throughout the summer.

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Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) are among the first plants to bloom in the spring, when few vegetables are available in the wild. Native Americans ate the flowers, either boiled or raw, and the seeds, which they roasted. The trees are also ornamental.

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Spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint (M. ×piperita) are both European immigrants that have often escaped cultivation. Mints are often found growing around old springs and roadsides, as well as around old homesteads and streams. Mint leaves can be used for tea, in apple-spearmint salads and candied.

(Click here to  view a picture of spearmint .)
(Click here to 
view a picture of peppermint .) 

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) can be found along dry woodland roadsides and in light timberland areas. The dried leaves make a good-tasting tea—the plant was used as an agreeable substitute for black tea during the Revolutionary War. You can grow this hardy, 12-inch-high woody shrub in your garden in partial shade to full sun in a raised bed.

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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) can be found over a large portion of the United States, from Georgia to Texas, northward through to Ohio and Indiana, and is one of my favorite native herbs. Gardeners are often searching for seasoning herbs to grow in part or full shade and this one shines in that location. The leaves, berries and twigs are all used in a variety of dishes including soups, meat dishes, and tofu and vegetarian dishes. The leaves are used fresh or dried, the berries dried and the young twigs can be used fresh or dried any time of the year. The spicy, pleasantly “herbal” flavor and aroma makes this one of the best herbs to put in a shady location with average to moist soil.

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Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) often is one of the “target weeds” on weed-killer packages. The leaves are used fresh in salads and as cooked greens. The dried seeds, mixed half-and-half with violet wood sorrel, make an excellent salt substitute.

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Wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta, often called sheep sorrel, and violet wood sorrel, O. violacea). The parts used are the leaves, tender stems and flowers, and the seed pods in spring in salads, pies (like rhubarb) and quiches. The dried herb can be mixed half-and-half with peppergrass as an excellent salt substitute. You may recognize this plant as “sheep sorrel” or “sheep shire” from your childhood. An abundance of O. stricta in your garden is often an indication of lack of lime in your soil.

(Click here to  view a picture of wood sorrel .)
(Click here to 
view a picture of violet wood sorrel .) 

Sumac (Rhus glabra). Smooth sumac (pronounced “shoe-mack”) has pleasantly tart, red berries in fall. These make a delicious lemonade and also can be used in hot and cold teas and a festive fruit punch. This plant is common along roadsides, edges of meadows and in thickets. It’s an excellent plant for beautiful fall color in a woodland landscape. The leaves take on brilliant reds and crimsons, even before the first fall frost, and the clusters of berries are obvious often well into winter. You’ll also find sumac berries as an ingredient in Middle Eastern dishes, often skillet-toasted with garlic and other herbs.

Sumac, with its red berries, is very different from the infamous poison sumac (R. vernix, sometimes listed as Toxicodendron vernix), which grows in swamps and has white- to ivory-colored berries and is a contact poison, much like poison ivy. Common smooth sumac is easily recognized by its upright clusters of red berries around the time of frost.

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Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) is a relatively rare herb because of loss of habitat. It has a sweet, anise-like fragrance and honey-anise flavor of the young buds and flowers, which give a delicious flavoring to cakes and muffins; the dried, crushed leaves make a pleasant tea. You can grow this plant in part to full sun in sandy soil in a raised bed. The leaves can be dried for winter tea while the young flower buds are best used fresh.

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Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is an excellent groundcover for a shady, damp area in your garden, or in a bed on the east or north side of your house. The plant’s ground-level rhizomes are used for seasoning, as a tea and candied, fresh or dried. This plant can be found growing in the wild in deep woods, around springs and streams and in moist, shady locations. It can be easily grown in any garden setting with part to full shade and moderate to moist conditions. The rhizomes can be dug any time of year, although my favorite time for harvesting it is in early winter. I wash the roots (trimming off the little rootlets) and boil the rhizomes in a strong sugar solution, then drain and roll them in sugar and let them dry for several days. Wild ginger is milder than Asian ginger, but with the same flavor. Note: There is an FDA recommendation that you not use Asarum caudatum internally, but no such warning exists about A. canadense).

(Click here to  view a picture of wild ginger .) 

Wild rose (Rosa spp.) offers rose hips for teas and sauces that are high in vitamin C. You can also use rose petals in salads, sorbets and ice creams, and the petals can be candied.

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Contributing Editor Jim Long writes and gardens at his farm, Long Creek Herbs, in the Ozark Mountains.

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