Walking through the woods, I unearthed a perfect arrowhead-shaped stone knife point–as keen now as when it was made. As I continued my walk, I began to notice the native plants growing on either side of the trail that would have been available to the hunter who made and used the stone tool if he were assembling a meal. Anyone familiar with the wild edible plants of their region could easily prepare a fine meal from the bounty available in the woods. Trout, squirrel, groundhog, rabbit or deer seasoned with peppergrass, onions and spicebush might serve as the main course. Roasted or steamed vegetables, a pot of amber strawberry leaf tea, and a helping of ripe strawberries for dessert would round out a satisfying meal.
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) grows in patches, and the spicy rhizomes can be used as a substitute for ginger.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Native Americans used the allspice-flavored berries and spicy, fragrant leaves and twigs of spicebush to flavor meat dishes.
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). When mayapple fruit ripens, the woods smell like ripe mangoes. You can make a cream puff filling of the ripe fruits or use them in jams or pies.
Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba). The fruits with their banana custard flavor make a satisfying snack right off the tree or can be used to make all kinds of sweet desserts.
Wild river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) grows in dense thickets. On my walk, I noticed that a squirrel had been feeding on the young, bamboolike shoots. I, as well as native peoples, have eaten the young shoots as vegetables, steaming them or cooking them with meat.
Note: Use caution if foraging for cane shoots, as toxic fungus has been known to colonize the seeds.
Shoots of greenbriar (Smilax spp.) have a subtle, beanlike flavor, and are a good vegetable option.
The tops of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are slightly salty, abundant in the forest, and provide another choice of vegetable.
Note: Use gloves when handling fresh stinging nettles. Once greens have been chopped, they won’t sting.
Tender little peapods, which are delicious steamed or eaten raw, hang from the branches of redbud trees (Cercis canadensis).
Violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) leaves are acidic and good in salads. This plant is native to Europe, but is naturalized in North America, like plants mentioned in Garden Spaces: 11 Native Plants for a Low-Maintenance Garden.
Wild strawberry plants (Fragaria vesca) offer ripe berries for dessert as well as leaves for tea.
Longtime contributor Jim Long lives in the Ozark Mountains.
Click here for the main article, Garden Spaces: Grow a Native Plant Garden.