Friday, September 11, 2015

Urban Foraging: Food in Plain Sight!

Let's play a game.  Imagine you are stranded in a distant city when an EMP/Zombie Apocalypse/Financial Collapse/War (pick your poison) occurs. Your car does not run or is out of gas without any possibility of getting more.  Stores have been ransacked.  The government safety net is non existent. You have some supplies but they will run out.  You have to walk home.  What will you eat? 

I took some time and walked around our local, near the interstate, very busy shopping area to see what was there.  This is typical of many areas.  You just have to know what you are looking at.

I parked in front of Aldi and began a walk.

Oak tree, probably a red or black oak due to the pointed nature of the leaves.  If you research how often Oak trees produce acorns you will see a huge difference in opinions.  Here is what I believe.  White Oaks, softly rounded leaves, produce acorns more often and are milder in taste.  Red and Black Oaks take longer.  About every three or four years there will be a huge production of acorns.  Some trees produce consistently every year, others do not.  Most Oaks will not produce acorns until they are at least 20 years, but a few are fast growers and will produce after five.  Some believe that acorn production is a result of past weather, some believe it is a result of future weather and plants communicating among themselves.  Regardless, some years are good, others not so much. 

Acorns need to be leached of their tannin. It is not a difficult process.  The result is a wonderful nut that is excellent in baking.  It is also a nutrition powerhouse with some very necessary items that just eating greens will not provide.  A typical acorn contains about 50% carbohydrates, 35% water, 5% fat, 4% protein, 4% fiber, 2% ash.

Continuing my walk through the parking lot, there are some Honey Locust, Gleditsia triacanthos, trees with pods.  When earlier in the season, the pods are lime color and grow 12 -14 inches long.  Honey Locust bark is brown or grey in color.  Honey Locust trees may or may not have thorns (commercial trees most likely not).  Black Locust, another wonderful tree, and often confused with this tree, has pods that are about 4 inches long and may be poisonous to humans (there are discrepancies on this account).  The bark of Black Locust is dark with grooves that resemble intertwining rope. 

The tender young pods of the Honey Locust can be cooked and eaten.  The young seeds in the pods can be eaten raw or cooked, and though I have not tried them at this stage, it is reported that they taste like raw peas.  Deer love them.  The seeds can also be dried and ground and used as a high protein flour.  Older seeds can be roasted, ground and used as coffee (tastes like bitter chocolate).  The pods, when green, have a pulp which is thickest along the inner curve that is green and sweet.  Sugar can be extracted from it.  I have tried it and it reminds me both in texture and taste of sweetened avocado.

At the stage above, you can use it to make Honey Locust Beer or roast the seeds for a coffee like drink.

Honey Locust Beer Recipe

Long black Honey Locust pods
Ripened persimmons or sliced apples
2 cups molasses or honey

Break pods into pieces.  Place layer in keg or crock.  Add persimmons or apples. Cover with boiling water. Add sweetener, let stand at least four days before using.

Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum

Amur Maple, Acer ginnala

Silver Maple, Acer saccharinum
Maples come in a variety of shapes, but all can be used to tap liquid for making syrup in the spring.  However, they are also good for their seeds. 

Maple seeds can be eaten!  Hull the seeds from the outer skin.  Taste.  If they are bitter, you can leach the tannin out by repeated boiling.  These can be eaten raw, boiled, roasted, or dried and ground for flour.  The best to eat are the younger ones but even those still on the tree in winter are edible. As they age, the gain bitterness.

Maple leaves are also edible.  Young leaves are preferable because as they age, they contain a chemical that causes anemia.  In the spring and and early summer, you can safely eat a cup every few days.  See this article about Deep Fried Maple Leaves which are popular in Japan.

Inner bark of the Maple can be eaten raw, boiled or roasted.

Clover. White clover is Trifolium repens. Red clover is Trifolium pratense.  Clover leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.  However, the flowers taste better!  I prefer the flavor of red over white.  You can also dry the flowers and grind for flour.  It is one of the easiest wild edibles to find and identify in my opinion.  The plant most often confused for clover is wood sorrel and also edible (tastes lemony).  Wood sorrel is about the same size but the individual leaves are heart shaped rather than round.

This Ginkgo tree is found in the parking lot of Walgreen's.  Ginkgo biloba trees are some of the oldest trees around.  You can see the leaf imprint from millions of years ago that looks exactly the same as today.  The trees are either male or female.  In a commercial environment you will most likely find the male variety as it does not produce the super stinky nut.  The nut is edible and once the messy smelly part is removed, I have read that it is very tasty roasted.  Ginkgo leaves can be used to make a tea which is supposed to improve your memory.

This tree is also next to Walgreen's and is appropriate as it is a Black Willow, Salix nigra.  The bark contains salicylic acid, a chemical compound similar to aspirin.  The bark can be used also a poultice.  Black willow roots are very bitter and have been used as a substitute for quinine in the past.  The leaves are high in vitamin C and can be eaten fresh or dried but they are bitter.  They are more of a famine food.  

Some businesses will intentionally plant food trees.  Here is a peach tree at the car wash! 

The car wash owner also planted blackberries.  While the wild blackberries are gone, the domesticated variety is still producing in September.

Grass.  Yes, you can eat parts of grass, particularly the seed!  If you have eaten wheat, then you already have eaten grass.  The blades of grass, while all domestic varieties are non toxic, can not be digested by our stomachs.  You can chew or make a tea from them to gain some vitamins.  The seeds can be eaten.  Crabgrass, the bane of many lawns, can produce 150,000 seeds per plant.  It is actually used as a staple grain in Africa.

Tulip Poplar tree, you can drink the sweet nectar in the tulip "cups" in the spring. The tree has to be at least 15 years old to produce the blooms.  Planting this tree near bee hives produces a wonderful honey.

Bradford Pear, Pyrus calleryanna, is a relatively new addition in the United States. It is mostly used as a landscaping tree and was sterile when it was introduced in the early 1900's.  However, with competition came the addition of more differing genetics causing many trees, particularly escapees to the wild, to produce tiny "pears."  These have a pear flavor but are very tart.  They can be used to produce a jelly, wine and even a sweet and sour sauce.  The size of the tiny pear produced will vary depending on the genetic make-up of the tree.  I have seen them this size and also nearer to the size of a quarter.  It would be a famine food eaten raw, but cooked, it has a lot of potential.

Sweetgum Tree, Liquidamber styraciflua, produces a spiney green seed pod that actually has the same ingredient as Tamiflu (shikimic acid). You can soak the crushed green Sweetgum fruits in alcohol to make a red tincture.  These have also been boiled in water for a decoction for flu.  The Cherokee made tea out of the bark as an herbal treatment for the flu.  The inner bark was used in folk remedies, boiled in milk for diarrhea and cholera infantum.  In other versions, the bark was boiled with water and sugar to treat bowel complaints of children.  The Lumbee Indians would use the rosin from gashes in the bark made the day before to chew in order to heal gum disease and to counteract the effects of gingivitis.  The rosin may be dried and used as a chewing gum.  Sweetgum salves were also used to treat sores, wounds and ulcers.

The Eastern White Pine is the tree I most often come across. It is one of the few items available even in the dead of winter.  Here's a little shortcut in identification.  White has five letters in the word and an Eastern White Pine has five needles in a bundle.  If you find a Pine tree with five needles in its bundle in North America, you can be very confident that it is an Eastern White Pine.  Most Pine trees can be used to make tea.  You want to avoid choosing Yews (short stubby needles often with red berries), Norfolk Island Pine (frilly, flat, pretty needles often sold as indoor Christmas Trees) and Ponderosa Pine (smells like turpentine and is found growing in the North Western part of the U.S.).

Not only is pine needle tea tasty, but it has 4-5 times the vitamin C of fresh squeezed orange juice and is high in vitamin A.  When the first European colonist arrived in the new world, many were suffering from Scurvy, often with teeth falling out due to the disease.  The Indians introduced them to the use of Pine needles as a remedy and saved many lives.  There are also historic references to sailors adding Pine needles to their beer on long journeys to prevent Scurvy.  It has been a popular herbal remedy for preventing and relieving the symptoms of colds and flues.  Pine needles also contain shikimic acid (Tamiflu). The inner bark of the tree can also be used as a food source if times are truly tough.

Continuing our walk, we can see two different varieties of Hawthorn trees, both of which have nasty thorns!  These trees produce a small fruit called haws.  Haws are used for teas, syrups and jellies and have been used medicinally for hypertension and a variety of heart disorders. There have also been positive studies showing that this fruit lowers "LDL" bad cholesterol.  There are numerous recipes to try.  You can even use it to make ketchup! The berries are tart, but that often is a benefit in recipes, a balance to sweetness. The leaves, berries, and flowers of hawthorn are used to make medicine.

Poke weed, Phytolacca americana, is a much loved and hated plant.  Primarily, this is because if prepared incorrectly, it can poison you, causing vomiting and diarrhea. The compounds thought to be problematic are oxalic acid, saponins (phytolaccotoxin and phytolaccigenin) and an alkaloid (phytolaccin). On the other hand, it's early spring appearance has saved many a settler from starving and even today it is being studied for it's cancer and virus fighting ability.  It is high in Calcium, Phosphorus, Iron, vitamin A, Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin and vitamin C.

I have to admit, I love it.  The early spring greens have a flavor like no other.  You would think that by boiling it in two changes of water and then frying it that it would be mush, but it is not.  The leaf is sturdy. The bottom photo is what it looks like when you can pick it.  The top photo is the berries that are often confused with Elderberry.  Once you have seen them, you will never confuse them.

The berries and the roots have been used in folk remedies to treat arthritis, lime disease and even poison ivy.  See Amish Folk Remedies

Elderberries are no longer in season, but it is growing in our path today and worthy of notice.  There are several look alikes that you want to avoid.  One is the poke plant above.  First the elderberry berries, while the same color, are organized quite differently.  Poke berries have a long straight shape while the elderberry berries grow in branched clusters, like the flowers. The leaves of Poke grow in an alternate pattern while the Elderberry leaves grow opposite of each other.  When looking for Elderberries, the bark is smooth and dotted, see photo. 

Another look alike is Devil's Walkingstick, Aralia spinosa,which has similar berries but has a telltale sign as it has thorns.

Fireweed, Erechtites hieraciifolia, is a controversial plant at best.  It was used by native Americans for medicine.  It has a strong flavor that people either love or hate.  Some gourmets use it in sushi and you can find recipes for it online.  However it has the possibility of being poisonous.  A 1939 study determined that it contains pyrrolidines that can damage the liver.  Opinions vary widely as to whether it is edible or toxic.  In my opinion, it would be famine food and certainly cooked before eating. It is thought to be called fireweed because it is often the first plant to appear after the land was devastated by fire.

Horseweed, Conyza canadensi, dried leaves can be used as a herb similar to tarragon.  It is an excellent source for a drill when making fire through friction.  Farmers hate it because it is resistant to many types of herbicides.  Native Americans used it for clotting blood and the treatment of rheumatism and gout.

We've made it to the post office!  Here we find blackberry leaves.  Wild blackberry season is over but the leaves can still be used.  Blackberry leaves can be used in a tea to treat digestive problems, particularly diarrhea. Young tender blackberry leaves can be eaten.

Rosehips, the fruit of the Rose bush, and be used to make a tea or jelly.  Some are better than others.  These are tiny and better for a tea.  They are high in vitamin C.

Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis.  I include this because if it were spring, the purple buds would be edible (great in salads or baked goods) or early summer the seed pods would be edible.  You have to catch the seed pods at the right time or they quickly become too tart (before the seeds begin to grow).  They look similar to snow peas.

Common Plantain, Plantago major, one of my favorite wild edibles.  It can be used as a green like spinach.  It has leaves sturdy enough to withstand canning.  To use just slice against the grain to cut the annoying string in the leaves.  It is wonderful sauteed with bacon!  It can also be used to make a wonderful salve to treat bug bites and other skin conditions.  It is actually one of the best I have ever used.

Dandelion leaves, Taraxacum officinale, are one of the best eating greens available.  They have more calcium and iron than most cultivated greens.  The roots can be roasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute.  The flowers can be made into wine...surprisingly good wine!  I dry the leaves and add them to soups and stews all year.

Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, or Solidago virgaurea, is used primarily as a tea to reduce pain and swelling (inflamation).  It is a diuretic that increases urine flow and stops muscle spasms.  It is also used to treat gout, joint pain, arthritis, eczema and skin conditions.  In the past, it has been used to treat turburculosis, diabetes, liver enlargement, hemorrhoids, internal bleeding, hay fever, asthma and enlarged prostate.  It is great for your urinary tract.

It can be used as a mouth rinse for inflammation of the mouth and throat. It can be applied directly to skin to improve wound healing.

Other sources indicate that it lowers blood pressure and fights infections.  Contrary to what many believe, it does not cause seasonal allergies.  It blooms at the same time as Ragweed but its pollen is too large. It does cause contact allergies in some people.

All above ground parts can be dried and used for a fragrant tea.

As we wind our way around Home Depot, this is what we find!  Also a favorite wild edible, though many hate it with a passion.  This is Kudzu and everything but the seeds is edible.  The leaves are particularly good at being dehydrated.  I eat them raw as well, but they are a little chewy.  I add them to soups and sauces all year.  It's a great way to sneak in nutrition.  The flowers make a wonderful jelly.  The roots can be ground and used as a thickener but I have yet to try it.  If you live near a site such as this, you will never starve. It takes five minutes to pick enough to fill two dehydrators.

Also in front of Home Depot you will find wild grapes.  The exact species of grapes can be difficult to determine but these are most likely frost grapes.  They are tiny and tart with a thick skin.  They sweeten after a frost if the birds leave them alone that long!  They make some of the best jelly I have ever made.  It is my daughter's favorite.  Grape leaves can also be eaten.  You can can them as well for winter use.

Rounding the corner to the area in front of Publix you will find Yucca. If it were spring, you would see a stalk extending from the center and lovely white flowers.  These flowers and even the stalk are edible.  The flowers are crunchy and are often fried, diced for soups or pickled.  They are best eaten young as they get bitter with age.  The roots can be used as soap.

Sawtooth Oak, Quercus acutissima, is in the same family as the first photo, but as you can see, the leaves are completely different.  This tree is a native of Eastern Asia, introduced in the US in 1920. It is fast growing and produces acorns in as early as five years.  Sawtooth oaks are not red or white but from a group called "cerris" which has traits that are somewhat between white and red.  Deer love these acorns.  These can be leached of their tannin and ground for flour.

A little tip about acorns, usually the cap is an indicator of tannin strength.  The bigger the cap the more tart the acorn.

Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoides, in the willow family, has bark that contains salicin, a glycoside that decomposes into salicylic acid (aspirin). It has been used to treat inflammation, rheumatism and fever.  The inner bark, known as cambium, can be eaten raw or cooked.  It is usually dried, ground into powder, and used as a thickener in soups or to make bread.  Not only was it used by Native Americans but also by people of Europe and Asia.  It is high in vitamin C. 

The leaves are rich in protein and have a greater amino-acid content than corn, rice, wheat and barley. A poultice of the leaves has been used to treat rheumatism, bruises, sores and boils. The sap of the tree can also be enjoyed as a drink.

That ends our tour of a typical commercial shopping area!  Hopefully you have found enough to eat to avoid the zombies!


  1. Great, valuable information, Dr. Mom! Now I have to go check out what I think is Goldenrod growing in the pasture. I always thought it was ragweed, but if it's not, I'll pick and dehydrate some for tea. Thank you very much.


  2. Great post. Do you have any favorite books for identifying and using wild edibles?

  3. I actually have quite a few! Some I use more than others, Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas, Foxfire 11 of the Foxfire Series, Herbs by Lesley Bremness, Amish Folk Remedies by Quillin, and Gourmet Cooking for Free by Angier.

    Thrift stores are great for collecting herb and gardening books that have photographs of plants.

  4. This was a useful post and I think it's fairly easy to see in the other reviews, so this post is well written and useful. Keep up the good work.
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