There’s more than moss to munch in the rainy Northwest. The cooler temperatures and mixture of wet and dry climate regions can create a wide diversity of plant life – and an abundance of wild plant foods.
Warning: Use a reputable field guide to positively identify any wild plant before eating it.
Bistort goes by many names, and even the scientific name is under debate (you’ll see this also listed as Persicaria bistortoides, Polygonum bistortoides, and several other names). Whatever you call it, American bistort (most commonly classified as Bistorta bistortoides) is a perennial wild plant in the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae). Bistort grows throughout the west, from Alaska and British Columbia to California. These plants tend to grow smaller above 7,000 feet, rarely reaching a foot in height. They can be twice that size at lower elevations. The leaves are leathery and long, and the flowers are dense cylinders with small whitish or pinkish flowers. The roots are edible raw or cooked and carry a chestnut flavor. The seeds are also edible. These can be dried and ground into flour, or roasted and eaten like nuts. Young and tender bistort leaves are also edible raw or cooked.
Bracken Fern “Fiddleheads”
The young coiled tips of bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) leaves are commonly called “fiddleheads” and are a fine spring vegetable. These curled, immature leaf stalks should be brushed to remove their wooly covering and soaked in saltwater for a few hours to reduce any bitterness. Once soaked, gently boil them for 30 minutes in two separate changes of water. The rhizomes can be used as a cooked vegetable or dried and ground into flour. These plants are used for a wide range of ailments, including cramps, diarrhea, sores, burns, colds, and also to expel worms.
Warning: Don’t eat mature bracken fern leaves, only the young fiddleheads, after boiling in changes of water. The mature leaves can be toxic.
The blue camas (Camassia spp.) grows in the damp fertile plains and foothills of the west. These lily family (Liliaceae) members resemble hyacinths and grow to heights of 1-2 feet tall. The leaves are long, slender, and grass-like, emerging from the top of an edible bulb. Their dense blue flowers can be seen at some distance, as they often grow in thick colonies. The edible bulb can be eaten raw or cooked but is most commonly prepared by roasting it. The bulbs can also be dried and ground into flour. Plentiful Northwestern species include the great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) and common blue camas (Camassia quamash). Native people and explorers of the Northwest ate these bulbs as a major food source, even on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. Camas bulbs contain carbohydrates, minerals and are very high in protein – yielding approximately 5 ounces of protein per pound of roots.
Warning: You’d better get your camas identification right, and only eat them when they are in flower. Mountain death camas (Zigadenus elegans) and meadow death camas (Zigadenus venenosus) grow in the same areas with a very similar appearance. Both of these, however, grow white flowers (not blue ones).
Yellow Glacier Lily
Also called a snow lily, the yellow glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) grows in the rich damp soil of western mountains, as well as alpine and subalpine regions. The grass-like leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and the young green seed pods can be boiled like beans as a cooked vegetable. The bulbs can be eaten raw or cooked and were historically roasted for a long time – turning brown and then being dried for long term storage after cooking. The dried bulbs can be rehydrated by soaking them and then boiling them. Native people in former times used the crushed root on boils and skin sores, as well as a simple cold remedy.
Caution: The bulbs of yellow glacier lily may leave a burning sensation in the mouth and throat of sensitive individuals. Overeating these bulbs may also cause nausea and vomiting for some people.
Warning: Make sure you get this identification right, as many members of the lily family are poisonous.
Growing in open plains and foothills of the west, the wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is a mint family member, growing clusters of lavender, pink, or white flowers in ragged bunches. Also called “bee balm,” the plants grow to 2-5 feet in height and have opposite, simple leaves. While the tender leaves and stems of young plants can be steamed or boiled as cooked greens, the strong minty scent makes this best used as a tea. Being a natural source of the antiseptic compound thymol, wild bergamot has also been used for centuries to treat colds and as a poultice for skin infections, small wounds, mouth sores, and toothaches.
Juicy and generally tender, stonecrop (Sedum spp.) is a fleshy herbaceous plant that grows in the rocky areas of arid subalpine and alpine biomes. Frequently seen species of the Pacific Northwest include the lance-leaved stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum) and spreading stonecrop (Sedum divergens). The young leaves and shoots are edible raw, and are your best choice for greens, as the older plants can turn bitter. The rhizomes can also be boiled and eaten as a root vegetable. Stonecrop is consumed in herbal medicine for coughs and high blood pressure. It’s also used as a poultice for wound care, itchy rashes, warts, pimples, eczema, and mouth ulcers. Stonecrop is low in calories but high in vitamin C.