There are some tough wild edible plants out there in the world, many of which reside here in the Northern Hemisphere. These plants can be found growing throughout many different landscapes and even during different seasons. The most generous plants will offer us food 365 days a year – if we are wise enough to learn them. Let’s find out which wild plant foods are available throughout the four seasons, and which months will leave you starving.
The outward appearance of the spring season often makes us think it’s a time of plenty. The explosion of flowers and green plant growth certainly give the impression of abundance, but my Powhatan ancestors saw things a little differently. They observed five seasons instead of four (a first and second autumn). And of all these seasons, spring was the one they feared. With the winter food supply spent, the people had to rely on wild foods.
Spring was the “starving season,” which is a bitter irony. There are more wild plant species available to eat in springtime, but it’s all low-calorie food. These leaves and shoots are all water with few calories. There is a silver lining, however, which is abundant vitamins and minerals – plus great variety. Spring gives us a bounty of wild salad plants, shoots, and roots. I love tender dandelion greens and their mild-tasting spring flowers. Chickweed salad with spring beauty bulbs is another great dish. And sassafras roots are a traditional springtime tonic, which I turn into tea and use for homemade root beer. Sure, the low-calorie part sucks, but the vitamins, minerals, and flavors are great – especially after a long, tough winter.
Berries, fruit, and interesting vegetables are the hallmarks of summer. Starting off with the mulberries, wild strawberries, and blueberries in early summer – the days drift forward into hotter weather, which brings sun sweetened raspberries and blackberries. Cherries and early grape species (like scuppernongs) are found in this season, as well as vegetables like milkweed pods, wild onion bulblets (growing at the top of the plant stalks), and cattail pollen spikes. Toward the end of summer, we can see the strangest fruit of all – the paw paw. This is the northernmost member of a tropical tree familiar, and it produces a large sweet fruit that looks like a chubby green banana. For those who survived “the starving season,” summer looks like a banquet.
The fruits and berries don’t end in summer. Fall brings us a bounty of berries, some of which are good for eating right off the bush or tree, while others are only used as a seasoning (like dried spicebush berries). Late in autumn, we get our sweetest fruit of the year. Persimmons begin to shift from horribly bitter to remarkably sweet around the time of the first frost in my area. These mushy orange fruits taste like some kind of apricot flavored with honey. They are a vital fall food resource for humans and animals alike. And while all of these fruity foods are great, the real stars of the show are tree nuts. High in fat (and therefore calories), edible tree nuts are the cash cow of foraging. Acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and many other “tree seeds” can provide all the necessary protein, fat, and carbohydrates for survival. Stock up fast, though, since the animals will be after these resources too.
Winter is like nature’s refrigerator, and as the temperatures drop and the deciduous leaves fall, the coldest season presents an obvious challenge and an unexpected benefit. As the cold air forces us to eat more calories to regulate our warmth, those same cold conditions can actually slow down decomposition and allow certain wild foods to last longer. These cold temperatures allow us to use plenty of leftover tree nuts from the fall (though some will have gone bad, more during a warm fall season). The best tasting nuts, like sweeter hickory species, will likely be long gone since the animals rely on them for food. In the case of acorns, the bitter tannic acid acts as a mild preservative, and its unpleasant taste can help to deter animals from eating them (until they get very hungry).
Regardless of species, edible tree nuts can be used to make porridge, bread, and other baked goods, roasted like peanuts, or added to other foods as a calorie booster. Nuts aren’t the only food of winter. Tree saps start to run in mid to late winter, and these can be collected and boiled down into sweet syrups and sugar. Sycamore is often the first tree to run sap, followed by maple, birch, hickory, and walnut. If things get really bad, you can shave off the inner layer of pine bark (the layer right next to the wood). Dry these strips and grind them into flour to extend your dwindling food supply. As winter drifts to a close, you can collect very early greens like wild onion. Throughout the winter season (and the rest of the year), you can also brew pine needle tea for your daily dose of Vitamin C.
Tips Through The Seasons
Whatever the season, whatever the reason – if you had to provide your own food from wild plants – you’ll need to maximize your calorie collection. Here are a few tips to consider when you’re trying to live off the land.
- Go for the highest calories. Only goats and their kin can live off of grass, and low calorie leaves. The human belly needs more nutrient-dense food sources. Starchy tubers and sugary berries are a great source of carbs, but remember that fat has twice the calories of protein or carbohydrates per unit. This means that nuts are worth several times their weight in watery berries (thanks to their high oil content).
- Be thrifty with your energy. You don’t want to expend more calories than you are bringing in. By walking up and down the mountainside to get a handful of berries, you spent 1000 calories to get 50 calories. No one can last long when they waste energy like this.
- Diversify your diet. Don’t just eat one thing. Eat a wide range of known edible plants to receive as many nutrients as possible.