The Outdoor Apothecary is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Wild Plants that You Can Eat

Many people would believe that there isn’t much to forage in the Northeast during the winter months, but this isn’t true at all. While there aren’t as many options of wild plants that you can eat during this time, there are at least 8 plants that I’ve had good success in foraging during a long New England winter.

It’s true that even in the morthernmost parts of the Northeast, there are still some wild edible plants to collect.  There are a few hardy greens such as wintercress and henbit that hang on even in the snow.  It might be harder to find them, but with a bit of persistance, it’s possible to find these little treasures. 

Sadly for me, I don’t have maple trees on my property (I live in an oak forest), but if you’re lucky enough to have maple trees, you could take advantage of our region’s most famous product – maple syrup – which can only be harvested in late winter.

The Outdoor Apothecary

Below I’m going to share some of the wild plants that you can eat that I’ve had sucess wildcrafting in Connecticut during the winter months.

I’ve broken them down by geography and environmental conditions of where those particular plants typically grow. 

If you live in the Northeast, you should have good luck with these plants as well.  

Open Meadows, Disturbed Soils, Sunny Areas & at the Edges of Sunny Areas

Chickweed

wild plants that you can eatStellaria media

Chickweed is one of those stalwart herbs that carry on through late fall and even into winter. 

How to Identify

Chickweed is a sprawling perennial that grows from about 6 inches to as tall as 2 feet. It has hairy stems, oval leaves, and starlike white flowers. 

How to Gather

Simply grab a fistful in your hand and with a pair of sharp scissors snip off the top 2-3 inches of the plant. Essentialy what you are doing is pruning the plant and encouraging it’s regrowth for future harvesting.

How to Eat

All of the aerial parts of chickweed are edible, including the flowers, and are best eaten raw.  Chickweed is one of the wild plants that you can eat and enjoy best without cooking.  I like to add it to a sandwich like you would do with sprouts, or make a nice pesto with it by adding garlic, walnuts, olive oil, and salt and pepper and pureeing it in a blender. 

Warnings

Chickweed resembles Spotted Spurge (Euphorbia maculata) which is a poisonous plant.  The easiest way to tell the difference is by breaking a stem.  If it oozes a milky white sap, leave it be…it’s not chickweed. If taken in excessive doses, chickweed may cause diarrhea and vomiting. Do not take during pregnancy. 

Juniper

wild plants that you can eatJuniperus species

Juniper trees and berries, like most conifers, are great for fall and winter foraging.

Gin gets its famous flavor from this little gem, but that’s not all you can do with Juniper. The “berries” have traditionally been used to season sauerkraut, but also lend an interesting flavor for sauces and to season wild game.  I recommend experimenting with this uniquely flavored herb.

How to Identify

Juniper is an evergreen that can take the form of a shrub or a small tree.  It has thin, reddish-brown fibrous bark that comes off in strips. You’ll notice that there are two different leaf types often found on the same plant. One has short, sharp needle-like leaves that are actually the young leaves of the tree.  The other, more mature leaves are flatter, with scale-like leaves. The “berries”, which are the edible part of the tree are not actually berries at all but are cones that grow only on the female plants.  

The berries are round and when ripe are blue-black in color.  You’ll often see under-ripe berries on the same tree.  These are green and should not be collected, but left to ripen on the tree.

How to Gather

When harvesting juniper berries, it’s best to wear long sleeves unless you’re okay with scratched-up arms…this is one prickly plant! Then, simply pick the ripe berries.  I like to use a container rather than a bag to reduce damaging the berries, as they can be soft and crush easily. 

How to Eat

As previously stated, the ripe “berries” are the parts to harvest. 

Warnings

 I really don’t know who would want to eat large quantities of this as it’s best as an accompaniment to other foods, but it’s worth pointing out that Juniper has been reported to be toxic in large amounts. In other words, treat Juniper as you would a seasoning and not the main course.

Rose hips

wild plants that you can eat Rosa species

Rose hips, to put it simply, are what rose flowers eventually grow up to be. They’re not only tasty when prepared properly, but they also bring a needed dose of vitamin C to the table during the winter months.  In fact, they contain a whopping 2000 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams of fruit.

How to Identify

Rose hips are red to orange in color, oblong, or round in shape, depending on what type of rose bush they’re growing on. The rose hips themselves often appear to have small wisps of “hair” protruding from the bottom. The ones pictured above are rosa rugosa or more commonly called beach roses.

wild plants that you can eat

How to Gather

Harvest rose hips by snipping off the stems with the hips attached. Keep in mind that we must share the bounty with the other creatures around us, so even though some rose species are invasive, we should endeavor to leave some for the birds to eat, especially in winter when food is scarce.

How to Eat

Rose hips are at their best and most flavorful after the first few winter touches of frost have descended upon us. I believe Rose hips are at their best when they are brightly colored but also slightly wrinkled and soft.  These can be used to make a variety of yummy treats such as jam, wine, tea, and syrup.  You never want to eat rose hips whole as found.  Their insides contain a hairy, seedy core that must be removed.  You can either scoop out this center before use or strain the contents after processing. 

My favorite preparation: Collect about 2 cups of rose hips. Use an enamel or stainless steel pan.  Add half as much water as you have rose hips.  Cook until tender.  Mash them, and force them through a fine strainer.  To this puree, add an equal amount of sugar and boil until sugar is dissolved.  Alternatively, you can add honey with no need to boil.  Store in the refrigerator and enjoy a spoonful a day for vitamin C.

Warnings

The biggest warning of rose hips is to either remove the hairy core or force through a very fine mesh strainer before eating.  You wouldn’t want the tiny hairs stuck in your throat, which we know wouldn’t be pleasant. 

Related Post: Easy Rose Hip Syrup Recipe for High Dose Vitamin C

Wintercress a.k.a. Yellow Rocket

wild plants that you can eatBarbarea vulgaris

As its name suggests, this lovely green often keeps growing all winter season, especially in the milder weather regions of the Northeast. However, even in the coldest spots, this hardy plant is often the first to appear when the snow gives way. Wintercress is a member of the mustard family and is high in vitamin C and contains reasonable amounts of beta-carotene. 

How to Identify

Wintercress is a very nutritious wild plant that you can eat and most closely resembles arugula leaves. All leaves of the first-year plant are usually pretty uniform in shape.  They have end lobes that are larger than all the other lobes. The leaves grow alternately on branching stems with little or very few hairs. 

How to Gather

The leaves are the part that you’ll want to harvest.  You can do this by pinching off individual leaves, or by using small scissors to cut off individual leaves.

How to Eat

Wintercress will be eaten much the same way you would arugula. Personally, I like to cook them up in a quiche the way I would spinach.  

Read more at Gardening Know How: Is Wintercress Edible: Wintercress Uses Straight From The Garden https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/wintercress/is-wintercress-edible.htm

Woodlands and Partially Shaded Areas

Wintergreen Leaves & Berries a.k.a Teaberry

wild plants that you can eatGaultheria procumbens

Wintergreen was popular with our country’s Indigenous populations here in the Northeast, who used it for treating back pain, rheumatism, fever, headaches, sore throats, and other conditions. 

Methyl salicylate, a mild form of aspirin, can be created by brewing and fermenting the leaves for a few days and is likely why wintergreen was used so extensively for the treatment of so many ailments. 

How to Identify

You can first identify wintergreen by its smell.  It’s highly aromatic and smells like fresh wintergreen gum…only better. It’s a very low-lying shrub growing only about 6″ tall with leathery oval-shaped leaves, small white or pale pink bell-shaped flowers, and brilliant red fruit. 

How to Gather

For the harvesting of wintergreen, you’ll want to pick the leaves individually, only gathering one leaf from each stem. I will typically dry the leaves by placing them in a paper bag in a dark place for a week and use them later for tea. The wintergreen flavor is very refreshing. 

How to Eat

Use the harvested leaves to brew into a delicious, aromatic “tea”.  This is perfect for sipping near a winter’s fire. The berries make a nice nibble while on your foraging adventure and also serve as a breath freshener. The berries can be added to a smoothie at home.  I often add this wild edible plant to other herbs and plants that I make herbal teas or tisanes from.

Warnings

People who are sensitive to aspirin should not take wintergreen internally. Oil of wintergreen should never be taken internally, nor applied to children’s skin under the age of 12 unless under professional supervision.

Field Garlic

wild plants that you can eatAllium vineale

I can always count on foraging field garlic even during the coldest months of winter, which is fortunate since I believe it to be a culinary necessity. In my opinion, this is one of the tastiest wild plants that you can eat. 

How to Identify

Field garlic is easy to overlook since, from a distance, it merely looks like a clump of grass. On closer inspection, however, you’ll notice that the leaves of this plant are tubular and hollow and not blade-like and flat like grass leaves. In fact, the look of the leaves is similar to that of wild chive and can be eaten as such, but the part you really want is underground.  When dug up, there is no mistaking the garlicky smell of the little bulbs that can be used the same way you’d use commercial garlic. 

How to Gather

Pinch or snip off the thinnest and tenderest leaves if you’re using like you would chives.  If you desire the garlic bulbs, then look for clumps with leaves with the largest diameter as these will yield the biggest bulbs, albeit they will still be small.

How to Eat

Eat the same way that you would eat commercially grown garlic.  The big difference is that it’s harder to clean the wild variety. Once you snip off the wiry roots at the bottom of the roots, you can soak the bulbs in water to remove any dirt and to remove the papery sheath that covers the bulbs.  Alternately you can simply use a garlic press and bypass all the hassle of messing with the papery covering.

Wetlands, Riverbanks, Lakesides & Bogs

Cattail Rhizomes

wild plants that you can eatTypha angustifolia

Cattails are not my favorite thing to winter harvest, mostly because they grow in wetlands and I’m not a fan of being cold and wet, but when I have harvested them and have been rewarded with tender young rhizomes, it was totally worth it. 

wild plants that you can eatHow to Identify

Cattails are fairly easy to identify and in my opinion, cattails more resemble a large corndog than they do a cat’s tail. In the winter, the brown seed head that is visible far above any water it’s growing in will have lost its color and will be more of an off-white. 

How to Gather

Cattail are wetland plants that grow rooted in the mud at the bottom of shallow water. In the winter, you’ll want to harvest the root, or rhizome where all the starch is being stored for their next growth cycle. 

To harvest the immature lateral rhizome, you’ll have to reach down into the mud and feel your way along the rhizome to its end.  If it does not curve upward, then it is ready to be harvested. When you find the first stringy root, bend it upward and snap it off. 

For mature rhizomes, you can reach into the mud and lift them up and out.  Then use a sharp knife to cut them away from the plant.

How to Eat

 The younger lateral rhizomes can be eaten raw or sauteed with a bit of butter and are tender and delicious. 

For the larger rhizomes, you can grill, bake or boil the root until it’s tender. Once cooked, eating a cattail root is similar to eating the leaves of an artichoke – strip the starch away from the fibers with your teeth.   The older mature rhizome is fibrous and difficult to eat, however, when you separate the starch from the fibers, you can use this as a thickener for soups or make into a kind of flour. 

To make flour:  You can also use the roots to make flour, used as a thickening agent in cooking. Scrape and clean several cattail roots. Place roots on a lightly greased cookie sheet in a 200º F oven to dry overnight. Skin roots and remove fibers. Pound roots until fine. Let stand overnight to dry. Sift, and it’s ready to use. The young immature lateral rhizomes are tender, delicious, and can be eaten raw, or sauteed with a bit of butter

Watercress

wild plants that you can eat

Nasturtium officinale

Watercress has long been valued as a wild plant that you can eat as well as for its medicinal properties. This aquatic, perennial plant with a peppery flavor grows naturally along the edges of spring-fed streams. Watercress tops the list as the most nutrient-dense of all powerhouse fruits or vegetables according to researchers at William Paterson University in NJ. Watercress ranks number one with a score of 100. It is rich in vitamins C, A, B, and K. It contains more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach. It also contains magnesium, potassium, and phytonutrients.

So. don’t pass this one up if you’re lucky enough to find it.

How to Identify

Watercress is a low-growing plant that’s not usually over a foot tall and grows in very shallow moving water. The plant itself has 1 1/2 inch to 6 inch long leaves that are deeply lobed, with the rounded lobes lined up in pairs along the midrib and a large single lobe at the end.

How to Gather

Simply snap off the leaf stalks by hand.

How to Eat

Watercress is lovely in salads or paired with strong cheeses. Watercress leaves are wonderful in sandwiches or sauteed and added to quiches, omelets, or soups. 

Warning

Watercress is only as clean as the water where it’s growing.  To eliminate the risk of ingesting bacteria, watercress should be boiled for ten minutes to be sure all bacteria have been eliminated. 

More to Explore

celebrating mabon

Celebrating Mabon With Herbs & Ancient Traditions

Happy Mabon! Autumn is definitely in the air, and it’s time for celebrating Mabon. We’re going to be talking about the mythology and folklore of Mabon as well as the herbs for this season. What better way to get into the spirit of fall and celebrate the season than with some herbal inspiration?

Continue Reading

cheddar onion biscuits

Incredible Cheddar Onion Biscuits

Nothing beats these warm flaky old-fashioned cheddar onion biscuits straight from the oven. This fool-proof homemade biscuit recipe is easy to make and requires just a few ingredients. One of them is our all-purpose baking mix.

Continue Reading

Share on facebook
Share
Share on twitter
Tweet
Share on pinterest
Pin It
Share on pocket
Pocket
Share on email
Follow

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.