In the average wild field or forest you might be surrounded by a feast of edible plants, nuts, roots, and berries that can help keep you alive but there is just as much growing in the surrounding wilderness that can hurt or even kill you.While knowing how to tie knots, build shelter, and sanitize water are critical survival skills, far too little time is spent on foraging for safe wild edibles.
The good news is that there are many common and easy to find wild edibles that can help keep you alive in a wilderness survival situation. Read on to learn about 15 of the most common edibles you can find all through the United States and Canada. Knowing these can be the difference between life and death if you find yourself in a survival situation where hunger is setting in, there’s no hope of rescue, and you need to now find food to get through the days ahead.
If you want to know about high-quality edibles you should immediately look for cattails. Also referred to as bulrush or reedmace depending on where you live, these plants are incredibly useful in a survival situation. They can commonly be found in wetlands and surrounding freshwater. This doesn’t mean just swamps — throughout almost all of Canada and nearly all 50 U.S. states you can find cattails in large clumps by freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers.These distinctive plants grow out of the water and are long reeds with brown or red cylinders near the top that look somewhat like burnt corndogs. The good news with cattails is they tend to grow in large clumps and almost all of the plant can be eaten.
If you dig up the rootstock you can eat that raw or boil it for a slightly better taste (make sure to thoroughly wash all the mud away). The stems are also edible and can actually be rather tasty near the bottom where the plant will be more white than green. All the leaves can be boiled into a spinach-like concoction, and if you’re lucky enough to be looking in the early summer, the top flower spike from the distinctive top of the plant can be eaten like corn on the cob. During this time that flower spike can actually taste a little bit like corn.
Cattails are also great because that spike can be broken open and the white fluffy seeds in the middle, once dried, make for incredible fire starting material. Get used to looking for these around every pond, lake, or river you walk by. You’ll be surprised how often a clump of them is right there!
Take a look at this video to learn more about cattails.
There are many different nuts that can be found out in the wild, but they’re generally not the ones that you will find on your local grocery store’s shelves. Unless you stumble upon a pecan, peanut, or almond farm, you’re generally not going to find these in the wild. Acorns, on the other hand, can be found wherever you can find mature oak trees.Acorns all have a similar appearance, and are one of the few edibles that even someone with virtually no outdoor training can easily identify and locate.
Why do acorns get their own category? Because per ounce acorns have almost as many calories of bread, but they also have some fat, which means you get a lot more of that critical energy source that all people need for long time survival. Finding acorns generally isn’t the hard part. Oaks are found in all the Lower 48 states and most of Canada.
However you don’t want to eat acorns raw!
While acorns are among the best edible foods you can forage, you need to treat them to leach out bitter tannins. While they still might be okay in an emergency situation raw (in very small numbers) ideally you never want to eat them without leeching out the bitter tannins.
Don’t be intimidated by the sound of that step — it’s no complicated. Basically you want to mash up the acorns and run water through them (cold water preferably) a few times until the acorns only taste nutty and not bitter anymore. A hint of bitterness means there are still tannins you should try to rinse out. If you can’t taste any bitterness, they’re perfect and ready to provide a heavy dose of life-saving calories and fat.
Take a look at this video of acorns as a survival food to learn more.
#3: Japanese Knotweed
While this might seem strange considering this is an article for edibles in the United States and Canada, Japanese Knotweed is an invasive species that has thrived throughout large regions of both nations, making it relatively easy to find in many forested ecosystems. In Canada Japanese Knotweed can be found from Ontario to British Columbia, while it can be found throughout the northeast of the United States all the way through the Midwest, South, and parts of the West. Japanese Knotweed has many similarities to bamboo when you look at the stems of the plant.To find Japanese Knotweed you want to look for fresh water sources like streams and ponds, and then look for non-shady areas getting a lot of sun. This means as you’re searching for cattails, perhaps the “Godfather” of all forage edibles in North America, you should keep an equally open eye out for Knotweed, which you might also hear called Japanese Bamboo. You will be looking for very bamboo looking stems and clearly white nodes, as well as large narrow green leaves that often seem much larger than surrounding plants and even out of place.
This plant is great in the spring and very early summer and the stems have a combination of a sour and tart taste that has caused many people to compare it to rhubarb. They also generally grow in clumps, allowing for a good-sized meal with the discovery of a normal-sized match. However, the stems do harden as temperatures grow throughout the summer which means they become less edible later in the year.
A great YouTube video showing you exactly how to identify Japanese Knotweed.
#4: Hickory Nuts
Hickory nuts take more of an effort to get strong sustenance out of, but if you are in one of the many wooded areas that have hickory trees, you want to keep an eye out for these nuts.While hickory trees can be found over a wide spread area in North America, they are more common east of the Mississippi River, or in the states on the west side of the river directly bordering the Mighty Mississippi. Hickory trees can also be found in California and Arizona, and the provinces of Ontario and all other Canadian provinces east of there.
Hickory nuts are easy to identify because of their large and hard 4-segment outer shell. While these shells have a reputation for being extremely difficult to break open, there’s quite a reward for survivors who stick with it. What you want is the soft edible part on the inside. These nuts fall heavily in the fall but can even often be found months afterwards — sometimes even in the snow underneath these trees.
The effort pays off because of the sheer calorie numbers that hickory nuts offer at a stunning 193 calories per ounce of nut meat, not to mention a large amount of protein for your muscles and critical systems. That’s a ton of calories which means a lot of energy. Even better if you’ve been living off a lot of bitter greens: most hickory nut meat is similar in taste to pecans.
Getting to the nut is challenging. In the wild your best bet is to find a flat surface and a large rock. Aim for about 1/3 of the way down the stem and you have a better chance of cracking it open on the first hit. Be careful not to hurt your hands.
As a side note, if you know how to tap a tree for sap, hickory tree sap is edible and can even provide some fresh and clean water. If you don’t know how to do this, simply stay with the nuts which provide the most benefit due to the large amount of protein and calories to use as fuel.
Here’s a video for more on hickory nuts.
#5: Wild Asparagus
Many outdoor people have walked right by wild asparagus without even realizing it. Wild asparagus looks similar to the asparagus you see in the grocery store, except it is going to be much narrower and generally much taller/longer than what you get out of the store.Wild asparagus can be found in many different environments from heavy grass fields to surrounding trees or fence posts and in fact are found in every single state and Canadian province, as well as through most of Mexico.
Wild asparagus can be eaten raw or it can be boiled — basically giving you two options to eat this high vitamin vegetable that also offers a large amount of fiber to fill the stomach. Since asparagus grows in bundles, you will rarely find just one plant alone. You will most likely find several together, and sometimes in giant clumps.
While these don’t have the calories of acorn mash or hickory nut meat, they do offer a lot more substance than most leafy greens, as well as vitamins that your body can use to keep up good health even under the stress of a survival or foraging situation.
Here’s a short video on finding wild asparagus.
#6: Yard Plantain
Not to be mistaken for the tiny banana-like tropical fruit, yard plantains (Plantago ruglii) are an extremely common weed that quite possibly might even be in your yard before you mow the lawn — especially if you live in the country. This is a yard and field weed that is extremely easy to identify based on its distinctive moderate sized leaves that point out in every direction from the stems at the center base of the plant.Leaves can grow as large as six inches long and four inches wide, looking in some ways like a slightly wilder or stringier version of spinach.
Yard plantains are most commonly found through the Midwestern and eastern United States and eastern Canada.
These are plants that are better eaten in early season, especially the leaves. Leaves can be eaten raw or boiled. The stems and seeds are also completely edible, and tend to be the better choice in late summer or early fall when the leaves of yard plantains become bitter to the taste. While the calories are not especially high, they’re solid for a leafy plant and offer a variety of important vitamins that make it an excellent addition to your foraging needs.
In addition, yard plantains were often used by Native Americans for medicinal reasons. It can make for a good wound dressing because it kills bacteria, often helps with swelling (like from bee stings), and can help stop bleeding before helping to fast forward your body’s natural healing .
A great video on yard plantain.
#7: Black Walnut
Wild black walnuts offer an exceptional food source for foraging. Black walnuts can be found throughout a large number of northern states, alpine regions, and Canadian provinces. Black walnuts are easy to identify due to the often yellow to greenish shell around the nut meat. If you are finding them later in the season, the outer shells might be darker.You will want a rock or else whatever survival tool you have on yourself to crack through the outer shell, but black walnut nut meat is worth it. These are 173 calories an ounce and come with a great combination of protein, fat, and other minerals. Their rich taste is also a great change of pace for your stomach compared to the often leafy and bitter taste of other foraging foods.
The one big thing to watch out for is mold. If you see any sign of mold within the shells, toss the walnut away and only stick to the ones that won’t make you sick. This is an especially good food source to look for if you are very high up north of where many other common edible plants grow.
Here’s a video for more on black walnut foraging.
#8: Pine Nuts
Although pine trees aren’t nearly as common in the south as they are up north and in alpine country, pine nuts are a God send for foraging wild edibles.Pine nuts can be found on any pine cone that hasn’t already been raided by one of nature’s many animals who also use pine nuts as a source of food. Although it takes some time to gather, they are far easier to get a hold of than walnuts, acorns, or hickory nuts, and pine nuts come in at 172 calories an ounce. This is a very good number for forage related food.
In addition to this, pine nuts as an edible are also high in carbs, protein, and fat, giving you the full trifecta of necessary nutrients to have energy to survive in the wild. Pine nuts are a very good source of food.
Check out this video on harvesting pine nuts.
Clovers might not be giants when it comes to edible natural calories or adding in any fat or protein, but they make the list because they are absolutely everywhere. There are several different species of clovers, but the little plants with three leaves (or four if you’re lucky like the Irish).If you can find a large open grassy area, chances are overwhelming you’ll see groups of clovers fixed in. These are among the easiest of plants to spot, and are widely found throughout temperate areas in Canada and the United States. Basically anywhere that isn’t tundra or desert.
These are among the easiest of plants to spot, and while you can eat them raw you are going to be a lot happier if you have the ability to boil them (think more of a boiled spinach).
Here’s a video for getting used to eating and storing clovers, which shows that a person has to get used to this natural edible green.
Dandelions might be annoying weeds to homeowners who love the idea of a perfect green grass lawn, but these “weeds” are extremely useful out in the wilderness. While you likely won’t have a still to make dandelion wine, you’ll be glad to know that this is one of the few weeds that is entirely edible. The leaves, seeds, flower, and roots: all of it can give you much needed calories. This is another plant where the leaves are better in spring and early summer as they tend to get more bitter throughout the year, but you can boil them, as well.Dandelions also have the added benefit of making a good tea. So unlike water used to treat acorn mash, or boil out bitterness in other greens, the water used on dandelions can still be drank as a tea to help keep you hydrated.
When searching for dandelions be sure to look for open areas such as fields, grassland, but they can also often be found in woods where a decent amount of sunlight still hits the ground. Dandelions are found in all 50 U.S. states and most Canadian provinces.
Look here for a good starter video on dandelions.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a weed that can be found throughout a myriad of temperate climates. These plants have thick leaves and are very good and holding moisture which allows them to be found in soil that is hot, dry, and hostile to many other types of plant life. Purslane is found throughout the United States and Canada.Purslane has decent calories for a green weed, but where it really gets a reputation is being one of the only known plants to have Omega-3 fatty acids. This is a huge boost to your brain and body in any survival situation. Once you get used to looking for this weed, you should be able to find it anywhere.
You’re looking for smooth fat leaves that have a slightly sour taste that isn’t unpleasant. They can be eaten raw or if you really hate sour taste, you can boil the leaves to remove that flavor without hurting the Omega-3 fatty acids or other benefits this forager-friendly plant has to offer you.
If you’re in an environment that is hot with questionable soil, then Purslane is a great weed to look for since it might be one of the best wild edibles available.
To see a good video on purslane uses.
Fireweed has distinctive purple flowers that make it stick out from other plants. Aside from the flower, the veins in a fireweed’s leaves are circular instead of the much more common design of just running off to the end of the leaf. A good chunk of fireweed is edible.The leaves are edible, although best when young instead of mature, as well as the stalk, seeds, and flowers.
The flowers have a very distinctive pepper taste to them and this edible is a strong source for several important vitamins, and can be a great mix with some other local greens. It’s not the highest in calories, but the vitamins make it a good add to any wildly foraged salad.
Fireweed is found through most of the United States, though is notably absent from Texas and the Southeast. It is found intermittently and seemingly randomly throughout multiple Canadian provinces, as well.
Here’s a good start on learning more about fireweed.
Chicory can be found in three different continents, including throughout a good chunk of North America. This is a plant best known for its combination of small blue, white, and lavender flowers.Although these are often the easiest way to identify chicory, this bushy plant is fully edible. The leaves and flowers can be eaten raw, though you will want to clean the roots and boil them before proceeding. As with many wild edible plants, the leaves from a chicory plant can become bitter as they mature and taste better (less bitterness) if you boil them first.
If you go this route you can drink the water afterwards since you’re not draining out anything unhealthy, you’re merely altering the taste. Chicory thrives in temperate climates but can be found throughout all but the absolute most extreme of climates.
Learn more about chicory as a wild edible.
#14: Wild Alliums
Ideally if you don’t have any experience with wild alliums (onion, leeks, shallots, chives, garlic, etc) then you won’t have to resort to these as they can be a little bit trickier. The most important thing for whatever wild alliums are in your area is that ones with a very strong onion or very strong garlic smell will be edible. Those will be safe and provide much needed calories. If you can barely get that smell or you’re just not sure, don’t eat them. In some areas there are some similar looking plants that are poisonous, but they don’t have any garlic or onion smell. That’s the most sure fire way to tell them apart.Remember that when you clearly find excellent fragrant alliums you can eat all parts of the plant to get some much needed calories, but be sure to be careful. Wild onions and garlic can be powerful — and eating too much at once has the potential to really upset your stomach.
These plants are found in every state east of the Mississippi River along with Ontario and Quebec. A few states west of the river like Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Pacific coast states and provinces all have these wild edible plants, as well.
Do NOT mistake plants like parsley or carrots or potatoes with this group. Unless you’ve stumbled across a farm or garden, you should avoid any plants that look like parsley, carrots, or potatoes — these will often be poisonous in the wild.
Here’s an example of wild leeks
#15: Beech Nuts
Beech nuts are a little bit more limited in where you find them. Beech trees are most common in eastern woodlands up through the United States and even up into eastern Canada.Beech trees have a distinctive smooth bark that makes them easy to spot from a distance. Once you find a cluster of these trees, you’re looking for small three-sided seeds. These are most common in the fall ranging from late September through October. This makes them limited and seasonal, but they are an excellent food source with a large number of calories, and a good mixture of carbs and protein to keep you going.
In other words it’s a great fall option when so many other plants are no longer edible or available.
Take a look at this video: Beech Nuts
There’s More — Each State or Province Has It’s Own Wild Edibles
If you learn these 15 edibles thoroughly and spend time looking for them locally and eating a little bit here and there, you’ll be well equipped to forage for food almost anywhere in the U.S. or in Canada.Please note that some plants not on this list are concentrated either in specific states or regions. We implore you to seek out a state or region specific guide that details safe and easy to find high calorie wild edibles such as California wild edibles, Colorado wild edibles, Florida wild edibles, New York wild edibles, wild edibles of the Pacific Northwest (Washington State, Oregon, British Columbia, etc), and wild edibles of the southwest states (Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, etc).
Didn’t mention your state or region? At any link above you can search for (your state) + “wild edibles” (or whichever states or places you frequent) so you can arm yourself with more easy to find and identify wild edibles.
This article wouldn’t be complete without a few quick notes on:
- Insects, worms, and grubs
- What types of plants to avoid
Don’t Just Rely on Edible Plants
Insects, worms, and grubs can all be a great source of protein in the wild, and there are some parts of the world where insects are a major part of a diet. However make sure to always cook the insects and with insects like grasshoppers or crickets, pull off the legs to make sure they don’t get caught in your throat. Don’t just eat them whole.With berries you always want to be careful. If they are very bright be wary and if you don’t recognize them, you ‘re best avoiding them. If you’re absolutely desperate, take one berry and taste it (don’t swallow). If you feel any burning or stinging, spit it out and avoid them all. If you taste anything other than sweetness, avoid eating the berries at all cost.
Warning Signs That a Plant is Poisonous
Finally, there are certain signs you should look for that tell you to avoid those plants. If you’re in doubt and you see one of these signs, walk away. Stay away from plants with:
- Thorns or spines
- Bitter taste
- Soapy taste or milky/discolored sap
- Any scent of almonds
- Any general 3-leaf pattern of plant or growth
- Any type of seeds or beans inside of pods
- Anything that looks like parsley, carrots, or dill
If you avoid these types of plants and can learn to identify the 15 edibles mentioned in this article, you will be in a great place to survive if you ever find yourself lost off the beaten path. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way to making you a survival specialist capable of handling any hard survival situation.
by Shane Dayton