Recently my friend Janet of Timber Creek Farm invited me to assess her property near Annapolis, MD for what forage food it might offer. She also raises livestock and poultry on part of her land. The rest is largely mature hardwood forest, with a few fields in between. A small creek runs through part of the property.
The following is a list of the most notable wild edibles we found, in alphabetical order.
Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus)
There wasn’t very much of this plant, which can be harvested for both greens and later edible seeds. Clearly some insect thought the leaves were delicious.
If she wanted to encourage it, Janet could allow these few specimens to go to seed, which could then be broadcast (maybe on more welcoming ground) for a bigger “crop” next year.
Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis)
The leaves, stems, flowers and seedpods are all edible, even into summer when a lot of garden greens bolt or become bitter.
The blue and white flower is a dead giveaway to identify this plant. Unfortunately, we didn’t find enough to bother foraging.
Blackberries (Rubus species)
We found a huge thorny patch of tangled canes with juicy berries just starting to turn ripe. We snacked on handfuls each time we passed!
Later in the week, Janet collected enough for a blackberry pie! Blackberries ripen over a long period of time, so this patch will continue to provide fruit for anyone brave enough to tangle with the thorns.
(This is one reason we always wear long sleeves and pants while foraging!)
Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus carthartica)
BUCKTHORN IS NOT EDIBLE! Ok, it won’t kill you the way some plants will, but the ripe berries will cause digestive distress (another name for this plant is “purging buckthorn”… for a reason!)
I mention buckthorn because I was excited to see an unknown-to-me tree with berries, and I was certain I had found something amazing. Wrong! Remember: always be 100% sure of your identification before you sample any foraged food!
Elderberry (Sambucus species) [No photo]
Behind a barn, there was a single elderberry shrub that had been completely ravaged by birds, even though the fruit were unripe. Janet shared that if she didn’t cover it, this was its inevitable fate. I’m surprised the canes hadn’t spread more aggressively. The elderberry in my own yard is certainly staging a takeover!
In addition to the ripe berries, elderberry flowers are also edible, and you often find recipes for fritters, wine, liqueurs or other beverages. I opted not to make any of those this year to hold out for the biggest berry crop possible. I hope that means enough berries that the birds and I can both enjoy them, because the bushes are WAY too tall for me to cover with bird netting.
Ferns (Exact species TBD)
In many places in the forest, arching ferns spread across the ground.
They need to be checked in the early spring to see if these are ostrich ferns (Matteucia struthiopterus), the best variety for harvesting fiddleheads. All my local wild ferns have the fuzzy coating in the fiddlehead stage.
Greenbrier (Smilax species)
Despite the thorns, greenbrier, has edible young leaves and tendrils. In fact the thorns are soft on the growing ends of the plant (the meristem), meaning they can be eaten along with the rest of the tips.
The deer also enjoyed the tender tips and leaves, because many of these plants we saw were nipped off. According to one of my foraging books, the starchy roots are edible as well, and can thicken soups and stews. I haven’t tried this personally but I intend to. Since I don’t eat corn products, I am always on the lookout for thickeners to substitute for cornstarch.
Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)
Japanese barberry is an invasive species that falls into my “edible but why would you want to?” category.
The red berries cling to the stem well into the winter, and is one of the few edibles you might expect to find while the rest of the forest is brown and quietly waiting for spring. Remember to dodge the thorns while picking the fruit!
(I also have a personal grudge against Japanese barberry for its possible role in the spread of Lyme disease.)
Lambsquarters or Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)
If you have read my blog for a while, you know that lambsquarter is one of my favorite wild edibles. I love using the leaves to help round out garden greens for various dishes. As a bonus, they are healthier than most garden veggies too! I have not tried cooking the seeds yet because I find it tedious to winnow the hulls from the seeds.
However we only saw this one young plant, too small to bother with at this stage. It will eventually grow several feet tall with plenty of leaves to pick.
Milkweed (Asclepius syriaca)
There weren’t many of these either, and they were later in their life cycle than those in my area.
These milkweed specimens were definitely past the age where they could be eaten as shoots, and didn’t have flowers yet, so nothing to forage at the moment. There were no sign of monarch caterpillars on these plants either. Yes, I checked thoroughly!
Mulberry (Morus rubra), with wild grape (Vitis species)
I have to describe these two together, because they were a package deal. The mulberry had many low branches which meant a lot of fruit was within easy reach.
Janet planned to use the mulberry fruit, once ripe, as a natural dye.
Because the tree had so many low branches, the wild grape that clung to it was also low, almost at eye level. (For me anyway… which is pretty low!) I have never seen so many grapes within arm’s reach.
At this stage they are perfect for verjuice, a very sour liquid that can be used like lemon juice. Once fully ripe – I am guessing they will turn black at that stage, since most wild grapes seem to – they can be eaten straight if one doesn’t mind the large seeds, or juiced to use for jams and jellies. The one concern about wild grapes is the amount of tartaric acid they contain. Eating grapes raw probably wouldn’t cause problems, but the juice should be allowed to stand a few days to allow the tartaric acid to settle out at the bottom of the container. The juice can then carefully be poured off the top, leaving the tartaric acid behind. The leaves can also be used in cooking. The most iconic use for them is stuffed grape leaves.
Pokeweed (Phytolaca americana) [no photo]
Obviously by this time of year (early summer) you cannot eat pokeweed. New pokeweed shoots in the spring are the only way this plant can be safely consumed. Janet uses the berries – part of the plant you can’t eat – to dye yarn.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota)
When you think you have found Queen Anne’s lace, aka wild carrot, always remember to check for the slightly hairy stems. None of the poisonous look-alikes have hairs on their stems.
By the time you find the tell-tale flowers of Queen Anne’s lace, the taproot is too tough and woody to eat. You can mark the location and look for root crops in the fall or following spring. Alternatively, some use the taproot for its flavor rather than actual eating; for instance, to make a stew or soup have a more pronounced carrot flavor.
I recently learned you can make Queen Anne’s lace jelly from the flowers, and I assume this approach could be used for any other edible flowers. I haven’t tried it yet because I don’t eat a lot of sweets, and I hate having jars of jams or other sweet concoctions taking up space in my fridge or pantry!
The shoots of the second year plants – prior to flowering, so earlier in the spring – apparently can also be peeled, cooked and eaten for their sweet, carroty taste.
Shiso, Beefsteak, or Perilla (Perilla frutescens)
This plant with fragrant edible leaves grew in abundance near the poultry sheds and barns.
The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. I harvested some, but decided the flavor was too pronounced for an entire vegetable dish so I mixed it with more conventional veggies, beet greens and chard. Janet has enough shiso growing that she could get very creative in leveraging of this free wild food.
Smartweed (Periscaria species)
Edibility unknown. Janet mentioned a plant I had never heard of, called smartweed. When she showed me an example, I thought looked like lady’s thumb … because apparently they are closely related! Note it’s missing the little “thumbprint” on the leaf.
A lot of foraging books recommend the leaves of lady’s thumb (variously Polygonum persicaria, Periscaria persicaria, or Persicaria maculosa, among others – depending on the botanical classification system) as a raw or cooked green, but personally I am not a fan. Here is a photo of lady’s thumb for comparison with smartweed. (No, lady’s thumb is not that yellow. The lighting was terrible, that’s all!)
I have never seen a reference to smartweed as being edible, although it can be used as a natural dye (which Janet has tried). There are many related plants all called “smartweed,” so without more detailed photos I cannot tell if this is, for instance, a native version (Pennsylvania smartweed, Persicaria pensylvanica) or an invasive one (Oriental smartweed, Persicaria longiseta).
Adding to the confusion, smartweed is sometimes called knotweed, and it is in fact related to Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). Thankfully we found none of that particular invasive (but edible) species during the property tour.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Spicebush is an understory shrub which had a lot of room in the mature hardwood forest.
The leaves and twigs can be used for tea or other infusions, and the berries (which only grow on the female plants) can be dried to make a seasoning. There were plenty of these wonderful native shrubs growing near the winding little creek.
Tearthumb, Asiatic Tearthumb, or Mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata)
Tearthumb is a low, creeping weed with triangular leaves and tiny thorns. I had never seen this plant before, but I was enchanted by its shimmery, colorful berries.
According to this page, tearthumb is edible – young stems and leaves, berries, and seeds. However, I have never encountered it in any of my foraging books so I am hesitant to give it a shot until I have done more research!
If it is edible – IF! – there was certainly plenty of it to enjoy… although I always think twice before tangling with thorny plants in the name of dinner!
Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius)
These red berries are ripe throughout Maryland right now. Often mistaken for wild raspberries, wineberries have hairy bristles all over their stems versus the distinct thorns of raspberries.
I usually eat the berries too fast to use in recipes, but their common name hints at one way to savor these delicate red fruits! They are very easily crushed, so a wide, shallow container is best if collecting them for later.
Wild Edibles We Didn’t Find
Janet’s property is extensive, and we were unable to visit every single corner. Some of these plants may be elsewhere on her land. On the other hand, since so much of it is mature hardwood, there simply may not be the necessary ecological niche for these plants to take hold.
These were: black walnut (Juglans nigra), autumn olive (Elaganus umbellata), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), pawpaw (Asimina triloba), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), jewelweed (Impatiens species) or Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosas).
Visiting at another time of year (early spring, for instance) could also reveal additional wild free food that we missed on this tour.
Want Your Own Property Assessed?
If you are in Maryland and want your own property assessed for foraging opportunities, please contact me!
I consulted the books below for this report. Note: I am not an affiliate marketer and I do not get commissions if you buy these books from Amazon.com. I highly recommend looking for them at your public library.
Ellen Zachos, The Wildcrafted Cocktail.
Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden.
Marie Viljoen, Forage, Harvest, Feast.
Chris Bennett, Southeast Foraging.
Leda Merideth, Northeast Foraging. (Maryland neatly straddles the plants covered by these two books, that is why I always use both.)