As I’ve gained experienced with foraging, I’ve learned to discern minor subtleties in the characteristics of specific plants. Now that I’m foraging for medicine as well as food, I’ve added even more plants to my mental patterns for identifications. Unfortunately, I’m not always articulate about these differences, so I will provide some examples in this post.
Let’s focus on wild plants with small, round-ish leaves.
Common mallow (Malva neglecta). Roundly palmate, roughly scalloped leaves. “Palmate” means the veins radiate out from the leaf’s petiole, or stem. The leaves also look like they have fan-like pleats. Common mallow grows in clumps which may look similar to a basal rosette, where all the leaves grow from a common point, low to the ground.
Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like more mature leaves; just avoid the tough leaf stem (petiole). Flowers and immature fruit are also edible. The leaves can be used in a cold infusion for mucus support and reducing inflammation.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). The first-year leaves are heart- or kidney-shaped, deeply veined, and scalloped, and grow in a basal rosette. The leaves are less round than common mallow, and the veins don’t all radiate from the same central point.
Garlic mustard is a biennial, and in its second year the leaves are more triangular, and grow from an erect stem, rather than its first-year basal rosette form.
If you have any doubt about identifying garlic mustard, crush a leaf – you can’t mistake that smell. It’s almost like… garlic, mixed with mustard.
Every part of garlic mustard is edible: stems, leaves, flowers, seed pods and roots. Young leaves and flowers can be consumed raw, but older leaves and stems definitely benefit from cooking first. Garlic mustard (like dandelion – which does not have round leaves and thus is not in this study) is so chock full of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that it could be considered “food as medicine”, nourishing the body through side dishes, green smoothies, or wild pesto. A hot infusion (a.k.a. hot tea, or the water left over after blanching) supports lungs struggling with asthma or bronchitis.
Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Also known as creeping Charlie and gill-over-the-ground. Its scalloped heart- or kidney-shaped leaves grow in pairs across from each other. These opposite paired leaves, along with a stem with a square cross-section, are distinguishing characteristics of plants in the mint family. Note the scallops are much more pronounced than either common mallow or garlic mustard. Additionally, neither of the previous plants had paired leaves like this. When ground ivy is in bloom, the leaves change to a slightly more triangular shape.
Ground ivy has an aromatic, bitter flavor which historically was used to flavor ales. The leaves and flowers can be eaten or used as seasoning. Ground ivy has a toning effect on mucous membranes, breaks up congestion in the lungs and sinuses and helps eliminate toxins.
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). Henbit is also in the mint family, and thus shares ground ivy’s paired leaves and square stem. However, its round leaves have even more pronounced scallops, and near the top the leaves grow attached to the stem, with no petiole at all. Henbit also tends to grow more upright, whereas ground ivy prefers to creep along the, well, ground.
If you still are unsure whether you have found henbit or ground ivy, crush one of the leaves. Ground ivy has a pronounced, minty aroma whereas henbit lacks fragrance. Henbit is also one of the few wild edibles I’ve found which does not also appear on the “wild medicines” list, so consider its use primarily as food. Its mildness makes it a great option to round out dishes of cooked greens with more assertive flavors or textures, such as garlic mustard or dandelions.
Plantain (Plantago spp., mostly major near me). Broad leaf plantain features a basal rosette of wide, rounded “ovate” (i.e., oval or egg-ish-shaped) leaves with prominent parallel ribs. (P. lanceolata has long, narrow “lanceolate” leaves.)
While plantain often shows up as “edible” in the foraging books, I find the fiber in the ribs too aggressive to enjoy eating. I prefer its medicinal applications, especially in salves for bites and stings. Plantain also provides liver and dietary support, as well as (yet again) support for mucous membranes and chest congestion.
Violet. (Viola spp.) Prominently veined heart-shaped leaves with toothed – rather than scalloped – edges.
The leaves and flowers of violets are edible, with the leaves in particular providing vitamins and minerals much like garlic mustard, with a much milder flavor. The flowers are often used for syrups or candied to top confections. (I have never had the patience to brush egg white and sprinkle sugar on those tiny petals, so no photos to share here!) Violet leaves can also be used for salves, or taken internally for digestive concerns, fever reduction, and other conditions.
Wild geranium (Geranium carolininum). Also known as Carolina crane’s-bill. While the overall appearance of the leaf is round, it is deeply lobed, and each of the lobes is also scalloped. No risk of confusing this one with any of the other plants in this list!
Wild geranium is primarily used medicinally, with the rhizomes in particular being used for digestive issues like diarrhea or dysentery. But remember that digging up the root will kill the plant. Harvest from areas where the plants grow plentifully or wait until after the flowers have gone to seed.
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense). Look, more heart-shaped leaves! But wild ginger has no scallops or tooths on the margin.
Additionally, a wild ginger leaf is covered with fine hairs that make the leaf shimmer like satin when the sun hits it just right.
Wild ginger leaves, stems and rhizomes are all edible, although the flavor is less intense than the commercially grown ginger (Zingiber officinale). Like “regular” ginger, wild ginger can also be used to treat upset stomachs. Because this plant grows so slowly across the forest floor, take care not to overharvest. If you accidentally pull up more rhizome than intended, you could replant it in a new location. Additionally, wild ginger contains aristolochic acid, which may cause cancer or kidney problems if consumed in large quantities. (Herbal medicines imported into the U.S. can even be seized by the FDA if they contain wild ginger or other plants known to contain aristolochic acid.)
NOTE: None of the medical treatments described in this blog post are FDA-approved, and you should always consult with a trained medical professional before using any medicine. Make 100% sure of your identification before eating food from the wild; no, even a blog post as erudite and insightful as this one cannot be used as your only source when identifying wild plants. Bear in mind that allergic reactions are possible to any food, even those generally recognized as safe. And yes, the lawyers made me say this.