I preface this guide with a warning:
***Whenever eating anything that you find in the wild, you are running a risk.***
Educate yourself as much as possible, and please do not eat anything unless you are absolutely positive in your identification. Even then, please continue to express caution.
Another important note: Although I do make an effort to include both vernacular and proper scientific names for all the plants, common names can vary by region. When transferring this knowledge to others, try to be as specific as possible and try to take into account these discrepancies.
Lastly, I would advise that you test all foods prior to consumption.
The reason for this is two-fold:
- Unless it is something that you have specifically tried in the past, it is entirely possible that you may have an allergic reaction.
- There are often non-edible plants that visually resemble edible plants.
Assuming you have reached the point where you are positive on the identification of an edible plant, it is advised perform a “Tolerance Test.”
- Take a small piece of the edible portion of the plant and bite it a few times before spitting it out.
- Wait 60 minutes.
- If no adverse reaction occurs, take a larger but still small piece of the edible portion, but eat and actually swallow it this time.
- After giving it some time, try about a tablespoon amount, mix it in with either other food or in a recipe.
If no negative effects occurred during any of these steps, the plant is likely safe for you to eat.
If you do find yourself potentially sick after the consumption of a wild plant, you can call the Missouri Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.
For purposes of plant conservation, be sure to always pick in moderation, choosing carefully to pick plants or parts of plants that will not negatiely affect the successful reproduction of the plant. If applicable, you can also scatter the seeds to encourage propegation of the plant or cultivate a harvest of your own from a small sample retrieved from nature. (Jan Phillips, “Wild Edibles of Missouri”)
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)
The common dandelion, or simply dandelion, is one of the most commonly found wild flowers in North America. It is often noted for it bright, vibrant yellow flowers that turn into white, fluffy seeds that are dispersed by wind.
In addition to the flower’s wide availability, the green leaves at the base of the flower are full of vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as potassium, zinc, and iron (Phillips).
While they have a long history of use in traditional medicine the world over, evidence for some of their supposed medicinal properties are dubious. Commonly, the green leaves at the base of the plant are used as a diuretic, as well as to help stimulate appetite (UMD).
Some may find the bitter taste of the leaves unappealing, and find that boiling it in a single batch of water only works to accentuate the bitterness even further. This can be avoided by boiling the leaves in 3 separate batches of water, for about a minute each. The green leaves are also generally best right after they have just emerged (Phillips).
Arguably a bit more appetizing, the flower can be used in a variety of recipes, including cooked into pancakes, made into dandelion wine, tossed in a salad, or simply eaten raw (Phillips).
Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)
A hardy weed, Lamb’s Quarters (sometimes called pigweed) can be found just about anywhere throughout the U.S. and Canada, including having been found to grow in every single county in Missouri.
World-wide, it is often used as a fast-growing grain or as animal feed. In fact, in Northern India, it is commonly cultivated and used as a food crop (Niir Board).
As relative of spinach, Lambsquarters are often used for their stems and leaves, which can be used as a replacement for other leafy greens in cooked or stewed dishes. Raw, it also functions fairly well as a replacement for both spinach and lettuce.
Nutritionally, Lamb’s Quarters are remarkable. 1 cup of cooked greens will provided you with almost 300% of the daily recommended intake of Vitamin A, 111% of your Vitamin C, and 46% of your daily Calcium needs (Nutrition Data).
Although not recommended, you can also create a wheat-flour substitute out of the seeds of lamb’s quarters. To do so, remove the seed germ from the chaff, ground, and then roast for 2 hours a 350 degrees, which is then to be ground again. This in turn can be used as a less-tasty, but different colored flour substitute in a variety of baked goods (Phillips).
CAUTION: Lamb’s Quarters can contain relatively high levels of Oxalic Acid, so try to avoid over consumption of the raw leaves.
There is also a poisonous look-a-like plant called the Nettleleaf Goosefoot. You can differentiate between the two by crushing and smelling a leaf from the plant, a strong odor is indicative of it being nettleleaf (UC Davis). Goosefoot plants also tend to have deeper indented serations along the leaves.
Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana)
Fruiting between the months of September and December, the American persimmon is a tasty, sought after fruit present in most parts of middle and Southern Missouri. An enjoyable, sweet fruit when ripe, they are notoriously astringent and fibrous if consumed before reaching their maturity (Missouri Department of Conservation).
They are, however, possibly one of the easiest wild fruit to properly identify, due to their unique dark-gray, blocky bark and orange colored fruit when ripe (Missouri Botanical Garden).
Although more popular for the fruit, the dried leaves of the persimmon tree can also be brewed into tea. However, as far as the fruit is concerned, it is advised you wait until it is soft and mushy to the touch before eating. Once fully matured, the fruit can be eaten as it, or you can remove the pulp (by running the fruit through a collander) to be used in a variety of sweet baked and non-baked treats (Phillips).
For instance, you can use the pulp as a direct substitute for pumpkin in pumpkin pie. Or, if feeling adventurous, spread thinly over a cookie sheet and dried in a warm convection to create a sort of dried fruit jerky (Phillips). Of course, jellies, jams, and butters are also quite succesful using the pulp.
Pawpaw (Asimona triloba)
Often described as a cross between a mango and a banana, the pawpaw is the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States, and is found in all parts of Missouri. Starting around September, the tree bears small fruit of about three to five inches, which turn from green to yellow when ripe (MDC).
Due to its unique flowers and fruit shape, there is no real threat of confusing pawpaw with another fruit; you should expect a sweet, custardy, yellow pulp (MDC).
In terms of edibility- it is quite fine as is, although it works well in banana pudding-style dishes, or in making ice cream or sherbets (Phillips).
Of course, there are countless more edible plants than the ones I have listed. However, I have purposely listed some of the most common, and hardest to mistakenly identify plants that can be found in Missouri.
If you find yourself curious for more- I highly recommend Jan Phillip’s book Wild Edibles of Missouri, which has been made available free online by the MIssouri Department of Conservation, which has been a great resource for myself in the creation of this short guide.
“Handbook of Herbs Cultivation and Processing”, By Niir Board, p. 146 (http://www.niir.org/books/book/handbook-on-herbs-cultivation-processing-niir-board/isbn-8178330741/zb,,57,a,15,0,3e8/)
Phillips, Jan. Wild Edibles of Missouri. Jefferson City, MO: Missouri Dept. of Conservation, 1979. Print.
Harford, Robin. “Wild Food Safety Guidelines If You Want To Eat Edible Wild Plants.” Eatweeds. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov.-Dec. 2015. <http://www.eatweeds.co.uk/safety-guidelines-for-edible-wild-food-plants>.https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/dandelion
“Nutrition Facts.” And Analysis for Lambs Quarters, Cooked, Boiled, Drained, with Salt. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/WEEDS/nettleleaf_goosefoot.html
“Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium Album).” Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium Album). N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/weeds/plants/lamb_quarters.htm>.
“Pfaf Plant Search.” Pfaf Plant Search. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Chenopodium%2Balbum>.
“Diospyros Virginiana – Plant Finder.” Diospyros Virginiana – Plant Finder. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=h740>.
“Persimmon.” Persimmon. Missouri Department of Conservation, 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/persimmon>.
“Pawpaw.” Pawpaw. Missouri Department of Conservation, 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/pawpaw>.