ECOVIEWS: Edible wild plants are all around us

·3 min read
Purple passionflowers are edible, in addition to serving as a beautiful table decoration. After boiling, passionflower fruits, known as maypops, can be consumed as a beverage. [Photo courtesy Whit Gibbons]
Purple passionflowers are edible, in addition to serving as a beautiful table decoration. After boiling, passionflower fruits, known as maypops, can be consumed as a beverage. [Photo courtesy Whit Gibbons]

What do cattails, sassafras and pokeweed have in common? You can eat them. But how do you know which part is edible and how do you prepare it?

In “Edible Wild Plants of the Carolinas: A Forager’s Companion” (University of North Carolina Press, 2021), Lytton John Musselman and Peter W. Schafran answer these questions and others, such as how to serve dandelions, wild geraniums and orange daylilies.

The authors describe edible plants native to much of the eastern United States and give references for guides to western states. They offer tips on how to enjoy wild plants beyond just sight and smell, how to interact more fully with nature by discovering which plants can safely be consumed.

The issue of ethical foraging is also addressed. Readers are admonished not to “harm the environment by overharvesting.” Another vital message is that many plants are toxic to humans unless properly prepared. Some can even kill us no matter how we cook them. Learning which is which is essential.

The book includes recipes for exotic appetizers made from a variety of common terrestrial and aquatic plants that anyone should be able to find and prepare. Most everyone has heard of sassafras tea made from the bark of the roots. In the spring, you can harvest sassafras leaves, dry them and grind them to make a fine spice.

All parts of cattails, which grow in aquatic habitats throughout most of North America, are said to be edible during some of their life stages. The description of how to make pollen cakes from the flowers should have all of us looking forward to springtime to give them a try.

Poke, native to the eastern and southern halves of the country, is a familiar weed to many people throughout the South. Pokeweeds can grow more than 10 feet tall and have huge leaves from which an edible plant connoisseur can make a concoction known as poke salad, although I doubt many make it a staple in their diet. For one thing, the plant, root and flower are toxic if eaten raw.

Those who have cooked and prepared poke salad, which the authors note “has to be boiled into submission to be eaten,” probably did so only once unless there were no grocery stores nearby with real vegetables. My grandson Nick and I fixed a poke salad once but saying we “enjoyed” eating the leaves would be an overstatement. He was much more enthralled by later squashing the purple berries, which can permanently stain a T-shirt and jeans.

The authors make an important point: simply because a wild plant is edible does not mean it tastes good. As with wild mushrooms, the first step in defining edibility is that the part of a plant to be eaten must not be toxic after being prepared. But Musselman and Schafran go a step further with an excellent example of a common aquatic plant.

According to the authors, who did their own taste-tests, many previous field guides have reported the seeds of white water lilies to be edible. But after eating the seeds raw, boiled and even soaked in wood ashes, their consensus was the same for every recipe: “extremely bitter.” So, if you want to try the seeds from the flower of a white lily pad, they may not make you sick, but they apparently taste awful.

One reason people eat exotic wild plants that are often from equally exotic places is to say they have done so. These people are not looking for a critical source of much-needed vitamins or other nutrients.

Books about which plants you should avoid eating and how to properly prepare those you can eat are generally entertaining. “Edible Wild Plants of the Carolinas” is no exception. The authors describe common plants and tell readers how to forage for and prepare native flora. A welcome addition to any home library.

Whit Gibbons is professor of zoology and senior biologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. If you have an environmental question or comment, e-mail

Whit Gibbons
Whit Gibbons

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Ecoviews: Edible wild plants are all around us

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