As kids, we are told to not eat any berries or plants we encounter when outdoors. While, yes, this is valid advice for a 4 year old, as we get older, we shouldn’t be afraid to educate ourselves on the plants growing around us, because you know what I’ve realized? There are a hell of a lot of edible plants out there that offer an abundance of nutritious vitamins, minerals, and healing compounds. All of them going underutilized because everyone has it drilled into their minds that wild plants are all poisonous.
Yes, there are poisonous plants out there. And yes, some of them do look eerily similar to edible varieties. But with a little training in proper plant identification or when accompanied by a trained botanist, plants can be very safe to consume. But yes, do NOT consume anything you aren’t 100% sure is edible.
Honestly, I’m just amazed by nature. So many plants have so many unknown uses! I always wonder why scientists are constantly concocting synthetic medicines in labs when nature provides a bountiful supply of healing plants right in front of us!
Have you ever wondered how our ancestors stayed healthy? Well, chances are, they knew exactly which plants to use in times of illness, distress, or even as a supplemental diet addition, something lacking in the present day. Luckily, herbal medicines are starting to gain in popularity, and with it, the scientific, evidence-based studies that allow us to get back in touch with our roots on our quest to wellness. So have no fear, even if you can’t ID the following plants in the wild, chances are either an herbal tea store carries these, or you may be able to find them at Mountain Rose Herbs! Otherwise, let me know, and I’d be happy to take a gander around your property with you someday, assuming you’re a Wisconsinite or live relatively close-by! 😉
White pine (Pinus strobus)
There is no better smell than the fresh aroma of a forest, so why not bring it indoors? Pine needles make a great vitamin-C packed herbal tea while also making a great addition to any recipe.
The unusually high amount of vitamin C in pine needles is why this herb is often consumed in the dead of winter or as the fall chill sets in. Vitamin C stimulates the production of white blood cells and has high antioxidant content, making it an essential component for the health of our immune systems. Pine has also historically been used for ailments of the respiratory tract, such as sore throats or persistent coughs, further promoting its use during the winter months (1).
Pine needles also contain high amounts of vitamin A and numerous carotenoids. Since carotenoids are considered extremely beneficial for eye health due to their antioxidants, pine needle tea may promote ocular health in the form of increased vision strength and slowing the onset of macular degeneration.
The needles also render a citrusy flavor to recipes, allowing you to get creative with them by placing them in salads, fruit dishes, or soups, using as you would rosemary sprigs!
White pines can be discerned from other pines by their recognizable bundle of 5 needles. In the Midwest, the most common pines you will encounter are red pine, white pines, and occasionally jack pines. Red pines have 2 longer needles per bundle, jack pines have 2 shorter needles, so just remember that there are 5 letters in the word W-H-I-T-E, and 5 needles per bundle in white pines!
Beech nut (Fagus grandifolia)
Beech are another common tree of the midwest that you may have growing in a hardwood stand near your home. This lovely tree is known for its nutritious nuts that fall to the ground in fall and are surrounded by a protective prickly husk that makes it easy to identify. In fact, you probably played with them as a kid without knowing what they were! If you are looking to gather the nuts, however, you must be diligent since humans are not the only ones searching for these nutritious snacks!
Once extracted from the husks, the beech nuts contain potassium, folate, and omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. While not necessary to soak the nuts in water, it is preferred since soaking them breaks down the outer protective coating making it easier for your body to digest and absorb its nutrients. Once soaked for 24 hours, you can roast the nuts and consume as is or grind them to mix into water for a nutty beverage! Beech nut hot cocoa anyone?? You may also use the ground nuts as flour substitutes when baking! Ummm, yum!
Black cherry (Prunus serotina)
The bark of the black cherry helps exactly what it is, your bark. Being an antispasmodic and antitussive, the bark of this northwoods tree has a powerful calming effect on the cough reflex. It has historically been used for treatment of bronchitis, whooping-cough, or coughing associated with the common cold. The bitterness of the bark is also a natural remedy for sluggish digestion.
In late summer, the black cherry tree produces little racemes of pea-sized cherries that render a tart flavor to pies, crumbles, jams and jellies. Extremely high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, these cherries can also be made into a tasty cherry juice concentrate!
For a decoction of the bark for the treatment of coughs, simmer 1 teaspoon of dried bark in water for 10-15 minutes. Drink this tea 3 times a day.
Gooseberry (Ribes sp.)
Walk through the understory of a hardwood forest at the end of summer, and you may find gooseberries hanging off little spiny shrubs. If you’re lucky enough, you won’t run into the shrubs and get the spines all up on your pants! But if you do, take it in stride and grab a few of the berries to pop in your mouth for a tasty little grape-like treat!
Gooseberries are probably the one fruit that gets overlooked in the summer, sadly. These berries contain polyphenols and anthocyanins among numerous vitamins such as vitamin A, B5, B6, B1, as well as the minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, phosphorus, and manganese. All of these vitamins and minerals are said to have a positive effect on the body’s aging process, ability to combat inflammation in the body, and maintainance of normal body processes.
Feel free to eat them fresh off the bush or added to pies, jams, or other preserves or baked goods!
Wild grape (Vitis riparia)
Have a grape-vine climbing up a tree or fence near your home? Although they can become a nuisance, they also offer an opportunity to bring nature into your kitchen in a nutritious way!
The leaves of the wild grape can be collected in the spring when they are young and fresh and are often used as wraps or in salads. They can also be harvested later in the year, but prove to be slightly tougher eating! Often used in Mediterranean cuisine, the leaves of the grape-vine contain many vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C, E, A, K, B6, B3, iron, riboflavin, folate, calcium, magnesium, copper and manganese. WOW! Being high in fiber, these make a great addition to the diet! People often say they taste the best steamed or blanched, so don’t be afraid to experiment with them!
Nutritionally, the wild grape fruit is a powerhouse as well. Although smaller than store-bought varieties and a bit more tart, these fruits contain resveratrol and phytonutrients that act as antioxidants in the body, and they boast high amounts of manganese and potassium along with vitamins C, B1, and B6.
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
Horsetail?? Don’t let the name fool you! This mineral-dense plant can made into a nutritious broth or bone-strengthening tea! Found growing along moist roadsides, wetlands, or streams, horsetails are specifically known to be high in the mineral silica, which is a foundational element in bones and tendons, the aorta, kidney, and liver (2). Silicon has been studied more recently in the last 30 years, and findings are suggesting that regular dietary intake of silica has a positive effect on bone mineral density and connective tissue health (3)!
So if you’re worried about osteoporosis or have recently broken a bone, simmering horsetail in soup broth or as tea may be the perfect mineral-rich addition to your diet!