Handy Dad in the Great Outdoors (Chronicle Books, 2012) by Todd Davis is full of fun projects for dad and the kids to get creative in the great outdoors. Davis grew up with a family who loved experiencing the outdoors, and is now passing on these fun activities to families across the world, with step-by-step instructions to make the most of your family time outside. The following excerpt is his guide to identifying edible and poisonous plants and bugs.
The great outdoors is teeming with edible plants and bugs. Whether you’re in an emergency situation or just interested in adding some wild plants and bugs to your camp stew, there’s power and satisfaction in knowing which ones will sustain you and which will do you in.
You’d be surprised at how many insect species are edible—about 1,500! That’s more than enough for dinner. Insects are protein-rich, packed with vitamins and minerals, and many of them are downright tasty. You can eat them raw, but washing and cooking them will improve the taste and also kill off any parasites that hard-shelled insects can carry. The easiest and tastiest way to cook them is to sauté them in oil over high heat for 10 to 15 minutes.
One warning: Eating from the wild can be a thrill, but misidentifying a poisonous plant or bug can wreak havoc on your body or even kill you. Study well, choose wisely, and only eat specimens if you’re 100 percent sure they’re safe.
Avoid eating bugs from urban areas. Their bodies can hold concentrated pesticides at dangerous levels. When in the wild, stay away from bugs that have a strong odor or bright color, and also ones associated with spreading disease, such as ticks, mosquitoes, and flies.
Difficulty level: Backwoodsman (Challenging)
Here is a list of the top 25 edible plants commonly found in North America. Search online for images and further details. Remember that even edible plants can pose risks if they’re growing in an environment polluted by chemicals, heavy metals, or livestock waste, or if they’re afflicted with fungi. Do your research and inquire locally.
Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus): This plant can be found on every continent. The entire plant is edible. Boil it for a minute or two for best results, or eat it raw.
Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia): This plant grows in shallow wetlands and produces a potato-like root. Peel and roast it whole or cut it up and roast it to make fries. The plant gets it name from its large, three-pointed leaves. Also look for the three-petaled white flower with the yellow center.
Bulrush (Scirpus lacustris): Found in freshwater marshes all over North America, this plant’s root, stem, and seeds can be eaten raw or boiled.
Cattails (Typha latifolia): Found the world over crowding the edges of wetlands, cattails provide edible roots. Peel away the outer layers of the shoots, rinse them in clean water, and eat raw or cooked.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus): This is another plant found throughout North America. The blue and white flowers are delicious raw, as are the young leaves. Give the roots a quick boil before eating.
Clover, white and red (Trifolium repens, pratense): Both red and white clover can be found almost everywhere—even in your front lawn. All parts of the plant can be eaten. Dry the flowers for tea. The seeds, leaves, and roots can be eaten raw, though boiling the leaves for 5 to 10 minutes in saltwater makes them easier to digest.
Common chickweed (Stellaria media): You can find this little plant almost everywhere. The entire plant is edible raw. Look for the tiny white flower with five double-bladed petals at the center of each clump of leaves.
Curled dock (Rumex crispus): Found around the globe, these bright red 3-foot-long stalks should be peeled and boiled to remove any bitter taste before eating.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): Yes, that weed in your garden is actually an incredibly healthy food source. The leaves are great in salads. The flower petals can be used to make dandelion wine. The ground and roasted roots are used to make a caffeine-free infusion called dandelion coffee. The whole plant is edible.
Field pennycress (Thlaspi vulgaris): Another worldwide find, this plant has leaves and seeds that can be eaten raw or boiled.
Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium): This purple flowering plant can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is best eaten when the leaves are young. The flowers and seeds have a peppery taste, while the stalk is slightly bitter.
Kelp (Alaria esculenta): Kelp is a sea-based food found all over the planet. Drag some ashore, rinse it off with freshwater, and eat as much as you like. The leafy part is more nutritious and palatable, but the whole plant is edible.
Lambsquarters (Chenopodium berlandieri): Another “weed” that can be found almost everywhere, the leaves and stems can be eaten raw in salads, cooked like spinach, dried, frozen, or canned. You can even grind the seeds into flour for a backwoods pizza.
Plantain (Plantago species): This is not the banana-like plantain that you may be thinking of. It’s a broad-leafed plant that can be found primarily in wet areas like bogs but also in some alpine coastal areas. Eat the young leaves raw.
Prickly pear (Opuntia species): Found throughout the Americas, this cactus yields both edible pads—the spiny, paddle-shaped segments that form the plant itself—and fruit, the “pears” that grow from the pads. Young pads tend to be the most succulent. Cut off the spines, roast the pads, and peel away the outer layer before eating them. The pears can be eaten raw like an apple; just remove the spines and peel the skins first.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea): Although it’s known primarily as a weed here in the United States, purslane’s thick, slightly sour leaves are eaten as a vegetable in much of the world. Purslane was purportedly one of Gandhi’s favorite foods, and you too can share in its tastiness. Eat it raw as salad, or cooked like spinach.
Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca): Found in every ocean, this seaweed variant is both healthy and delicious. Just rinse it with freshwater, if possible, and let it dry. Why not add it to the fish you just caught with your PVC Fishing Pole!
Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella): This common weed favors moist fields, grass, and woodlands. The narrow leaves have a zesty lemon flavor.
Spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana): These plants feature pink-streaked, white flowers and grow in moist woodlands. The bulb is the edible part. Pull it up, wash it off, and eat it cooked or raw.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale): As the name suggests, this plant grows near running water. Look for it next to streams and riverbanks. You can eat this green raw. Just break off the stem and rinse in cold water.
White mustard (Synapis alba): Don’t be fooled by the name. This common plant has edible yellow flowers, seeds, and leaves. Try squeezing it on your hot dog!
Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum): The stems look like green onion and the plant has a strong garlic smell. Look for it deep in the forest in the early spring. Eat the leaves and bulbs raw, steamed, fried, or baked.
Wild onion (Allium stellatum): This plant can be found on rocky slopes, in forests, and on prairies. It’s just like the one found in the produce section of your grocery store. Simply boil the bulb with some salt.
Wild rice (Zizania aquatica): Grows in shallow lakes or slowmoving streams along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and the Saint Lawrence River. It averages 3 to 4-1/2 feet high. The stems, grains, and roots are all edible. Do not eat it if the grains are covered with pink or purplish blotches. These indicate the presence of a highly toxic fungus.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis species): Sorrel is easily recognized by its three clover-like leaves and its five-petaled white or light purple flowers. The leaves have a bright, tart taste when eaten raw. The roots can be boiled for better digestion.
When in doubt, remember this little saying: Red, orange, yellow, forget this fellow. Black, green, or brown, wolf it down.
So where do you find these delectable creepy crawlies? Look for larvae and grubs in cool, damp, confined places. Check under rocks, under the bark of fallen trees (or under the fallen trees themselves). You can find grasshoppers and other flying insects in open fields. They’re easier to catch in the morning before they warm up. Harvest ants and termites by poking a stick into their nest. Give them a few seconds to swarm all over the stick and then pull it out. Block the other entrances to the nest so that you can harvest from a single exit point. Eat them off the stick. Look for maggots on damp, decaying material. You’ll find earthworms under rocks and in warm, moist soil. Soaked ground forces them to the surface.
I’ve included here the most commonly found edible bugs, with a few tips on how to prepare them.
Agave worms: Yes, this is the same one that you may have seen in tequila bottles. Eat them raw or sauté them for a tasty addition to any meal.
Flying ants: Roast with lime juice and a touch of salt and they’ll taste like pork rinds.
Honeypot ants: Eat them raw. Their abdomens are bursting with a sweet, honey-like nectar.
Leaf-cutter ants: Toast slightly in a pan and eat them by the handful. They taste like bacon and pistachios.
Lemon ants: Eat raw or boil them briefly. You guessed it—they taste like lemon.
Bees: Roast them and then grind them into flour. Bee bread, anyone?
Caterpillars: Remove the heads, squeeze out and discard the innards, then fry what’s left with a little lemon or throw them into your favorite stew.
Cicadas: Catch them just after they molt, remove the wings, and sauté. They go great with vegetables.
Cockroaches: This is the most-devoured insect on the planet. Sautéed, toasted, or fried, they have a creamy taste and texture.
Crickets: Almost as popular as cockroaches, they can be boiled, sautéed, roasted, or fried.
Dragonflies: Remove the wings, heads, and legs and fry them in oil.
Dung beetles: Sure, they eat dung, but they’re tasty just the same. Think of them as mushrooms with legs. Try them roasted or fried.
Earthworms: Soak them in water or damp cornmeal for 24 hours to purge their digestive tracts. Eat them raw or dip them in milk, roll them in
cornstarch, and fry.
Grasshoppers: Slow roast and top with garlic, salt, and lemon juice.
Hornworms: Fry them up. They go great with green tomatoes.
June bugs: Both the larvae and the adults are delicious. Roast and eat them like popcorn.
Locusts: Remove the heads, wings, and legs. Sauté them in butter and add them to any meal.
Maggots: Wash and cook them before eating.
Mealworms: Rinse them in water, then fry, boil, grill, or sauté. You can find them almost anywhere, and they’re very tasty.
Midge flies: Collect as many as you like and then mix them with sugar and flour. Press the resulting mixture into tasty cakes.
Scorpions: Remove the poison sack and the stinger by cutting off the tail. Then dip them in milk, then cornstarch, and then sauté them in butter. They taste like crabs or tiny lobsters.
Tarantulas: Believe it or not, you can actually eat these hairy monsters. Boil them to remove the hair and then deep-fry.
Termites: Eat them raw. They have a crunchy, nutty taste.
From Handy Dad in the Great Outdoors by Todd Davis, illustrated by Nik Schulz, photographs by Jared Cruce (Chronicle Books, 2012).
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