Learn about foraging for wild edible food and how you can use these free foods in nutritious, delicious recipes.
Foraged Food Recipes
Wilted Alfalfa Greens Recipe
Alfalfa and Whole Wheat Bread Recipe
Alfalfa and Clover Salad Recipe
Clover Soup Recipe
Red Clover Blossom Vinegar Recipe
Red Clover Cough Medicine Recipe
Boiled Thistle Recipe
Thistle Soup Recipe
Creamed Thistle Greens Recipe
Sorrel Salad Recipe
Cream of Sorrel Soup Recipe
Sorrel and Mint Tea Recipe
Sorrel Sauce Recipe
Boiled Fern Stems Recipe
Steamed Fern Stems Recipe
Violet, Honey and Sumac Drink Recipe
Violet Pudding Recipe
Violet Salad Recipe
Tips on Foraging for Wild Edible Food
May is a time of abundance here in Wisconsin. The bitter
cold and snows of winter are gone and all but forgotten.
April rains have soaked the earth and awakened wild plants
that — warmed by the gentle May sun — are absorbing
minerals and manufacturing vitamins that will keep a food
forager clear-eyed and strong.
Some of this fare that we find and make much use of are
alfalfa, clover, thistles, violets and sorrel. Occasionally
we even go into the forest to pick a basket of fern
Alfalfa and clover, of course, are hay plants raised by
commercial farmers for animal food. This makes finding them
easy since they grow almost everywhere. Alfalfa has been
raised since long before recorded history and it probably
was originally gown for human food. Well it might be too
since — in addition to protein — alfalfa is a
very good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, sulphur,
sodium, potassium chlorine and silicon. These are called
trace elements and are often lacking in shallow rooted
plants but alfalfa — which can send its tap roots to
a depth of fifty feet — is unusually rich in these
nutrients. The plant is also one of the best sources of
vitamin K and contains enzymes that help the body to absorb
other foods. Nursing mothers can increase their flow of
milk by eating raw alfalfa or food containing the powdered
Unlike alfalfa, clover can often be found growing in
wilderness areas . . . especially along logging roads and
in small clearings. Once, when I was fairly inexperienced
in finding edible wild plants, I went on a solo three day
“travel light and live off the land” backpack trip into the
Nicolet National Forest in Northern Wisconsin. On my second
day with little food I crossed a huge marsh, ciimbed the
hill on the other side and happened onto a patch of white
clover and sorrel growing side by side. I dropped my pack
right there and — pulling handsful of clover with one
hand and sorrel with the other — chewed as fast as I
could until the hollow in my stomach was filled. I’ve never
since passed a patch of white clover in the wilderness
without the warm feeling of seeing an old friend.
When we’re gathering clover in our area we inevitably back
into or set down on a plant that is well protected by
nature: the thistle. Most grazing animals and people take
whatever steps are necessary to avoid thistles but we don’t
because we know that the Canadian Thistle (cirsium
arvense) and the Bull Thistle (cirsium
lanceolatum) make good food. Even the sharp thorns are
edible after they boil awhile.
If you’re still not convinced that clover is a valuable
wild plant consider that Nebuchadnezzar II, King of
Babylon, would wander into the fields and eat handfuls of
clover when the pressures of ruling got too great. After a
few days he would return, much refreshed, and make some of
his most brilliant decisions. Might help at tax time.
Bull and Canadian Thistles spring up here in amazing
profusion. I’ve heard that the county has one
pseudo-bureaucrat who’s sole duty in the summer is to see
that people cut their thistles before the plants go to seed.
I wish him well because — to find all the young tender
thistles I want for greens — all I have to do is watch
for his signs posted along the highways. Somewhere very near
there’s certain to be a good patch of young thistles just
waiting to be made into boiled or creamed greens.
When we gather thistles we try not to forget to pick a good
supply of sheep sorrel. Sheep sorrel is another wild plant
that was introduced to this country from Europe where it has
been raised as a pot herb for centuries.
Sorrel, sheep sorrel, sour grass or red sorrel (Rumex
Acetosella) is a low bunch-like plant that grows in acid
soil. It has arrow-shaped leaves and shallow, yellowish root
stalks. Sorrel can be spotted from long distances by the
reddish tinge its seed pods give to the fields in which it
grows. The leaves of this perennial plant have a decidedly
sour taste and we use only the green leaves as they lose
almost everything when dry.
The two species of ferns that I depend on for food are the
common bracken fern (Pteridium Aquilinum) and
cinnamon fern (Osmunda Cinnamona). Cinnamon fern,
of course, is the common “fiddlehead” that is sold
commercially along the Atlantic coast. Wherever you live,
however, there should be at least one species of this plant
that will provide you with tasty “asparagus” in the early
The bracken fern matures into a tall, thick-stalked plant
with great triangular leaves. It grows — usually on
high, well-drained and poorer soil — in huge patches
that cover the ground in both fields and forests. Here in
Wisconsin, the bracken is often found in cutover areas that
have reseeded themselves to poplar trees.
Cinnamon ferns usually grow in rich soil at the edge of or
in swamps and wet areas. They’re generally later than the
brackens due, no doubt, to the longer time it takes for
spring to come to the marshlands. The shoots, when they
first come up, are reddish and exceedingly hairy with
tightly rolled heads. These heads gradually form into
upright seed or spore pods and, later, the leaves of the
plants come up.
About the middle of May, in the cool forests of Wisconsin,
ferns send up their green succulent stems. I know exactly
where the fern plantations will be because I spotted them
last summer when they were two feet high and so thick that
the forest floor wasn’t visible.
I first became interested in ferns for food when I read
Louise Dickenson Rich’s book, We Took to the
Woods, many, many years ago. However, I don’t think
she gave the fern true credit when she said it tasted like
a cross between asparagus and swamp water.
I pick ferns when they’re about six to ten inches high.
They’re best before they’ve unfolded and while their heads
are still hanging down in a prayer position. I break the
plants off just above the ground and use heads, stems and
all. I’ve heard that the fern leaf, when mature, contains a
poison so I don’t attempt to use the plants for food after
the leaves develop.
Some people let the ferns develop a little longer and
pick them just as the tiny leaves start to emerge. These
folks don’t use the immature leaves, however. They cut the
stalks off just under them and slightly above where the
stems are starting to get tough. This makes a finished
product that looks like asparagus.
Almost everyone knows the delightful purple or blue flower
of the violet. This flower grows in almost every moist,
cool woods in the country and many ladies raise violets in
their flower gardens for the delightful color and fragrance
of the blossom.
The violet is a very good food plant and has been used
since the beginning of records for food and medicine. The
whole plant can be eaten: the blossoms in violet jam, the
leaves and stalks in salads and the roots — if you
care to go to the trouble — roasted for a
Don’t presume to eat a year’s supply of violets in one day,
however, as — like most fresh greens — violets
are a mild laxative.
Good luck. See you next issue.
See the foraged food recipes at the top of this article.