10 Delicious Wild Plants You Can Find in the U.S.

You can forage in your own backyard—here's how to get started

Illustration depicting common plants found while foraging

TripSavvy / Catherine Song

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Foraging, the act of gathering plants in the wild, is an ancient life skill that is also an enjoyable way to spend time in nature and the outdoors. There is something magical about experiencing a place through the lens of the plants that grow there. In the United States, there are plants that Native Americans have used for millennia as medicine, sustenance, or as dyes. Some of the easily foraged plants are invasive species with origins in Europe and Asia that were brought to North America and quickly spread across the country.

Anyone can forage but keep these three rules in mind before you go harvesting:

  • Be 100 percent sure of identification. Identification is only the first step to foraging, but it's the most important one. Before eating a new plant, pay attention to the region and the type of place you're foraging (forest, field, farm).
  • Forage only with permission. There are important ethical and safety precautions as some plants are heavily sprayed with industrial fertilizers or pesticides. Plants may also grow from contaminated roadsides or waste areas.
  • Respect the plant and sustainability. The list of favorites below focuses on plants that are common and weedy in nature. For some specialized plants, such as ramps, harvest only one leaf and do not dig the bulbs.
photo of a person in a dark denim jacket holding a handful of stinging nettles with gloves
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Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Nettle is a lovely spring vegetable, the leaves of which have been enjoyed in Europe for centuries. The plant grows in spreading patches with crinkly leaves, and most notably, touching the fine hairs on the stem will give a stinging sensation. Before eating nettles, you need to remove the fine hairs. To do so, grasp nettles (trimmed of any thick stems) while wearing gloves and toss them in boiling water until they turn bright green. The “stinging hairs” will vanish. Drying nettles also removes the stinging sensation.

  • Where to find it: North America (and most of the world) in moist edges of woods.
  • When to harvest: Spring.
  • How to use it: This plant is commonly made into a nettle soup, or substitute for cooked spinach. Nettle tea is a very popular medicinal drink that is said to help with blood circulation, wound healing, relieving allergy symptoms, and fertility.
flowering wild garlic chives (allium vineale) in a meadow
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Garlic Chives (Allium vineale)

Look closer at the early spring “grass” growing in clumps in the backyard. If the blades are round and not flat like grass blades, break off a clump with your hands and check for a garlicky aroma. If you get a whiff of garlic, you've found garlic chives, also known as crow garlic.

  • Where to find it: This common weed in North America (mostly eastern and western states) is found in backyards and the edges of the woods.
  • When to harvest: Spring for the green blades, summer the aerial bulbets.
  • How to use it: You can use the green tops as a substitute for scallions. Snip them into omelets and salads, add them to a stir fry, or as a garnish for soups and stews. The aerial bulbets can be split and used as chopped garlic.
A woman in a sweater holding a basket filled with freshly-harvested wild ramps
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Ramps (Allium tricoccum)

This is another spring green in the allium family, with a mild garlicky flavor with a long cultural history in Appalachia. This wild native plant can take seven years to mature and is now in danger of overharvesting in the United States. While the bulbs are edible, do not dig them up. Rather, carefully snip one leaf of a plant, leaving the rest to absorb nutrients and continue to flourish.

  • Where to find it: In moist forests across the eastern and central United States.
  • When to harvest: Early spring.
  • How to use it: Eat ramps raw as a substitute for lettuce in a salad or as lettuce wraps. You can also saute them to use in an omelet or grill them as a side dish.
Close up of purple wisteria flowers blooming in spring
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Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda)

Capture the fragrance and lavender color of this common garden blossom by foraging it when some flowers on a bouquet are open, but others are still closed. The Japanese wisteria vine has escaped the garden and gone into the wild in North America, showing up as an invasive species across the United States.

  • Where to find it: You'll commonly see this invasive vine winding up and around trees, telephone poles, and other structures in the central and eastern United States. It's common in gardens and backyards.
  • When to harvest: Spring before all the flowers have opened.
  • How to use it: With a mildly sweet flavor similar to lettuce and peas, wisteria flowers can be eaten raw and are delicious in a spring asparagus or green bean salad.
Young garlic mustard plant in a German forest
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Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

This plant originated in Europe and was brought to the United States as a favored salad green. When the plant shoots up in the spring and before it goes to seed, harvest the tops and not the more bitter bottommost leaves. Since it is highly invasive and disruptive to trees, you will do the forest a favor by harvesting this plant.

  • Where to find it: In a forest and backyard edges.
  • When to harvest: Early to mid-spring.
  • How to use it: You can eat garlic mustard leaves raw. It's fantastic in pesto—just add a little sugar to the end to reduce any bitterness.
Stems of invasive Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
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Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica)

Native to Japan and now found across North America (and the rest of the world), Japanese knotweed looks like a jointed bamboo and spreads quickly underground. It's considered an invasive species that spreads easily, so when you harvest, make sure to cut the plant halfway up and not at the joint so that it does not spread. Also, make sure to pick up any cuttings so that they don't root and grow new plants. Known in Japan as itadori (the tiger's stick), this plant is edible when it is not yet woody and still bendable. Do not dig or pull at the roots.

  • Where to find it: Streambanks and floodplains. You may also find Japanese knotweed growing in yards.
  • When to harvest: Spring before the stalk becomes woody.
  • How to use it: The stems of Japanese knotweed are a perfect substitute for rhubarb. Cut when the stalk diameter is about 1 inch across and pickle using a rhubarb pickle recipe or use it in a strawberry knotweed cobbler.
Close up of a bunch of green wood sorrel
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Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.)

At first glance, wood sorrel looks exactly like clover, but the heart-shaped leaves easily identify it instead of the teardrop shape you'll find on actual clover. This small, dainty plant is found all over the world. It has been used as food and herbal medicine by several Native American tribes, including the Kiowa, Algonquin, and Cherokee people. Because of the oxalic acid (made apparent by the name oxalis), wood sorrel tastes slightly sour.

  • Where to find it: All over the United States on garden edges, in flower pots, and farm rows.
  • When to harvest: Summer.
  • How to use it: Add raw wood sorrel to sandwiches, salads, or as a topping for canapes and smoked salmon.
woman holding a bunch of purslane stems in two hands
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Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

The bane of many a gardener but containing high amounts of vitamin E, vitamin C, and healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, purslane originated in modern-day Iran and is now widespread across North America (and much of the world). The plant is a succulent with fleshy, smooth, small oval pads for leaves and grows low to the ground.

  • Where to find it: Since purslane is a weed, you can find it all over the United States, most reliably on organic farm rows, garden beds, and backyard edges.
  • When to harvest: Summer.
  • How to use it: Cut the young tips and add them raw to salads or sandwiches. Purslane is also delicious cooked and used similarly to spinach.
close up of lambsquarters plants
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Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)

This weedy plant is easy to grow and relatively easy to find. The leaf of this highly nutritious vegetable can have a shape roughly similar to a goose's foot and has a fine, powdery film that covers the leaves. This film is water repellent, but it dissipates when cooking. An ideal replacement for spinach, lambsquarters is rich in iron, calcium, vitamin B1, and vitamin B2. Avoid foraging for lambsquarters growing on manure piles or in pesticide-treated fields.

  • Where to find it: You can find lambsquarters in garden beds, farm rows, backyard edges, and weedy places,
  • When to harvest: Summer.
  • How to use it: Chop, saute, and substitute for spinach as a side dish, with pasta, or eggs.
Red Sumac Bloom surrounded by green leaves
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Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Native Americans enjoyed the brick-red fruit clusters of this underappreciated small tree as a lemonade-like drink. High in antioxidants and vitamins C and A, it also makes a fine alternative to the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern sumac spice, which tastes sourer. Commonly called staghorn sumac, the fruit tastes tart with notes of cherry and lemon. The fruit of poison sumac is white and clearly distinguishable.

  • Where to find it: Rhus species can be found across the United States on drier soil. It's easily found on the East Coast, Southeast, Midwest, and from Nova Scotia to Ontario in Canada.
  • When to harvest: Late summer and early fall.
  • How to use it: If you want to use sumac as an infusion, all you need to do is soak the fruit in water overnight and add sweetener or lemon to your taste. To use rhus typhina as a dry spice, you'll need to dehydrate the fruit and then separate the berries from the branch. After the fruit is dry and separated, toss the berries into a blender and push the mixture through a medium-fine mesh strainer. It's labor-intensive, but the spice will last for up to a year if stored properly. From there, simply substitute in sumac recipes using twice the recommended amount to get the same level of tartness.
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