Edible Flowers, Roots, and Vegetables

Some of the edible greens are annuals, others are biennials, and still others are perennials. The flower buds and flowers of some of these greens are also edible. When certain biennials send up their flower stalks the second year, it can be used as a vegetable, like celery.

Evening Primrose Family

Mostly herbs, this family includes the evening primroses, whose flowers open in the evening and close up the next morning. The flowers have four petals followed by capsules with numerous little black seeds.

The common evening primrose is the species most frequently used for food. It is a biennial that germinates in late summer or early fall after the seeds from the previous year have dropped. Leaves have a reddish midrib and form a rosette in the fall. They remain on the plant through the winter. The next spring it sends up a flower stalk with alternating leaves that get smaller as they near the top. Their roots are starchy and can be eaten. Young leaves, flowers, and seeds of the evening primroses are also edible.

Laurel Family

The laurel family consists of mostly trees, sometimes shrubs, with aromatic bark and leaves. Many small flowers grow in clusters followed by fruits that are either a berry or a drupe. The flowers and buds of some species are edible. Leaves of most members of this family can be used as a spicy seasoning. In some species, the twigs or the roots are used to make a tea.

Mallow Family

Although mallows are mostly herbs, there are a few that are shrubs or even trees. They are fairly easy to recognize, with five petals that are often quite showy and a center that looks like a bottlebrush from the way the male stamens are attached to the sides of the female pistil. Numerous male stamens form a column that unites and surrounds the female pistil.

Most members of this family have edible parts, including the roots, leaves, flowers, or fruits. They also contain mucilaginous properties that make them slimy. While okra is the species that most people associate with as edible, none are poisonous and most have been used as food by early cultures.

Mallow flower showing male stamens surrounding female pistil

Milkweed Family

Milkweeds grow throughout the country in open fields or roadsides and can easily be recognized by their flowers that have five down-curved petals. Leaves are oval-shaped and in pairs or whorls. Milkweed fruits are distinct, with pod-like follicles filled with many seeds attached to fluffy hairs.

The common milkweed has pinkish-purple flowers and is the one most commonly eaten by foragers. Young shoots, flower buds, and young pods are eaten after being boiled through two changes of water. Milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides and can be dangerous if not prepared properly. Not all species can be recommended as food, since the toxic properties may remain in some species even after cooking.

Pea Family

The pea family is a large family that includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs throughout the world. They have characteristic pea-like flowers with irregularly shaped petals. A common trait among all members of the pea family is the fruit that is a legume similar to beans grown in gardens, with one or more bean-like seeds inside.

Groundnut flowers and pods

There are both edible and poisonous members of the pea family. For some species, the pod is the part eaten, at other times it's the seed, and in some cases the flowers or the roots can be used. Some pods are tough, thick, and inedible. Others have tiny seeds that are poisonous. Wild beans should never be eaten raw.

Members of the pea family that have edible parts include black locust, honey locust, redbud, wild beans, groundnuts, and mesquite.

Sunflower Family

As its name implies, members of this family have disks of central flowers surrounded by ray-like petals of assorted colors. Most members of this family are herbs, including the typical sunflower. The fruit is a one-seeded nutlet with a hard shell that is edible.

Some members of this family also have edible roots, including dandelion, burdock, chicory, and thistle, as well as edible leaves. Flowers of some species such as dandelion, thistle, and oxeye daisy are used as food or in a beverage by foragers.

Other Edible Families

Other plant families that produce edible flowers, roots, or vegetables include the following:

  • Agave family members have basal leaves that are long and dagger-like surrounding a central flower stalk that is edible when young and edible flowers among some species.

  • Lilies generally have showy flowers borne on stalks that arise from bulbs or corms, some of which are edible.

  • Mustards have edible flower buds and flowers that resemble broccoli and other cultivated members of that family.

  • Violets have irregular flowers with two upper petals and three lower, most of which are edible.

  • Wood sorrel is recognized by its clover-like appearance and has edible flowers with five petals.

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