Your Big Backyard
Your backyard or garden is a great place to begin looking for wild foods. If the area is free of herbicides, the wild plants are already there. Gardens and disturbed soils make excellent foraging grounds for wild greens and other wild vegetables. Many of the so-called weeds that people work hard to eradicate are edible plants, often providing more nutrition than what they typically grow in gardens. Some of these are native plants while others have become naturalized.
What is the difference between native plants and naturalized plants?
Native plants are those plants that were already growing here when the settlers first arrived in the “New World.” These settlers brought herbs with them to grow for their food and medicine. Many escaped cultivation and now grow naturally. In many cases, these naturalized plants out-compete native plants because of their lack of predators. Barberry is a common fruit-bearing shrub that is naturalized in the United States, while the blueberries are popular native plants among foragers.
If you pull weeds from your gardens, you may already be familiar with a lot of the plants. All they need is a name to go with them. If left in the ground long enough, and the conditions are right, all plants will bloom. If you don't know what it is, leave it until it blooms. Be observant of the plant while it is developing. It often goes through several stages before blooming. After it has bloomed, watch to see what kind of fruit it produces. Or, if it blooms and becomes a wildflower, you can look it up in a wildflower guide.
Patches of Green
Many of the wild greens grow in patches, either from roots that spread underground or because conditions are favorable for that particular plant. A good time to look for these patches is in the winter, when the grass has died back. If allowed to bloom and produce seed, the patches of green will grow. Some of the most common edible green weeds are also considered to be pests by many people who are unaware of their nutritional value. Some of these include:
Many of these green patches are annuals, such as the chickweed, cresses, henbit, and dead nettle. If they've never had a chance to get established, they may not be growing in your garden. Others, like the dandelions and violets, are perennials. These plants are generally difficult to get rid of and are excellent additions to your recipes and meals.
Wildflowers in Your Yard
If you wait until a little later in the spring to mow your lawn, all those herbs forming green patches will send up a flower stalk and bloom. This includes edible dandelions, violets, chickweed, and cresses, which will add vibrant yellow, white, and blue colors to your yard. The blooming flowers also act as signposts, making it easy to identify the opportunities for foraging that are growing right outside your house.
People who use a lawn service that controls weeds are missing out, not only on having wild greens to eat, but also the wildflowers that follow. Many of the weeds that herbicides are advertised to kill are edible herbs. If you have a lawn service, find out what chemicals are being applied to the soil before you consider doing any foraging in your yard.
Gardens often have more diversity of plants than yards. Disturbed soil is a good environment for many seeds to germinate in. Learn to identify plants before removing them. They may have more nutritional value than what you are planning to grow.
Poke is easy to spot and identify in late summer, when the stalks are red and the berries are turning purple-black. Birds flock to the berries to feast, dropping their seeds behind them. While you shouldn't eat the berries, you should leave the stalks through the winter, or mark the spot and come back in the spring to harvest the young, tender shoots around the old stalks as well as new sprouts just emerging. If overgrowth is a concern, you can pull up the entire plant, but be sure to remove and discard the root that is the most toxic part of the plant. Prepare the young sprouts the same as the shoots by covering with cold water and bringing just to the point of boiling. Pour the water off and then repeat the process once, to make sure any traces of bitterness and the mildly toxic compounds are removed.
Lambsquarters just emerging in the spring
Trees are often planted in yards to provide shade. Shade trees can provide edible fruits. Acorn-bearing oaks are often planted in yards and around schools and other public buildings, and dump lots of nuts on the lawn and sidewalk in the fall. Understory trees such as redbud, serviceberry, mulberry, and black cherry are also frequently planted for their ornamental and wildlife value. The beautiful, fuchsia-colored flowers of the redbud tree are mildly sweet and can be gathered in the spring to add to salads and desserts. As the young pods develop they can be used in stir-fries like snow peas. Serviceberries begin ripening about the same time, followed by the mulberries, both of which are edible. You have to get out early to beat the birds however. Black cherries ripen in the summer and can be made into a refreshing juice drink.