Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America

Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America

by Merritt Lyndon Fernald, Reed C. Rollins, Alfred Charles Kinsey, Alfred C. Kinsey

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Everyone knows that certain mushrooms and species of berries are edible, but how many have experienced a salad of cat-brier sprouts, bread made of acorn-flour or seeds of cow lilies, escalloped roots of goat's-beard, sautéed ground-nuts, marmalade of squaw-huckleberry, pudding made of dried persimmons and other natural delights?
This book offers a complete

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Everyone knows that certain mushrooms and species of berries are edible, but how many have experienced a salad of cat-brier sprouts, bread made of acorn-flour or seeds of cow lilies, escalloped roots of goat's-beard, sautéed ground-nuts, marmalade of squaw-huckleberry, pudding made of dried persimmons and other natural delights?
This book offers a complete guide to such non-packaged, free-for-the-picking natural foods, arranged according to uses: purees and soups; cooked green vegetables; salads; pickles; drinks; syrups and sugars, confections; fresh or preserved fruits, jellies, and marmalades; starchy or root-vegetables, cereals, nuts, and breadstuffs; nibbles and relishes; condiments and seasoning; rennets; table-oils and butters; masticatories and chewing gums; and emergency foods.
The heart of the volume is a detailed enumeration of 1,000 species of edible wild plants and ferns of eastern North America, including the plant's common and scientific names, appearance, range, habitat, food uses, and other data. The plants are arranged systematically by families, following the sequence now generally accepted by botanists. A wealth of detailed drawings and photographs will help in identifying plants in the field.
Also included here is a helpful chapter on poisonous flowering plants likely to be mistaken for edible species, and a valuable treatment of mushrooms, seaweeds, and lichens. For any naturalist, hiker, camper, or lover of wild foods, this is an authoritative, information-packed guide that is indispensable for using the wealth of delicious, healthful foods available all around us.

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Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America

By Merritt Lyndon Fernald, Alfred Charles Kinsey

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1986 President and Fellows of Harvard College
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14447-4



IN THIS CHAPTER the plants are grouped into different secsions according to their uses, special emphasis being given some of the more important species, the unimportant being merely enumerated with page-references to the more detailed discussion in Chapter III. The more important are printed in capitals.



Purées consist largely of boiled green vegetable mashed through a sieve or strainer, sometimes thickened with a little flour or corn-starch mixed with cold water until smooth. A purée is seasoned with salt and pepper to taste, and in the case of more acid plants sugar is necessary. After the purée is thoroughly cooked scalded milk may be added if desired. The following wild plants are used for purées:

CAT-TAIL (young flowering spike), p. 82

Cat-brier (young leaves and sprouts), p. 140

MOUNTAIN-SORREL (young leaves and stems), p. 167

DOCKS (leaves), p. 169

SORRELS (leaves), p. 171

BLADDER-CAMPION (young leaves), p. 193

Fireweed (young shoots), p. 279

Ilonewort (leaves), p. 287

Elder (pith), p. 349

Of these the purees made from the Cat-tail, Cat-brier, Mountain-Sorrel, Docks, Sorrels, and Bladder-Campion can be recommended by the writers; the others they have not tried. The Mountain-Sorrel, Sorrel and some of the Docks are acid and need a little sugar. Most of the Docks are slightly bitter rather than acid, while the Bladder-Campion has the flavor of green peas with a slight bitterness. The soup from the young flowering spikes of Cat-tail, said to be one of the delicacies of the Pah-Ute Indians, is easy to prepare and, since it proves equally palatable to the white taste, it could be made in early summer by every family throughout the country.


These soups are chiefly prepared from starchy substances which, when boiled, form a thickening which adds much nutriment to a soup. The soups of this class can be made from the following plants:

Seaweeds, p. 402

Lichens, p. 406

Arbor Vitae (pith of young twigs), p. 81

MANNA-GRASS (seeds), p. 93

WILD RICE (seeds), p. 102

DAY-LILIES (buds and flowers), p. 130

WALNUTS (meats), p. 149

HICKORY-NUTS (meats), p. 150

CHESTNUTS (meats), p. 158

COW-LILY (seeds), p. 197

SASSAFRAS (pith and young shoots or powdered leaves), p. 219

MALLOW (seeds), p. 274

Violet (rootstocks), p. 275

Prickly-Pear (seeds), p. 276

Tobacco-root, p. 351

SUNFLOWER (seeds), p. 357

Burdock (roots), p. 364

Of these the soups thickened with the seeds of Wild Rice, Manna-grass and Cow-Lily have somewhat the quality of the familiar barley soups; while most of the others are thickish, viscid soups, in quality suggesting either gumbo- or potato-soup. The gumbo-soups are prepared from the young or dried and powdered leaves or young pith of Sassafras, from the seeds of Mallows, or from the young rootstocks of some of the purple Violets. The thick soups prepared from powdered nuts and from Sunflower-seeds have been in repute among the American Indians and have been highly praised by the Europeans who have tried them.


The fruit soups are prepared much like the conventional tomato soups, either as a thin soup carrying the acid of fruit juices, or as a thick soup, in which case flour or cornstarch is added, first mixed with cold water until thoroughly blended and creamy and thoroughly cooked by itself. The cooked thickening is added to the strained extract obtained by boiling the fruits, seasoned to taste, usually a small amount of sugar added and then, if desired, a small amount of scalded milk. Practically any of our juicy or more acid fruits may be used this way, but the sweeter, more highly flavored, or insipid fruits are hardly to be recommended. Among the wild fruits from which a palatable soup can be prepared are




PLUMS, p. 239

CHERRIES, p. 240



A large number of wild plants of eastern America supply farinaceous food or nutritious roots. These may appropriately be grouped according to their uses into 1) those which are used like potatoes or parsnips as cooked vegetables; 2) a few used as nuts; 3) a limited number used as cooked cereals or breakfast foods; 4) a long list of possible breadstuffs.


The list of possible cooked vegetables of this class is a long one:

Lichens, p. 406

Cat-tail (bases), p. 82 Bur-reed (tubers), p. 85

Pondweeds (rootstocks and tubers), p. 85

ARROW-HEADS (tubers), p. 86

Mud-Plantain (rootstocks), p. 89

Flowering-Rush (rootstocks), p. 89

Reed (rootstocks), p. 94

Water-Millet (young root-stocks), p. 101

CHUFA (tubers), p. 107

Nut-Grass (tubers), p. 110

Arrow-Arum (roots and seeds), p. 113

Golden-club (roots and seeds), p. 119

Erect Day-flower (roots), p. 124

Bellwort (roots), p. 126

Lilies (bulbs), p. 132

Day-Lily (thick roots), p. 130

Adder's-tongue Lily (bulbs), p. 132

Star-of-Bethlehem (bulbs) ?, p. 133

False Spikenard (rootstocks), p. 135


Golden Canna ?, p. 145


Slippery Elm (inner bark), p. 161

ALPINE BISTORT (rootstocks), p. 174

SPRING-BEAUTY (roots), p. 197

COW-LILY (rootstocks and seeds), p. 197

White Water-Lily (rootstocks and seeds), p. 199

WATER-CHINQUAPIN (root-stocks and seeds), p. 200

Water-shield (rootstocks), p. 202

Bulbous Crowfoot (bulbs), p. 202

Silverweed (roots), p. 233

PRAIRIE-TURNIP (roots), p. 246

Wild Licorice (roots), p. 248

LICORICE-ROOT (roots), p. 249

BEACH-PEAS (young peas), p. 251

Tuberous Vetch (tubers), p. 251

GROUNDNUT, Apios (roots), p. 252

HOG-PEANUT (underground seeds), p. 256

Prickly-Pear (stem), p. 276

EVENING-PRIMROSE (roots), p. 280

Water-Chestnuts, p. 281

Indian Spikenard (roots), p. 282

Dwarf Ginseng (roots), p. 284

Harbinger-of-Spring (roots), p. 287

Honewort (roots), p. 287

CARAWAY (roots), p. 290

Water-Parsnip, Sium (roots), p. 291

WILD PARSNIP (roots), p. 297

COW-PARSNIP (roots), p. 297

Wild Carrot (roots), p. 301

Man-of-the-Earth (roots), p. 326

Woundwort (rootstocks and tubers), p. 331

BUGLEWEED (tubers), p. 332

Tobacco-root, p. 351

Bellflower, Campanula rapunculoides (roots), p. 353

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE (tubers), p. 357

Burdock (roots), p. 364

YELLOW GOAT'S-BEARD (roots), p.371

WILD SALSIFY (roots), p. 371

It is obvious that many of these plants are trivial and by the ordinary person will be classed only as emergency-foods; but such roots or tubers as those of the Spring-beauty, Groundnut, Evening-Primrose, Caraway, Bugleweed and Jerusalem Artichoke are so abundant where they occur as already to have many users. The root of Licorice-root, Hedysarum alpinum or H. boreale, is very large, and it might become of some importance in the regions of Labrador, Newfoundland, Canada and Maine where it abounds.

Certain plants which supply abundant starchy material or inulin and which are eaten by the Indians are so unpalatable to the European taste that, until some method of preparation is found by which their undesirable qualities may be removed, they are likely to be ignored. This group includes the Arrow-Arum, Golden-club and Prickly-Pear.

Among the edible seeds the Chestnut, Cow-Lily, and Beach-Pea are most important and, where abundant, the Hog-Peanut, although the latter is rarely found in sufficient quantity to supply a large company.


The wild nuts are mostly well known, although two or three species which supply nuts or nut-like roots are less familiar. The nuts and edible large seeds of eastern America include

Pine-seeds, p. 77


WALNUTS, p. 148


HICKORY-NUTS, pp. 148-150

PECANS, p. 150


Hornbeam-nuts, p. 152




Sweet Acorns, p. 159

Hemp, p. 162

Bastard Toadflax (fruits), p. 166

ALPINE BISTORT (roots), p. 174

Cow-Lily (seeds), p. 197

Water-Chinquapin (seeds), p. 200

Kentucky Coffee-tree (seeds), p. 242

Peanut (seed), p. 250

Bladder-nut (seeds), p. 266

Dwarf Ginseng (roots), p. 284

Except that they have uses which are often unfamiliar, the more important nuts, as already said, are well known and consequently need little discussion. The detailed notes under Walnuts, Hickory-nuts, Beechnuts and Chestnuts indicate how universal has been their use as cooked vegetables and as sources of soups, oils and, especially, breadstuffs. Some, like the Pine-seeds or the nuts of Bastard Toadflax and the roots of Dwarf Ginseng, occur in such limited quantities or are so difficult to procure that they are likely to be used only as occasional relishes or nibbles; and the nuts of the Hornbeams are so small as to be tempting only in time of great need; but in late summer and autumn Pickerel-weed supplies an abundance of palatable and nutritious nutty seeds, enough to supply every tramper in the eastern states.

The use of nuts at the present time is not so general as it should be but the following extract from old Dr. Culpepper indicates that in the 18th century, also, nuts were not generally appreciated.

"And if this be true, as it is, then why should the Vulgar so familiary affirm, That eating Nuts causeth shortness of Breath, than which nothing is falser? For, how can that which strengthens the Lungs, cause shortness of Breath? I confess the Opinion is far elder than I am; I knew Tradition was a Friend to Errors before, but never that he was the Father of Slanders: or are Mens Tongues so given to slandering one another, that they must slander Nuts too, to keep their Tongues in use?..... And thus I have made an Apology for Nuts, which cannot speak for themselves."


Only a few species of our wild plants furnish seeds of such quality or in sufficient quantity to supply breakfast foods. In fact, only the following have been specially recommended.

Arrow-grass, p. 86

Cane, p. 91

Reed, p. 94

WILD RICE, p. 102

Cow-Lily, p. 197

Water-Chinquapin, p. 200

Of these, Arrow-grass, on account of the peculiar, oily flavor of its seeds is not likely to be palatable to the European taste. Some of the larger-seeded grasses besides Wild Rice would doubtless supply a breakfast food, if they could be secured in sufficient quantity.


An amazing number of plants have been drawn upon by primitive peoples to supply breadstuffs, and a surprising diversity in the part of the plant used is exhibited in the list of possible breadstuffs in eastern America. The important requirement seems to be merely a large amount of nutritive material more or less farinaceous, flavor being secondary. The breads made by primitive races were often quite unpalatable to the whites and even the breads made in northern Europe in times of famine are more nutritious than attractive. Many of the breadstuffs, however, are not merely nutritious and wholesome, but, when properly prepared, are often delicious and supply breads, muffins and cakes which rival those made from the cultivated cereals. The wild breadstuffs of eastern America are the following:

Lichens, p. 406

Pine (inner bark), p. 77

Hemlock (inner bark), p. 80

CAT-TAIL (pollen), p. 82

Flowering-Rush (rootstock and tubers), p. 89

Arrow-grass (seeds), p. 86

Cane (grains), p. 91

Manna-grass (grains), p. 93

Reed (young stems and grains), p. 94

STRAND-WHEAT (grains), p. 95

Witch-grass (rootstocks), p. 95

Drop-seed Grass (grains), p. 96

Mountain-Rice (grains), p. 97

Slough-grass (grains), p. 98

Crowfoot-grass (grains), p. 98

Goose-grass (grains), p. 100

Canary-grass (grains), p. 100

WILD RICE (grains), p. 102

Crab-grass (grains), p. 103

MILLET (grains), p. 104

Barnyard-grass (grains), p. 104

Foxtail-grass (grains), p. 105

Sandbur (grains), p. 106

Job's-tears (grains), p. 107

Chufa (tubers), p. 107

Nut-Grass (tubers), p. 110

Tule (rootstock, pollen, seeds), p. 110

JACK-IN-THE-PULPIT (roots), p. 111

Green Dragon (roots), p. 113

Arrow-Arum (roots and seeds), p. 113

Wild Calla (rootstocks), p. 116

Skunk-Cabbage (roots and seeds), p. 117

Golden-club (roots and seeds), p. 119

PICKEREL-WEED (fruits), p. 125

Solomon's-seal (rootstocks), p. 136

Cat-brier (rootstocks), p. 140

WALNUTS, p. 148


HICKORY-NUTS, pp. 148-150

PECANS, p. 150


Birch (inner bark), p. 152


BEECHNUTS (and inner bark), p. 154

ACORNS, p. 159

Dock (seeds), p. 169

Knotgrass (seeds), p. 173

Black Bindweed (seeds), p. 174

Climbing False Buckwheat (seeds), p. 174

PIGWEED (seeds), p. 177

Summer-Cypress (seeds), p. 182

AMARANTH (seeds), p. 184

Corn-Spurrey (seeds), p. 188

Purslane (seeds), p. 195

Cow-Lily (seeds), p. 197

WATER-CHINQUAPIN (seeds), p. 200

Shepherd's-purse (seeds), p. 213

Mountain-Ash (berries), p. 230

Service-berries, p. 230

Strawberries, p. 232

Cherry (powdered stones), p. 241

Red-bud (flowers), p. 245

CLOVER (heads and seeds), p. 246

Peanut (seed), p. 250

Kudzu-vine (roots), p. 258

Maple (inner bark), p. 266

Horse-Chestnut (seeds), p. 270

Buckeye (nuts), p. 270

Water-Chestnuts, p. 281

Persimmon (fruits), p. 320

Buckbean (rootstocks), p. 323

Blue Vervain (seeds), p. 328

ELDER (flowers), p. 349

Tobacco-root, p. 351

Cocklebur (seeds), p. 356

SUNFLOWER (seeds), p. 357

Tarweed (seeds), p. 361

As already said, many of these breadstuffs are to be considered as emergency-foods and only as last resorts in time of famine were they depended upon by primitive peoples or those remote from abundant crops; for instance, the rootstocks of Buckbean which have furnished a missen (famine)-bread in Scandinavia, described as nutritious but bitter and disagreeable. Similarly, many members of the Arum family, although containing abundant starchy material, also have such a fiercely puckering, peppery principle that their roots may be used only after prolonged drying and even then there will often be left some of the peppery quality.

Some of the other plants supply breadstuff of considerable importance. For instance, the juicy inner bark of the Scotch Pine, stripped off in early summer and dried, has long been recognized in Scotland and in Scandinavia as a source of nutritive flour in times of scarcity of wheat; and the sappy inner bark of our Sugar-Maple was similarly used by our American Indians and it certainly suggests the possibility of furnishing a palatable breadstuff. In this connection it is well to remember the statement, attributed to the late Dr. Harvey Wiley, that "Sawdust is fine board."

Bread and cake made from flour prepared from nuts is so familiar in these days of vegetarian recipes as to need no special introduction, but it is noteworthy that the American Indians were much more alive to the desirability and the highly nutritive qualities of these breads than are the whites. The use of acorns as a source of bread was so general among the Indians, particularly of the South-west, where acorn-bread is described by army surgeons as extremely wholesome and fattening, that it is surprising that few efforts have been made by the whites to use the abundant crop of acorns that annually goes to waste. The acorns of the White Oaks are sweet and only slightly bitter and, when properly prepared by leaching out the tannin, furnish a flour from which the most delicious cake and bread may be prepared.

Only a few of the smaller seeds occur in sufficient quantity for practical use in bread-making, but from such common weeds of cultivated fields and barnyards as the Pigweeds and Amaranths a remarkable quantity of seeds can be readily rattled out. Bread prepared from the ground seeds of these plants is thoroughly palatable and apparently wholesome, although with as characteristic a flavor as that of barley and some other cereals to which the American taste was forced during the last war to accustom itself. The Indians even prepared breads from some of the stone-fruits and dried berries, grinding such fruits as dried persimmons, stones and all!

The ubiquitous Elder is the source of delicious rolls and muffins. The fluffy cream-white corollas and buds shaken or pulled off the broad clusters and used on the 50-50 principle with white flour yield muffins which are marvelously light and of delicate flavor. This "flour" can be stored for winter use by rattling off the corollas and drying them rapidly; then storing in tight receptacles.


The wild plants which can be used as cooked green vegetables are about as numerous as the starchy vegetables or those with inulin. They group rather naturally into (1) those used as potherbs or greens; (2) some served like asparagus, in lengths; and (3) a few prepared like string beans, stewed celery, or other conventional vegetables.


The potherbs or "greens" are more familiar to the layman than any other of our green vegetables; and almost every one is accustomed to the use of one or another of our wild greens, such as Dandelion, Dock, Mustard, or Marsh-Marigold. The prejudice against this group of plants is likely to be much less with those not particularly familiar with wild plants than that against the making of bread from acorns or from the seeds of various wild herbs.

In preparing greens, great pains must be taken to include only the young and tender foliage, since a single tough or old leaf will injure the quality of the entire dish. Particular pains should also be taken in the identification of the species, since, at the stage when most plants are available for greens, flowers and fruits are rarely found and the dangers of confusion are much greater than at other seasons.


Excerpted from Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America by Merritt Lyndon Fernald, Alfred Charles Kinsey. Copyright © 1986 President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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