Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn't Know You Could Eat

Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn't Know You Could Eat

by Ellen Zachos


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There’s food growing everywhere! You’ll be amazed by how many of the plants you see each day are actually nutritious edibles. Ideal for first-time foragers, this book features 70 edible weeds, flowers, mushrooms, and ornamental plants typically found in urban and suburban neighborhoods. Full-color photographs make identification easy, while tips on common plant locations, pesticides, pollution, and dangerous flora make foraging as safe and simple as stepping into your own backyard.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612120096
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 03/12/2013
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 120,649
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Ellen Zachos teaches foraged mixology workshops to bartenders in partnership with Rémy Cointreau USA, and is a regular contributor to several Edible magazines. A longtime instructor at the New York Botanic Garden, Zachos is the author of six books, including The Wildcrafted Cocktail and Backyard Foraging. She shares wild, seasonal recipes at

Read an Excerpt


Getting Started: Identifying Habitats in the 'Hood

Wild foods, nontraditional edibles, foraged foods — whatever you call them, these comestibles have much to recommend them. Sure, backyard foraging reduces your carbon footprint, but the key reason for eating these plants is that they taste great. Their surprising flavors, unusual textures, fresh colors, and nutritional value can liven up your cooking, or offer convenient snacking right from your own backyard.

Different landscapes produce different plants. Take a look around and assess your surroundings. Where are you? What do you see?

Are you standing on a mowed lawn?

Get down on your hands and knees to look for sheep sorrel, chickweed, dandelion, and pineapple weed.

Is there a meadow behind your house?

Poke around in the high grasses to look for milkweed, wild garlic, and oxeye daisies, and check the meadow's edges for silverberry, sweetfern, chestnut, and black walnut.

Are you sitting pretty on a few wooded acres?

Look for spicebush, Juneberry, garlic mustard, wild ginger, ostrich fern, miner's lettuce, wintergreen, mayapple, sassafras, or California bay.

Are you near a stream, river, or lake?

Look for hopniss, chokeberry, or Japanese knotweed.

Are you looking at a vacant lot that's weedy and overgrown?

This could be the perfect place for sumac, purslane, or Japanese knotweed.

In an urban park you might find garlic mustard, milkweed, miner's lettuce, ginkgo nuts, daylilies, dandelions, and elderberries.

Ensuring Safety

Wherever your food comes from, you want to know that it's clean and healthy. If you buy an apple at the grocery store, you probably wash it before taking a bite. You trust that the land where it grew was safe for farming — i.e., not contaminated with waste or heavy metals. If it's an organic apple, you know that whoever grew it didn't spray the fruit with anything toxic or harmful. These same concerns and questions apply to foraging.

In Your Backyard

You should know what's been sprayed on your own plants, in your own backyard. Do you use weed killers to produce a prize-winning lawn? Maybe you've sprayed an insecticide to keep aphids off your roses. You need to look closely at the labels of any product you've applied to see if it's toxic. If it is, you'll need to do a little research to determine if and when you can safely eat something that's been sprayed.

In Public Places

If you're harvesting in a park (with permission, of course), you should inquire about its spraying policy. Often, rural parks have a no-spray policy, preferring to let nature reign supreme. City parks may spray, but they generally post signs immediately before and after, explaining which chemicals have been used and where. If your yard is adjacent to a park, a golf course, agricultural fields, or timber property, it may be susceptible to drift from herbicides and insecticides.

High-traffic roadsides and parking lots aren't the best places to harvest edibles. Pollutants from automobile exhaust can be absorbed from both the air and soil by plant roots and leaves. These can't be washed away or cooked out of the plant. How far from the road it is safe to harvest depends on the terrain, how busy the road is, and what you're picking. Here are a few tips:

* Give yourself a distance of 100 feet from a well-traveled road or highway. If it's a quiet gravel road in the countryside, 15 or 20 feet should suffice.

* Land uphill from a road is less likely to be contaminated by exhaust than land that is the same distance downhill from the road. As particles settle out of exhaust and fall to the ground, they tend to move downhill, not up.

* Animal waste may be a problem in yards, parks, and city tree pits (those mini- gardens that surround city trees), but this can be washed away, unlike heavy metals that might be absorbed by plant roots.

* Root crops are most likely to contain soil contaminants because they are storage organs. They store nutrition for the plant (and inadvertently for us), and toxins may also be stored in their tissues.

Allergy Awareness

The first time you try any new food, whether it's foraged from your backyard or picked from the produce bins at Whole Foods, try a small amount. This way, if you meet up with a food that doesn't agree with you or discover an actual allergy, the reaction will be minimized. A taste of something may be disagreeable, but a plateful might send you to the emergency room. If you know you have food allergies, it's a good idea to avoid eating plants closely related to the allergens. For example, sumac is in the same family (Anacardiaceae) as mangoes and cashews, and thus may provoke a similar allergic reaction. Wintergreen contains methyl salicylate, which is closely related to salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin. If aspirin doesn't agree with you, go easy on the wintergreen.

Ethical Harvesting

When harvesting, please consider the welfare of the plant in addition to your own well-being. Unless you're picking weeds, don't overharvest. This means different things for different plants. If you're picking fiddleheads, you should never take more than three from each fern. Overpicking leaves the plant too weak to thrive. If you're pinching the top leaves off an invasive chameleon plant, you can pretty much go to town. Abundant berries and nuts are hard to resist, but do leave some behind for the birds. With root crops, be sure to leave enough to sprout the following year.


Harvest with Care: You Don't Have to Sacrifice Your Scenery

When you grow tomatoes, you don't necessarily care what the plants look like as long as the fruit is juicy and sweet. Good thing, because tomato plants often look pretty beat by the end of the summer. But when you're eating your ornamental garden, appearances do matter. It's important to know how and when to harvest your food and still keep things looking pretty.

Each ornamental edible has an appropriate harvest time, just like traditional edibles. You wouldn't pick a peach when it's green and hard, and you shouldn't harvest your Juneberries while they're still red. Learning when to pick each edible will ensure you enjoy your harvest at its peak. The timing depends on what you're picking and how you plan to use it.

Picking Shoots and Young Foliage

When picking young shoots of plants like hostas, you should cut from around the outside of the clump, snipping new growth just above the soil line. As the remaining leaves unfurl, they'll cover the cut stems and the plant will look whole. The same technique can be applied to daylily shoots. Both hostas and daylilies produce enough shoots from a single crown that you can harvest up to 25 percent without weakening the plant or marring its appearance.

Some edible leaf crops should be picked after they have unfurled. If each leaf emerges from the ground on its own stem, cut the stem at soil level. If multiples leaves grow from a single stem, make your cut just above a leaf node (see image above). You don't want to leave leafless stems behind; it just doesn't look good. If the crop in question is a weed (garlic mustard, miner's lettuce, purslane), pick to your heart's content. If the leaves are highly ornamental, limit yourself to a taste that won't spoil your garden's appearance. Just as you might pinch the top few leaves off a coleus or basil plant to keep it neat and shapely, you can pick tender new leaves of nasturtium, Malabar spinach, or bee balm. You'll be grooming your plants and harvesting edibles at the same time.

A member of the mint family, bee balm sometimes spreads overenthusiastically. If this is the case in your garden, you can harvest by pulling up young shoots.

Foraging Flowers, Fruits, and Nuts

Flowers are tricky; pick too many and you'll reduce your fruit crop later in the growing season. If you're picking spring elderflowers for fritters or champagne, leave enough to be pollinated and provide berries in fall. Other flowers are produced so abundantly (and don't ripen into edible fruits) that they can be harvested in great number. Daylilies, lilacs, redbuds, and dandelions are good examples.

Fruit is often highly ornamental in addition to being delicious. Some plants produce so much fruit (like silverberries, spicebush, and crab apples) you can harvest as much as you want and still leave plenty on the shrubs to brighten up the landscape. Other plants produce a more limited crop and you'll want to pick it all; Juneberries, chokeberries, and Oregon grapes fall into this category. Enjoy the beauty of the fruit while it ripens and develops color, then harvest when it's at its peak. True, you may miss the seductive clusters of deep purple elderberries hanging heavy on their branches, but when you're sipping elderberry wine or spreading elderberry jelly on toasted scones, the sacrifice will seem worthwhile.

Nuts are easy to harvest but difficult to process. They obligingly fall to the ground when ripe, making gathering the crop a straightforward task. The post- harvest processing is where the work comes in; many nuts require shelling and curing before they can be eaten. But since nuts are especially tasty and highly nutritious, you may decide they're worth the extra work.

Digging Roots and Tubers

Root crops must be harvested with an eye toward preserving the plant population. You'll want to leave enough behind to ensure the plants come back the following year. Since many roots are harvested at the end of the growing season, collecting them can be part of your winter garden prep. Dig up the plant as if you're going to divide it, then remove a quarter to half of the tubers, bulbs, or stolons for consumption. How much you replant will depend on how fast the plant grows and how much of it you want in your garden next year.

Roots and tubers are best picked when their leaves and stems are not in active growth. This may be at the end of the growing season, when top growth is dormant and belowground tissue is plump and full after a season's worth of production and storage, or in early spring, before the plant has tapped the reserve nutrition stored in its belowground tissue. If the plant is in active growth, depleting that stored nutrition, your crop will be disappointing.

Timing for Taste

Gardeners watch their plants grow from young shoots to mature plants, through flowering, fruiting, and setting seed. They learn to recognize and appreciate the different stages of growth and understand what each plant needs as it moves through the growing season.

Foraging is the ultimate in seasonal eating, and following a plant through the seasons makes you a savvier forager. You can't wake up one October morning and decide you want to harvest may apples ... they won't be there! Nor will you be able to pick Japanese quince fruit in April. But you can appreciate the quince's flowers in spring, knowing that, come October, its fruit will be ready and ripe for the picking.

Stems and leafy greens are generally best eaten young, for several reasons. New, tender leaves and shoots may be eaten raw in early spring, but they require cooking later in the season when they develop stronger fibers in their foliage. The fibers don't make these leaves inedible, but they do make them a little tougher. The mature plant will be more palatable if it's chopped and cooked. Other leaf crops develop bitter compounds in the heat, drought, and full sun of summer. For example, both dandelions and garlic mustard may be slightly bitter in spring and fall, offering a nice sharpness when used with other raw greens in salads. In July or August those same plants are often too bitter to be eaten raw, unless they're grown in moist, shady conditions. Steaming or boiling removes some of the bitter compounds at this stage of growth. Lemon juice and olive oil improve the taste even further.

Fall fruits are often sweeter after a light frost, but they'll have more pectin (a natural jelling agent, crucial for jelly making) if you pick them early, slightly underripe. Of course the longer you leave fruit on the tree, the greater the chance that the birds or squirrels will beat you to them.

Ask yourself these questions before harvesting:

* How much of the plant can I pick and still have it look nice?

* When is the edible part at its most delicious?

* How do I want to prepare this food?

When you know the answers, it should be easy to have your garden and eat it, too.


Grazing Greens: Tasty Leaves and Stems

When you walk through your garden, you see woody plants (trees, shrubs, and vines) and herbaceous plants (perennials, biennials, and annuals). Both provide edible greens. Some greens are tasty all season long, while others have shorter seasons of deliciousness. Each plant profile in this chapter includes information on the best time to harvest. If you know which plant parts are in season when, you'll be able to collect each crop in its prime.

People don't generally eat woody stems, but the leaves of woody plants can be tasty when they're young and tender. Harvest hemlock and spruce needles in spring, when they are flavorful and light green. Leaves of the sweet fern shrub are useful all season long, as are the evergreen leaves of wintergreen, a woody ground cover. Sassafras leaves are useful for most of the growing season, until they turn color in fall.

Herbaceous plants (those that die back to the ground in winter) provide edible stems and leaves, sometimes both on a single plant! While leaves are generally edible as long as they're tender, some develop a bitter taste or tough fibers during the growing season. Stems (also called stalks or shoots) are tastiest while still young and tender.

The Details

Not all bamboo is invasive, but all Phyllostachys species are; these are running (not clumping) bamboos. This is not a plant for a small garden! If you plant one, use industrial-strength underground barriers manufactured specifically to keep running bamboo in check. And if you happen to find a giant clump in your new backyard, you may be able to keep it under control by eating the new shoots before they have a chance to spread. This genus produces some of the loveliest ornamentals and some of the tastiest shoots, such as golden bamboo (P. aurea), sweet shoot bamboo (P. dulcis), moso (P. edulis), waxy blue bamboo (P. nigra 'Henon'), and zigzag bamboo (P. flexuosa). The height of the mature plants and the diameter of the edible shoots vary according to species; all of them grow well in sun to part shade with moderate moisture.

How to Harvest

Shoots are tastiest and most tender when they are 6 to 12 inches tall. Because bamboo is an extremely fast grower, you have to be on the lookout. It can emerge from the ground and grow 6 inches in a single day. Shoots can also be harvested before they emerge from the ground. If you notice soil bulging up in the bamboo grove, gently poke around until you feel a shoot, and cut it as far below the soil as you can reach. Since running bamboos are difficult to control, it is highly unlikely you will overharvest this plant.

How to Eat It

Bamboo shoots should be boiled before eating. Some species contain a toxic cyanogenic glycoside called taxiphyllin. Fortunately, taxiphyllin is reliably removed by boiling, so any bamboo shoot should be safe to eat when properly prepared. The size of your shoot will affect how long it must be boiled, but the procedure is the same for any shoot. First, cut the pointy tip off the shoot. Next, with a sharp knife slice through the outer skin of the shoot, being careful not to go deeper than one-third of the way through the shoot. Boil the shoots until they are tender enough to be punctured with a chopstick (start checking the thinnest shoots after about 15 minutes). Remove tender shoots from the water, and let them cool.

Asian recipes often suggest boiling the shoots with rice bran, to remove bitterness from the shoot. I have never had rice bran on hand, nor have I ever found my bamboo shoots to be bitter. But bitterness varies from species to species, so if you do get a bitter shoot, consider the rice bran method.

When the shoots have cooled, peel away the outer layers (there will be several) until you reach the smooth, slippery core of the shoot. Slice it up to add to salads, rice dishes, and stir-fries. To get the pure taste of bamboo, try one plain. They are so delicious, they may not make it to the dinner table. And bamboo shoots are an excellent source of fiber.


Excerpted from "Backyard Foraging"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Ellen Zachos.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
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.

Table of Contents



1 Getting Started: Identifying Habitats in the 'Hood

Ensuring Safety * Ethical Harvesting


2 Harvest with Care: You Don't Have to Sacrifice Your Scenery

Picking Shoots and Young Foliage * Foraging Flowers, Fruits, and Nuts * Digging Roots and Tubers * Timing for Taste


3 Grazing Greens: Tasty Leaves and Stems


4 The Fruits of Nature's Labor: Edible Flowers and Fruits


5 Nature's Granola: Nuts and Seeds


6 Hidden Treasure: Roots, Tubers, and Rhizomes


7 Superstars: Plants with Many Edible Parts


8 Friendly Fungi: Five Easy Mushrooms


9 You Wouldn't Do This If It Didn't Taste Good: Preserving Advice and Basic Recipes

Freezing * Dehydration * Syrups, Jams, and Jellies * Booze * Baked Goods and Savory Dishes * Fruity Miscellany * Resources and Recommended Reading * Books about Wild Edible Plants * Foraging Books and Blogs * Mushrooms * Vendors of Mushroom-Growing Supplies * Food Preparation


Interior Photography Credits



What People are Saying About This

director of Wild Food Adventures John Kallas

"A worthy and eye-opening addition to anyone's personal wild food library."

Author of Nature's Garden and The Forager's Harv Samuel Thayer

"There is a food frontier nine steps from your backdoor, and Ellen Zachos is giving a tour. In this beautiful and accessible guidebook, she introduces us to the culinary use of a wealth of free, exotic, and gourmet produce that almost nobody knew existed."

author of Kiss My Aster Amanda Thomsen

"I think of myself as a backyard know-it-all, but this book schooled me! I found myself exclaiming "no way!"at page after page."

Daniel Klein

"Suddenly, a walk through the garden becomes a treasure hunt."

Gary Lincoff

"This is the book I had when I first got interested in eating 'wild'."

Customer Reviews