Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants

Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants

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An array of abundant wild foods is available to hikers, campers, foragers, or anyone interested in living closer to the earth. Written by a leading expert on wild foods and a well-known teacher of survival skills, Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants is more than a listing of plant types—it teaches how to recognize edible plants and where to find them, their medicinal and nutritional properties, and their growing cycles. This new edition features more than 70 plants found all around the United States along with more than 100 full color photos plus handy leaf, fruit, and seed keys to help readers identify the plants. It also includes fascinating folklore about plants, personal anecdotes about trips and meals, and simple and tasty recipes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613746981
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition, Revised & Updated
Pages: 337
Sales rank: 752,604
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Christopher Nyerges is the director of the School of Self-Reliance, where he has taught classes on wild foods and survival skills since 1974. He is an associate editor of Wilderness Way and West Coast editor of Wild Food Forum. He has published hundreds of articles on wild foods, gardening, self-reliance, and survival skills in American Survival Guide, Whole Life Times, Mother Earth News, Herbalist, and many other magazines.

Read an Excerpt

Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants

By Christopher Nyerges

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2014 Christopher Nyerges
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-701-8



Agave spp.

Century Plant Family (Agavaceae)

Common Names Century plant, mescal, maguey

Most Prominent Characteristics

OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE The base of the mature plant is an approximately four- to five-foot diameter rosette (circular cluster). The flower stalk reaches up to 20 feet tall upon maturity. The leaves grow to approximately three to four feet in length on the mature plant.

LEAVES The strong, tapered, evergreen, spine-tipped leaves have toothed margins (edges).

FLOWERS When the plant is 10 to 20 years old, a flower stalk shoots up from the center of the rosette. The flower stalk, which reaches a height of 10 to 20 feet, is clustered at intervals with small, bright yellow flowers. These clusters of edible, thick, fleshy flowers are spaced along the stalk so that they appear almost like steps (such as those used to climb telephone poles).

Beneficial Properties

EDIBLE PROPERTIES The center bud, or caudex (fleshy, cabbage-size center of the plant from which the leaves radiate), available year-round, is edible — preferably steamed, roasted, or boiled. In the past, the Apache, Hopi, Havasupai, Kaibab, and other southwestern Native Americans prepared the buds by digging firepits and building a large fire. When the fire died down to a bed of hot coals, the Native Americans put in the buds, covered them with fresh vegetation and a layer of soil, and let them steam for two days. The steamed buds were then simply peeled and eaten or mashed, formed into cakes, and sun dried for later use. (This dried product also makes a nourishing beverage when crumbled finely into water.) The unique (but somewhat bland) taste of the agave buds has been described as a combination of turnip, squash, and pineapple.

The flowers can be boiled and eaten or dried and later steeped into teas. The seeds, also nutritious, can be ground into flour. John Watkins of Harbor City, California, reports that during a trip to Mexico City in August 1979, he was served agave flowers. "The women boiled the flowers and mashed them into patties," Watkins said. "They seasoned the patties with their herbs. (I don't know what herbs were used.) Then the women sautéed them. They were delicious."

A sweet water can be obtained directly from the agave plant. When you observe a mature plant that has not yet flowered, you'll note that there is a solid center cylindrical spike from which each leaf unfolds. To obtain water, cut off approximately half of this center spike, making a horizontal cut. Next cut off a one-inch piece, which will be used as a cap.

Use a sharp knife to hollow out a bowl into the spike and place the cap over the bowl. Within a few hours water will seep into the bowl, and you can drink it as is. It is mildly sweet and is called aguamiel ("sweet water" in Spanish). Water will continue to seep into the bowl for up to a month, depending on the size of the plant.

When allowed to sit for about two weeks, the sugar content of aguamiel naturally ferments, producing pulque, legally classified as a wine due to its approximately 12 percent alcohol content. Tequila can be made by distilling this liquid.

MEDICINAL USES A juice made by boiling the caudex can be used directly on the skin to heal infections and treat fresh wounds.

OTHER USES The stringy fibers of the leaves can be extracted and used in much the same way as yucca fiber: 1) Gently pound the fresh leaves until only the fiber remains. This can be be done in running water or the fibers can be washed. 2) Separate the fiber into strips. 3) Join the strips and twirl them into twine. 4) Weave the twine into items such as sandals, mats, or rope.

The peeled skin of the agave leaves can be used as paper. Make the paper by cutting a large rectangle from the broadest section of the leaf. Carefully and slowly peel back the rectangle from one corner. If you peel carefully, and if the leaf has no imperfections, you should be able to get a large piece of this agave paper.

At the Museum of Natural History in Mexico City, John Watkins reported seeing photocopies of early Spanish reports written on agave parchment. He was told by the curator that many of the reports that went to Spain from this part of the world were written on this material. If you experiment with agave paper, you'll note that as the skin dries, it tends to curl into a small tube. To prevent this, the fresh paper must be stretched and kept flattened between two boards. To prevent the paper from becoming brittle, rub glycerin over it as soon as it is peeled. This causes the paper to remain flexible.

The large agave leaves make an excellent roofing material for emergency shelters. They're waterproof and can actually be used like shingles.

Agave has long been one of the most important plants of the desert Native Americans. In fact, it was the cultivation of agave that made it possible for the Hohokam people to flourish in the deserts of southern Arizona from around AD 1100 to 1300. Although archaeologists had long known of the foraging practices of the desert Native Americans, it was not until 1988 that they confirmed that the Hohokams once had 102,000 agave plants under cultivation. A survey by four archaeologists (Paul and Suzanne Fish of the Arizona State Museum, Charles Miksicek, and John Madsen) showed evidence of dams, terraces, and rock piles where 1,200 acres of agave were under cultivation. This desert plant provided a significant amount of the Hohokams' food, water, fiber, and construction material.

Even in death, agave is useful. When the large flower stalk dies and dries, it can be 20 feet long and up to a foot and a half at the base. Cut two- to three-foot sections of these dead stalks, hollow them out, attach a bottom and a leather strap, and you'll have created an attractive and useful quiver (carrying case). The wider sections can be hollowed out and covered with skins for a drum.

Detrimental Properties

Be careful when gathering agave leaves. The fresh juice can cause a rash the equivalent of that caused by poison oak. (See Poison Oak for treatment.) Thus, long sleeves and gloves are advisable during the harvest.

One species, A. lecheguilla, found in western Texas, southern New Mexico, and northern Mexico, has caused liver damage and photo-sensitization poisoning in grazing sheep, goats, and horses. Poisoning occurs with this species most often during drought years.

Where Found

The plant is commonly found in dry, desertlike canyon areas and in the upper half of alluvial fans.

Growing Cycle

Agave is a perennial that flowers once after 10 or 20 years and then dies. Numerous babies are typically found around the base of the dying adult.


Lobularia maritima (formerly Alyssum maritimum)

Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) formerly known as Cruciferae

Common Name Sweet alyssum

Most Prominent Characteristics

OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE This plant grows in low clumps, usually just a few inches tall, rarely over a foot tall. The plant is mildly aromatic.

STALKS AND STEMS The weak and branching stems lay on the ground and reach possibly a foot in length. The main, somewhat fibrous, stem appears to be five sided in the cross section and is about one-tenth of an inch thick.

LEAVES The linear- to lance-shaped leaves are from ½ to 1½ inches long and approximately 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch wide, tapering to a point at both ends. Leaves are alternately arranged, but some appear almost opposite. Although the leaf surface appears to be hairless, careful observation through a 10× magnifying glass reveals that both the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf are scattered with fine white hairs.

FLOWERS The white, sometimes lavender, flowers have the typical mustard family characteristics, that is, four petals, four sepals, six stamens (four long, two short), and one pistil. Each individual flower is about 1/8 inch across, and each cluster measures about ¾ inch across. The six yellow anthers are somewhat noticeable. The flowers, formed in racemes, bloom all year if there is enough moisture — provided, of course, they're not in a climate where they are covered with snow.

FRUIT The fruit is a two-celled pod, often referred to as a pouch.

SEEDS The small, approximately 1/16 inch diameter tan or yellowish-brown seeds are formed singly in round-shaped pods along the stalk. They are without albumin. From my observations, the pods seem rather ephemeral, and seeds do not always develop.

ROOTS There is a small, slender, somewhat fibrous tap root. The color is off-white to tan. It is slightly larger in diameter than the lower part of the mature (aboveground) stem.

Beneficial Properties

EDIBLE PROPERTIES The blossoms, leaves, and tender stems are all good additions to your salad bowl. Entire flower clusters can be picked and eaten raw. Adding ¼ to ½ cup of the flowers to your salads imparts a mildly hot, watercress-like flavor. The flowers, leaves, and tender sections of the stems can also be mixed into cooked foods, such as omelettes, soups, stews, and vegetable dishes.

Alyssum is small and tedious to gather. It's mostly used as a garnish and seasoning in salads and other dishes where a watercress spiciness is desired.

A tender flowering sprig can even be served with meals, in the same way you'd serve a sprig of watercress, parsley, or cilantro.

MEDICINAL USES We'd appreciate authenticated reports from readers.

OTHER USES The attractive, mildly aromatic plant is great for flower gardens and for simply planting and allowing to go wild in your yard.

Detrimental Properties

We'd appreciate authenticated reports from readers.

Where Found

Aside from the commercial varieties that grace many gardens, wild alyssums are common along many hiking trails. Being low growing, it is well known in the western United States as both a flowering ground cover and a weed; it generally grows as an annual ornamental in the rest of the United States.

Growing Cycle

Alyssum is an annual in the eastern states, whereas it is almost perennial in California, where it is considered a weed in gardens. The plant seems to be readily available year-round in warmer climates where there is no snow. It dies back somewhat in the heat of the summer and early autumn.

Lore and Signature

Alyssum comes from the Greek, a meaning "without" and lussa meaning "madness," since it was anciently used as an antidote for hydrophobia.

The four petals are arranged in such a way as to suggest the form of a cross (as with most members of the mustard family). Particularly interesting is the member of this family called rose of Jericho (or resurrection plant).


Amaranthus retroflexus, and other species

Amaranth Family (Amaranthaceae)

Common Names Pigweed, redroot, quelite

Most Prominent Characteristics

OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE Amaranth, introduced from tropical America, is an annual herb reaching from one foot to three feet tall.

STALKS AND STEMS The root and lower part of the stalks are tinged with a red or purple hue.

LEAVES The underside of the young, lower leaves is purple. The oval-shaped (ovate) leaves are alternately arranged on the stems, are pinnately veined, have wavy margins, and are glossy green.

FLOWERS The small, green, inconspicuous flowers are in bristly dense spikes. When dead, they give the plant an unkempt, weedy appearance. Numerous small black seeds develop after the flowers mature.

Beneficial Properties

EDIBLE PROPERTIES The young leaves and tender stems can be eaten raw in salads (the flavor is pleasant and mild). The older leaves become slightly bitter and astringent, and should be lightly cooked. To cook, chop the greens, add onions, bring to a heat, season, and sit down to a delicious, better-than-spinach meal.

The Aztecs dried and ground the leaves into a flour, which they made into tamales. These tamales were offered to the dead and to the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli on the feast of Huauquiltamalcualitztli, which means "the meal of the amaranth tamales."

The young stems also make a tasty vegetable when lightly steamed, cooked, or sautéed.

The seeds can also be used for food. Gather them when the plant is fully mature. Rub the seed clusters between your hands to free the seeds from their husks. Then winnow if there is a breeze or, if the air is too calm, slowly pour the seeds out of your hand and blow the chaff away. The whole seeds can be added to bread products or ground and used as flour.

In Mexico, the seeds were used to make tortillas even before the cultivation of corn. An atole made with ground amaranth and honey was a popular, high-protein drink. The seeds were used to make a sweet candy bar when mixed with honey or maguey sap. Still today in Mexico (and Los Angeles), this candy is formed into human skulls and other shapes, and is most popular on the Day of the Dead.

One hundred grams, about ½ cup, of amaranth leaf has between 267 and 448 milligrams of calcium, between 411 and 617 milligrams of potassium, between 53 and 80 milligrams of vitamin C, 4,300 micrograms of beta carotene, and 1,300 micrograms of niacin. This volume of leaf contains about 35 calories. (The variations listed here depend on whose analysis you are reading.)

One hundred grams of the seed contains about 358 calories, 247 milligrams of calcium, 500 milligrams of phosphorus, and 52.5 milligrams of potassium.

The seed offers a nearly complete balance of essential amino acids, including lysine and methionine. Leaves, seeds, popped seeds, and flour are all used in traditional Mexican dishes and in gluten-free dishes.

MEDICINAL USES The leaves of amaranth are a recognized astringent. Made into tea, it is used for abnormally excessive menstruation, diarrhea, and dysentery.

OTHER USES We'd appreciate authenticated reports from readers.

Detrimental Properties

We'd appreciate authenticated reports from readers.

Where Found

You'll find this ubiquitous friend in dry fields, cultivated fields, foothills, arroyos, vacant lots, orchards, front lawns, vegetable gardens, and even sidewalk cracks! For this reason, amaranth is unfortunately looked upon as a weed, and, thus, its many benefits are lost as it's hauled by the truckload to the dump through spring and summer.

Growing Cycle

Amaranth is an annual. The large leaves are best gathered in the spring. The seeds are harvested in late summer and autumn as the plant matures and dies.


Amaranth seed and leaf was such an important part of the diet of the people of Mexico in the precolonial period that the seed was mixed with honey or blood and made into the images of their gods, such as Tlaloc (the rain god), or Xochipilli (god of flowers and youth), and others. The images were then eaten as a "communion." When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they outlawed the cultivation of the amaranth plant, probably because it was viewed as a key plant used in "pagan rituals." Ironically, the rituals were very similar to the Catholic communion.

As the Spanish friars began their forceful conversion of the inhabitants to Christianity, they outlawed not only religious holy days, but also the foods associated with those holy days. In his Book of the Gods, Diego Duran lists many forbidden foods and notes that amaranth in particular should be banned because of its use in a ceremony that appeared to be a "blasphemous parody" of the Christian communion.

Black Sage

Salvia mellifera

Mint Family (Lamiaceae) formerly Labiatae

Most Prominent Characteristics

OVERALL SHAPE AND SIZE This shrubby plant is one of those common species of Salvia characterized as belonging to chaparral. It grows from three to six feet high. The base of the flowering stalks is very leafy.

LEAVES The simple leaves are narrowly oblong, one to two inches long, and a third as wide. The leaf margin is crenulated. The upper leaf surface is rugulose (minutely wrinkled or creased), and the lower leaf surface is cinereous and minutely tomentose. The leaves are opposite and very aromatic.

FLOWERS The lilac-colored corolla (united petals) is about ½ inch long. Flowers appear in whorls arranged in a spike-like inflorescence. Closely situated under the upper whorls are oblong to ovate leafy bracts, each of which is sharply pointed.

Beneficial Properties

EDIBLE PROPERTIES The dried or fresh leaves can be used for flavoring in soups and stews in much the same way that you'd use ordinary garden sage. The leaves can also be infused for a strong-tasting tea. They are best gathered when the plant is not flowering.


Excerpted from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants by Christopher Nyerges. Copyright © 2014 Christopher Nyerges. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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

Foreword Ed Begley Jr. vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Pictorial Key to Leaf Shapes 7

Pictorial Key to Fruits and Seeds 12

Agave 17

Alyssum 22

Amaranth 25

Black Sage 28

Brodiaea 31

Burdock 34

California Bay 39

California Coffee Berry and Cascara Sagrada 42

Camphor Tree 46

Carob 51

Castor Bean 56

Cattail 60

Chia 65

Chickweed 70

Chicory 73

Cleavers 77

Currants and Gooseberries 79

Dandelion 82

Dock 88

Elder 92

Epazote 95

Eucalyptus 98

Fennel 103

Filaree 106

Glasswort 108

Grass 111

Horehound 116

Horsetail 118

Jimsonweed 121

Lamb's Quarter 124

Mallow 127

Manzanita 130

Milkweed 135

Miner's Lettuce 138

Mugwort 140

Mustard I44

Nasturtium 148

Nettle 152

Oak Tree 159

Passionflower 165

Piñon Pine 170

Plantain 174

Poison Hemlock 178

Poison Oak 183

Prickly Lettuce 189

Prickly Pear 192

Purslane 197

Rose 202

Rosemary 207

Russian Thistle 210

Sea Rocket 213

Seaweeds 216

Shepherd's Purse 226

Sow Thistle 229

Thistle 232

Toothwort 235

Toyon 238

Tree Tobacco 241

Watercress 244

Water Hyacinth 248

Western Black Nightshade 253

White Sage 256

Wild Asparagus 259

Wild Buckwheat 261

Wild Cucumber 263

Wild Onions 267

Willow 270

Wood Sorrel 275

Yarrow 278

Yerba Santa 281

Yucca 283

Appendix 1 Safe Families: A Guide to the (Relatively) Easily Recognized Plant Families That Are Nontoxic and Primarily Edible 287

Appendix 2 Why Eat Wild Foods? 303

Glossary 311

Bibliography 323

Index 327

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