Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)
The edible, but slightly tart, red berries are often called red raspberries, but the true red raspberries are a different
plant. The Wineberry was introduced from Europe and has become well established throughout our area. The native
Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is found only in the Appalachian mountains, in the western part of our Baltimore
Washington metropolitan area. The true Red Raspberries don't have the "hairy" stem of the Wineberry.
As kids, my friends and I used to collect these by the bucketful in the fields and hedgerows around our Mt. Washington
neighborhood in Baltimore. We usually ate them as is or with some sugar sprinkled over them. Some managed to find
their way into the freezer so they could be thawed and eaten with sugar later. The berries are a little bit tart and seedy,
but are also good in pies. The name Wineberry suggests the berries were once used to make wine.
SOME EDIBLE WILD PLANTS IN OUR AREA
Violets (Viola spp.)
Many varieties of violets are found in our area, most varieties are edible. The flowers
have five petals arranged in a distinctive shape, but the color varies from white or yellow
to deep purple. The deep purple flowers pictured here are Birdfoot Violets (Viola pedata)
photographed in Soldier's Delight Natural Environmental Area. The light purple flower
(below right) is a common blue violet (probably Viola papilionacea) commonly found on
lawns. A white violet is also shown (top left). Young tender leaves and flowers of the
purple flowered violets shown here can be eaten in salads. The leaves can also be boiled
or steamed and eaten. I have eaten the purple varieties without distinguishing species. I
often added purple violet flowers and leaves to salads made with lettuce and garden
vegetables or with other wild greens.
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
The fruit of this plant is small and usually not very
abundant. It can be eaten as a snack on the trail or added
to salads to add a little color. I usually find small patches
of this that might yield a half dozen berries. The taste is
something like paper, so this is not a highly recommended
Many of our area plants are edible and can be used as snacks on the trail, added to salads for some
interesting color, flavor, and dinner conversation, or prepared as camp food to get a little closer to nature
on a rustic outing. Some of the plants listed here were brought to this continent as food and have
escaped, becoming weeds of our gardens and lawns. I have eaten many of these and will try to give a little
personal perspective when possible.
I am limiting my discussion of plant identification because it gets quite time consuming to write. I
recommend using some of the many good and easy to use identification guides available. I am compiling a
list of some of my favorites on the Recommended Reading and Bibliography page.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
This early spring wildflower is usually seen in patches in sunny woods. It is very
abundant in some areas.
The Spring Beauty's small heart shaped tuber is edible. The tuber can be roasted or
boiled. The outer jacket should be peeled off before eating. I have eaten these roasted
in the oven or wrapped in foil and roasted in a campfire. They are good with salt, pepper
and butter, but the root is small and it is difficult to collect enough for a meal. Collecting
the tubers is also destructive, so collecting should be limited to private land and only
where the plant is extremely abundant.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Chicory was introduced to this country, probably as an escaped garden plant. The young
leaves of this plant can be eaten as a salad green or can be boiled. The roots are roasted
and used as a coffee substitute or are added to coffee. The whole plant is very bitter. I find
the young leaves are good if added in small amounts to an otherwise mild salad. Boiling
might remove some of the bitterness, but I have never tried this.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras grows as a small tree at the edges of woods. Recognize Sassafras by the three
types of leaves on one plant - an oval leaf with no lobes, a mitten shaped leaf, and a
three lobed leaf. The crushed leaf or stem has a distinct aromatic smell.
The mucilaginous leaves of Sassafras have been used to thicken soups. The twigs,
leaves, and roots are steeped in hot water to make an aromatic tea. Historically,
Sassafras root was used to make root beer.
Sassafras contains Safrole, 4-allyl-1,2-methylenedioxy-benzene, which has been shown
to be carcinogenic. Safrole is also used in the synthesis of the (illegal) drugs Ecstacy
(MDMA) and MDEA. The FDA has banned the use of safrole in food since 1960. The sale
of sassafras tea and sassafras bark for addition to food is also apparently illegal.
As a kid I was not aware of the potential carcinogenic effects of sassafras, so I could
fearlessly enjoy sassafras. I have tried cooking with the leaves, which add a mucilaginous
consistency to soups. I did not like the flavor in my own cooking, but a more innovative
cook than I could probably put together some tasty dishes with it. A tea or decoction made
from the roots is very good and I occasionally enjoyed a cup of Sassafras root tea by a
campfire after dinner.
Honestly, I am much more concerned about getting cancer from the herbicides the state
of Maryland sprays on the sides of our highways than I am about drinking an occasional
cup of sassafras tea made from freshly dug roots.
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
This is one of the earliest spring flowering trees. The clusters of purple flowers emerge
before the leaves and are seen on roadsides and in the forest understory.
The flowers are edible and can be put in salads to add color and flavor, or eaten right
off the tree. They have a slightly "nutty" taste. I eat a few flowers to get a dose of
vitamins when I pass a tree in bloom on spring hikes. I also have been known to sprinkle
a few flowers on salads to add a little color and flavor.
More about redbud
I find Violets to be mild in flavor and very good as a salad herb. I have never tried these
as a cooked vegetable.
W. T. Fernie, M.D. in Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure
discusses this group of plants and their medical use at the time (late 1800's) in Europe.
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Sheep Sorrel is an introduced plant which now grows as a weed in our area. The
pictures to the left are taken at the edge of my front step, where a patch of Sheep
Sorrel has established itself. Sheep Sorrel should only be eaten in small amounts
because it has a high concentration of oxalic acid (ethanedioic acid). The oxalic acid
gives this plant a pleasant tangy lemon taste. I have limited the use of this herb to
eating a few leaves while hiking or while working in the yard because of the potential
for kidney stones and other health problems from the oxalic acid. But the
concentration of oxalic acid is said to be lower than in rhubarb stalks, so I imagine it
would take a very large amount to cause problems.
Sheep Sorrel is one of the Docks, genus Rumex, which includes several other
species that are edible as salad or cooked vegetables. The seeds of some species
are also used to make a flour. W. T. Fernie, M.D. in Herbal Simples Approved
for Modern Uses of Cure discusses this group of plants including a
discussion of the historical use of "Sour Dock or Sorrel".
Partridgeberry is found on the forest floor, usually in small patches. It is an evergreen and the berries can
be found all winter. The Partridgeberry plant has been used medicinally for menstrual problems and to
prepare for childbirth.