What would you say if someone told you that your backyard is teeming with edible plants, even though you don’t have a garden? Would it shock you to learn that we often needlessly throw away the stems, leaves and roots of some of our favorite fruits and vegetables? Even sustainable food experts might be surprised to hear that some of the vegetation we treat as invasive and troublesome can be used in cooking. But it turns out that you can. Many local vegetables, although they’re surprisingly tasty, are rarely – if ever – collected for salads or stir frying.
The following 10 edible plants might sound strange right now, but give them a fair shake and see if you can broaden your dietary horizons. You might even discover a new favorite food! Just be sure you know what you’re picking. Read a field guide and talk to a local plant expert before eating anything that you harvest yourself.
10 Edible Plants You Never Knew You Could Eat
1. Cattail. One of the most common marshland plants is also one of the tastiest – and that’s what you’ll have to tell people when they find you lurking around the swamp with a knife. The roots of the cattail are full of healthy starches, and you’ll be able to convert it to a unique flour after some light processing. To gather your cattails, find a clean marsh, pull the plants from the water and cut away the edible root structure from the woody cattail stalks.
Clean and peel the roots, then scrape them apart in a big bowl of water. As the cattail sits for several hours in water, the starches will settle to the bottom. Just pour away the water and let those starches dry for a fantastic wheat or rice flour replacement. Your neighbors will flip when you tell them about your famous cattail bread!
2. Nettle. You might have had an unpleasant run-in with stinging nettle on a hike or nature walk, so when you consider eating this plant, you have to ask why your tongue wouldn’t end up as swollen and painful as your hand does when it comes into contact with one. It turns out that a half-minute of cooking is all it takes to neutralize the chemicals that ordinarily cause pain. You’ll need to be careful when harvesting and washing these local vegetables, obviously, but a number of cultures – from the Himalayas to Scandinavia and all the way back to ancient Rome – have thought of nettles as edible plants. Try using them in soups, stews, gratins and pestos.
3. Pumpkin leaf. Next time you’ve got the opportunity to grab a fresh pumpkin straight from the vine, make sure to take the leaves with you. Sustainable food fans will enjoy the chance to use as much of the pumpkin plant as possible, and it turns out those leaves are full of vitamins A and C, plus protein and iron. They can be added to soups or salads, and they’ll make a perfect choice for wrapping around a meat-and-grain mixture. Think “turbo-charged grape leaves.”
4. Zucchini blossom. Here’s another food tip that uses parts of edible plants that you might normally consider unpalatable. To get the most out of your backyard zucchini crop, you’ll have to find the blossoms that only produce pollen (which are, believe it or not, male flowers), as they won’t turn into zucchini fruit. Select the freshest-looking flowers, then stuff, fry or roast to your heart’s content.
5. Carnation. While we’re on the subject of edible plants that are also pretty to look at, it’s worth noting there are actually a lot of flowers that you can eat. To list them all out would take quite a while, so we’ll focus specifically on the carnation. The carnation can do more than simply liven up a flower arrangement or a tuxedo: the petals are sometimes used as an edible decoration, or sometimes to sweeten desserts. Monks have used carnation petals since the 17th century to make Chartreuse, a French liqueur.
6. Peach leaf. If you have access to a peach tree, you’re almost certainly grabbing the fruit and ignoring the leaves. Don’t get us wrong – nobody would blame you for that, because peaches are significantly more delicious than any leaf. But try grabbing a few of the leaves and steeping them in milk for five minutes. A subtle almond flavor will permeate the liquid, which you can then use to make a delicate custard or ice cream.
7. Prickly pear cactus. Don’t let the spines fool you – some cactuses are especially tender edible plants. (Why would they have the spines if there’s nothing there worth protecting?) While most potential grazers in nature are turned off by these defenses, we’ve got the tools and know-how to peel away the bad and chow down on the good. The prickly pear is already a known culinary commodity in Latin America, and it’s starting to get a little more attention stateside. This plant has more going for it than just the watermelon-like flavor, too: it’s packed with antioxidants and fiber.
8. Clover. Did you know that the clover is a member of the pea family? Like the pea, the clover is high in protein. These plants also don’t need much attention, and they do well in most climates. Put this all together and you’ve got an incredibly sustainable food for eco-friendly meal planners. Clovers can be eaten as-is, though some digestive difficulty is common with raw clover. A quick boil will help.
9. Dandelion. If the idea of turning garden pests into a feast is a sustainable food tip you can get behind, read on. The all-too common dandelion can actually be a part of a balanced meal, and almost every part of the plant has a culinary use. Young dandelion leaves impart a pleasant bitterness to a mixed green salad. Dandelion heads are used to make dandelion wine. The roots can even be brewed. That’s right: dandelion coffee is a real thing. Bring some down to your local Starbucks in a see-through container and the universe will collapse in a burst of ironic pretension.
10. Kudzu. If you’re familiar with kudzu, you know it’s bad news. This vine was brought to America from Japan late in the 19th century, and before long it completely took over roadsides and barren lots in the southeastern states. Unlike many invasive species, though, kudzu is quite tasty, and to fight back against this green menace we can eat it. Try to find patches that have not been targeted by herbicides. The vines themselves are not edible, but the leaves, roots and flowers are good to go. This definitely wouldn’t be a good choice to plant in your back yard, but if you’re in the right place, you could probably get paid to take it away!
It’s always important to look for local vegetables that are free of chemicals, but if you’re going to harvest the kinds of edible plants that most people don’t think twice about, you’ll have to be even more serious about it. Collecting dandelions and kudzu by the roadside will give you access to a barrel full of fresh produce, but you might be getting an unhealthy dose of weed killer along with your freshly-picked greens.
After you gather and wash your newly discovered dinner ingredients, you can take food safety to the next level with BerryBreeze™. Our patented technology uses activated oxygen to battle the mold, bacteria and other microbes that normally love your refrigerator. BerryBreeze™ can help to keep your family safe from foodborne illness, too, because it’s designed to keep food fresher longer. Sustainable food like kudzu and clovers are even more sustainable when you waste as little as possible, and our little machine can help you make food waste a thing of the past.
Did we leave one of your favorite unexpectedly edible plants off our list? Do you know of an edible ingredient that people habitually throw away? Let our readers know in the comment section!