A walk from sea level up to 10,000 feet in the Cascades earlier this summer took me through blossoms like fireweed and purple lupine to just-melted fields carpeted in avalanche lilies. Flowering salmonberry, huckleberry bushes laden with small green berries, and low, shaded wild strawberry plants promised plenty of easy-to-identify edibles in later weeks. But with so much lush flora around, (and an insatiable, elevation-gain-driven appetite) I figured there had to be other stuff to snack on. I wondered, what else can I eat out here?
It’s important to note that collecting souvenirs—rocks, wildflowers, arrowheads—from wilderness areas is verboten. But when it comes to edibles, there’s wiggle room. Experienced backcountry travelers can pick and eat edible plants if they do not drastically affect the area’s plant population, and so long as the plant in question isn’t rare. So, a handful of huckleberries is a-okay, a few gallon-sized Ziplocs might be pushing it, and uprooting a bush to bring home to your backyard is definitely uncool.
I’m assuming you know how to identify the basics (huckleberries, wild strawberries, and salmonberries included—those are my all-time favorites) and also assuming you understand the inherent risks of eating wild plants (read: death).The information provided below, including the images, is just a brief introduction to foraging and is not adequate for plant identification. Practice identifying plants with a reliable botanical guide, a knowledgeable companion, or any number of online resources (I’ve provided links) before you start eating mysterious plants in the backcountry. If you can’t figure something out in the field, take detailed photos of leaves—underside included—and any buds, blossoms, or fruit and get a positive ID at home. Be sure to practice proper preparation as well. Plenty of plants are dangerous raw but perfectly safe when cooked. If you have even a sliver of doubt about what it is you’re eating, skip it.
Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)
This tall, vibrantly-colored wildflower grows from sea level to the subalpine zone just about everywhere in the United States except the Southeast. Fireweed quickly populates recent burn zones (hence its name), and can grow up to nine feet tall. You’ll want to eat them before then, though—young fireweed shoots and leaves are tender and packed with Vitamins A and C. As they age, they grow bitter. The blossoms, which have a peppery flavor, produce copious nectar that can be used to make honey, syrup, and jelly.
Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna)
Also known as wood or alpine sorrel, mountain sorrel is an excellent way to add fresh greens to your backcountry diet. Found in the Arctic and the mountains of the northern hemisphere, sorrel is an ancient plant. It was one of the first plants to colonize previously glaciated areas at the end of the Ice Age. The above-ground parts—leaves and stalks—of the low-lying plant are edible raw or cooked, though they can be toxic when eaten in large quantities. Though it’s not endangered, mountain sorrel favors inhospitable climes—rocky, high-altitude, nitrogen-heavy soil—and can be hard to find. So if you do happen across it, be sure you aren’t harvesting the only sorrel plant in the area. Related sorrels including redwood sorrel also have edible leaves and flowers with a similarly sour taste. Some prefer them cooked, though I enjoy the acidic flavor.
Mountain Dandelion (Agoseris)
Not to be confused with the common dandelion (which divides into more than 500 species under the genus Taraxacum), the mountain dandelion, also known as the false dandelion, can be found across the North American mountain west and down into the cordilleran regions of South America. Like its doppelganger, the leaves and blossom of the mountain dandelion are edible and nutrient-dense. Unlike its doppelganger, it’s recommended that you cook the plant—whose leaves have a markedly different appearance than the wide, pointed leaves of the common dandelion—before eating. The genus agoseris encompasses species that produce vibrant orange flowers (agoseris aurantiaca) in addition to the more familiar yellow blossoms.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.)
Common across the eastern half of the United States, milkweed is crucial habitat for monarch butterflies. They rely on the plant as a location to safely lay eggs, and milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat. Though the plant—of which there are over 100 species in the United States—is hardy, farming practices and development have depleted milkweed populations, threatening the endangered monarch. So if you decide to harvest some, consider the butterflies before you take out a full stand. Common milkweed has many edible parts at various stages in its growth, including young stalks, leaves, and small seed pods. All parts must be cooked before consumption—boiled thrice is a good rule of thumb, though there are some great ideas as to how to prepare milkweed without turning it into a soggy mess here.
Red-Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)
There are around 150 species within the genus Ribes, including golden currants, red currants, and endangered moreno currants (don’t eat those). The red-flowering currant grows wild along the west coast of North America and Idaho, growing in early seral and Douglas fir forests below 6,000 feet. In spring, the shrub blossoms with stunning flowers ranging from light to dark pink that give way to tart, deep purple berries. They can be eaten raw, dried, or baked into pies, jams, and other treats. That said, the flavor—which can tend towards the musky or skunky—and ample seeds mean this isn’t a berry for everyone.
Ghost Pipe (Montropa Uniflora L.)
Also known as Indian pipe, ghost pipe is a creepy little plant that typically grows in clusters in shady corners of the forest across most of the United States. It doesn’t derive its energy from the sun, so there’s no need for green—hence the ghostly white or pale pink color. Devoid of chlorophyll, the ghost pipe saps nutrients from nearby trees via mycorrhizal fungi, which the tree depends on to convert nutrients into the soil into palatable sources of energy. It’s a parasitic, almost cannibalistic relationship. Though bland when eaten raw, the ghost pipe has an asparagus-like flavor when cooked. The unique conditions necessary for growth make ghost pipes slow to propagate, so harvest sustainably.
Sego lilies (Calochortus flexuosus, gunnisonii, and nuttallii)
The sego lily, Utah’s state flower, isn’t just beautiful. The bulbs of this perennial can be roasted, boiled, and made into a porridge. Sego lilies were a common food for Native American tribes including the Utes, who saved early Utah settlers from starvation in the 1840s by sharing their knowledge of the local flora. Also known as Mariposa lilies, sego lilies are most commonly white, though if you’re lucky you might come across a purple blossom. The various species—including flexuosus, gunnisonii, and nuttallii—look similar, but can be defined based on their environment (as outlined here.)
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
You’ve probably eaten watercress before. It’s a widely popular salad green and garnish, known for its peppery flavor. The plant—which grows near cold, alkaline water—can be found growing wild across North America, and is considered noxious and invasive in 46 states. Which means this is a good one to eat. Look for the telltale four-petaled white blossoms, and wash the plant well before you eat it. Be careful not to harvest watercress from waterways that may be contaminated with pollutants or copious amounts of harmful bacteria.