As we enter the spring season, much of plant world begins to reawaken from winter dormancy. New flowers and leaves appear on perennials, and annuals begin to break the soil crust.

Pollen and the resulting allergies can be a reminder we are not completely separated but still a part of this revolving cycle. But the common plants we see around us every day can hide some surprising wonders!

Below are a few examples of plants which are eatable (and delicious!), medicinal, and useful. Please be advised, this article is not intended to be used for plant identification. A local expert should be utilized to verify plant species prior to consumption or medicinal use.

Cattail (Typha sp.)

This species is one of the most well-known and widely spread grasses over the entire globe. Cattails generally thrive in wetlands, ponds, lakes and other slow moving waters. Another great feature of this species is that there are eatable portions year round, though obtaining cattails in the winter can be a bit of a challenge.

During the spring, young shoots can be harvested and eaten raw, boiled, or roasted. Also during the spring, the young male and female flower spikes can be boiled or streamed and eaten like corn on the cob. The pollen (also rich in protein) can be collected and added to flour. During summer through winter, the roots can be pulled up, roasted and the core portion eaten.

The leaves can be used for shelter, sleeping mats, baskets, and more. Once separated, the brown fruiting heads (cattail down) make an excellent source of fire tinder and insulation.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbuds are found throughout most of the eastern and mid-U.S. This is a shrub to small tree with rose-purple, pea-shaped flowers that cover the bare branches in early spring before the leaves. Due to the bright flowers this time of year, this species is very obvious along the roadways and in residential areas. This attractive quality has also made redbuds a highly desired ornamental.

The flowers are excellent raw, added to salads, and pickled. Young pods are similar to snow peas and can be nibbled raw or stir fried.

Greenbier (Smilax sp.)

Greenbrier is a woody vine that is usually something to be dreaded due to the numerous sharp, stout thorns – these vines can often become a hedge or thicket. Getting through these areas will generally result in bleeding from somewhere and can just flat out stop a person from going forward. But from all the bad, there is some good.

The new green shoots are excellent browse for wildlife and people. The new tinder tips and tendrils can be picked and eaten all the way back to where the vine becomes stiff.

There is a difference in taste between species; I prefer to browse laurel greenbrier (Smilax laurifolia) and roundleaf greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) due to size and taste – some species can have a hint of citrus. Some of the other species can be fairly bitter. Also, the rhizomes are very starchy and can be quite large. The rhizomes can be dried and used like flour; they can also be cut very thin and baked into a chip.

Hercules’ Club (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis)

This species is a small tree native to the southeastern U.S; I most often see it growing in pastures along fence lines. Other common names include the Indian toothache tree and tickle tongue.

Introduction to ‘tickle tongue’ is usually by chewing on a piece of the bark or leaves that soon starts causing numbness to the mouth. I recently had a co-worker try it and, after that experience, she felt it was vital to have the Hercules’ club in this article. This plant contains analgesics and was once used to seek relief from the pains of rheumatism and toothache.

The seeds can be heated with salt and consumed as a dip. Also, this plant is a host for the giant swallowtail caterpillar.

Black Willow (Salix nigra)

Black willow is a large tree found along the banks of streams, rivers, and wetland areas with deeply fissured bark and narrowly lanceolate leaves. As far as eatable plants are concerned, black willow would rank behind Hercules’ club, with the inner bark considered more of a famine food.

However, black willow has been known to be used for over 6,000 years to cure headaches and other pains. Even Hippocrates prescribed the chewing of willow leaves to reduce pain during childbirth.

The pain-relieving properties of willow is from salicin, which turns into salicylic acid after contact with stomach acid. Salicin is found in the leaves and inner bark and was the inspiration for aspirin.

Prior to aspirin, scientists derived artificial salicylic acid but it was hard on the stomach. In 1893, the Bayer company formed acetylsalicylic acid, which became the aspirin we know of today. But unlike aspirin, natural willow bark and leaves do not thin the blood. The bark can also be a source of tannin, black dye and cordage.

Many of the plants we consider as weeds are not only eatable but can be delicious. If you do find yourself foraging, consider the location; areas with the potential for having harmful chemicals applied or are located in polluted areas should be avoided.

And if you don’t know for sure what it is, DON’T EAT IT!

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About the author

Austin Russell
Austin Russell
Austin serves as an Environmental Specialist for RS&H’s Transportation-Infrastructure Practice.