by Kelly Smith, NNRG Volunteer
Whether you’re harvesting for food, medicine, or wildcraft, our Pacific Northwest forests are bursting with vibrant plants and fungi ripe for the picking. Always be sure to be sure of your identification before eating wild foods. For non-native plants, foraging seeds and berries can help control invasion. Here are just a few of our favorites you can eat and use:
Stinging Nettle | Urtica dioica | Spring | Native
Stinging nettles are common throughout North America, from the coast into the mountains. They are an understory component of riparian communities, and occur in moist sites along streams, forests, and disturbed areas with rich wet soil.
Stinging nettle is a tall deciduous perennial herb. The square stem and serrated opposite leaves are covered with stinging hairs that rise from a gland containing formic acid. It blooms May and June into tiny drooping clusters of flowers.
Stinging nettle leaves, stems, and roots are edible and medicinal. Nettles are considered a superfood and are especially high in calcium, protein, and trace minerals. Young leaves, harvested in early spring, are ideal for eating. Be careful and use gloves when harvesting. Once cooked or dried, nettles completely lose their sting.
Fiddlehead fern | Athyrium Filix-Femina | Spring | Native
Lady fern is found along the coast and wet interior regions at all elevations of the Northwest, and common in moist areas such as swamps, stream banks, wet forests, and clearings. Lady fern is tall and delicate, with fronds clustered, erect, and spreading from a basal cluster. The leaves are short, scaly at the base, much shorter than the blades; blades are lance-shaped, tapering at both ends. Fiddleheads are tightly coiled tips of new shoots emerging in early spring.
Fiddleheads should be harvested in early spring when they are still tightly curled. The outside papery chaff from the outside should be removed before cooking. Their flavorful taste is distinctly wild, and described as a cross between asparagus and artichoke. Make sure to cook them thoroughly, as uncooked fiddleheads contain thiaminase, a vitamin B depleting enzyme. Heat destroys this enzyme and makes them safe to eat.
Japanese knotweed | Fallopia japonica | Spring | Non-native
Japanese knotweed tolerates a wide variety of challenging conditions, including deep shade, high salinity, high heat, and drought, but is commonly found near riparian areas, forest edges, meadows, and fields.
Japanese knotweed is an upright, shrubby, herbaceous perennial that grows 4 to ten feet tall. It has hollow stems with distinct raised nodes that give it the appearance of bamboo. Its leaves are wide, broadly oval or triangular with a tapered tip; flowers are tiny greenish or white colored “sprays” in summer; fruits are winged on three sides; seeds are triangular, dark brown, and shiny.
One of the most invasive weeds in the world, Japanese knotweed is native to Asia, where it is regarded as having medicinal and edible value. The roots are high in resveratrol, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, and manganese, and are used to help with numerous ailments. The young shoots are edible during the early spring and have a sour, almost rhubarb-like taste. They should be harvested before turning woody, and should be cooked or pickled to remove their oxalic acid.
Purslane | Portulaca oleracea | Spring to Summer | Non-native
Purslane is a trailing herbaceous annual that is often found thriving in disturbed areas like fields and roadsides. It grows in poor to average, dry to moist soils in full sun. Be sure not to confuse it with the poisonous Hairy-Stemmed Spurge.
It is distinctive for its thick, reddish stem and succulent, green, spoon-like leaves. It blooms from mid-summer though the early fall, and has orange, yellow, red, pink, white, or bicolor flowers that occur singly or in small terminal clusters. When fully open, each flower is about ¼” across, consisting of five petals, two green sepals, numerous yellow stamens, and several pistils that appear together in the center of the flower. Each flower is replaced by a seed capsule that splits open around the middle to release numerous small, black seeds.
Purslane is highly nutrition as well as medicinal. The leaves are a very rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, antioxidants, and vitamins A, C, and B-complex. Young new growth can be eaten as a cooked vegetable and is great to use in salads, soups, stews or any dish you wish to sprinkle it over.
Salmonberry | Rubus spectabilis | Spring to Summer | Native
Salmonberry is located throughout the Pacific Northwest, yet found mostly west of the Cascades in low to middle elevations. It is common in wet areas like riparian forests, river terraces, and swamps. It is shade tolerant and also found in clearings. Salmonberry is an erect, largely unarmed, branching deciduous shrub, often forming dense thickets. The twigs are zigzag, hairless, and golden-brown with scattered prickles. The sharply toothed leaves are alternate with 3 distinct leaflets consisting of 2 smaller lateral leaflets and one larger terminal leaflet. The circular pink 5 petaled flowers bloom early spring, followed by reddish-orange raspberry-like fruits.
Salmonberry fruits and shoots are edible and highly nutritious. They are a good sources of pro-vitamin A, vitamin C, and antioxidants. Salmonberry shoots are edible in the early spring, and only available for a few weeks when they are tender and juicy and can easily be pinched off either from where they emerge on previous year’s stems or from the ground. They are loaded with minerals and vitamin C, and have a bright tart and astringent taste. The juicy berries are ripe April through June.
Dandelion | Taraxacum officinale | Spring to Fall | Non-native
Dandelions are common throughout the Northern hemisphere. They are a common broadleaf herb that thrives in clearings. It is a hardy, herbaceous perennial with a rosette base producing several flowering stems and multiple leaves. The leaves generally have toothed edges. The leaves and hollow flower stems grow directly from the rootstock with only one bright yellow flower per stem. The flower heads mature into spherical seed heads containing many single-seeded fruits. Its roots, leaves, and stems all exude a milky white sap.
Dandelion leaves, roots, and flowers are medicinal and edible. The leaves are high in vitamins and minerals, and the roots contain inulin, mucilage, latex resin, and teraxacin. Dandelion leaves can be added to a salad or cooked. They can also be dried and stored or blanched and frozen. Flowers can be made into juice, or added into many recipes. The root can be made into a coffee substitute. Harvest the tender leaves in early spring, buds anytime, flowers when fully open, and roots during the fall.
Chickweed | Stellaria media | Spring to Fall | Non-native
Chickweed is a cool-season annual that grows across North America in a wide variety of habitats and soil textures. It thrives in shady moist corners.
The whole plant will sprawl on flat ground or climb on other plants, and can grow up to 15 inches tall. It has weak slender stems, with hairs in a weave-like pattern only along one side of the stem. The leaves are oval and opposite pairs, and change position at each node. Flowers are small, white, and star-shaped. Seedpods are covered in tiny hairs and droop down.
Chickweed has many health benefits and is full of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Young chickweed has a pleasant, mild flavor. It is delicious fresh and can be blended raw into smoothies, pesto, and sauces. Harvest during the cool spring weather when it is growing rapidly, and during its second flush in the autumn.
Blue Elderberry | Sambucus caerulea | Spring to Fall | Native
Blue Elderberry is a small deciduous tree found in sunny forest-edges with moist soils, below moderate elevation. They are common along stream banks, river banks, and open places.
Elder grows up to 20 feet high, with many long branches carrying opposite, lance-shaped, toothed leaves. Tiny star-shaped whitish-yellow flowers grow in sprays of dense flat shaped clusters. They bloom in early summer in lowlands and in late summer in the mountains. Deep blue berries develop in August through October and can get heavy enough that they cause branches to droop down toward the ground.
Elderberries are both highly medicinal and nutritious. Elder flowers are harvested in spring when most of the flowers are open and others are budding. Elder berries can be harvested in late summer to early fall. Wait until shiny blue-black berries look powdery.
Salal | Gaultheria shallon | Summer | Native
Salal is located throughout the Pacific Northwest in coniferous forests. Salal is an evergreen that creeps into an erect shrub with hairy branching stems and dark, thick, leathery leaves.
Salal is harvested for its edible berries and medicinal leaves. The berries are ripe during late summer when they are deep blue, plump and tasty. They can be used raw, cooked, or dried, and can be used like other berries in preserves, pies, drinks, and fruit leather. The leaves are used as a medicine for wounds, coughs, colds, and digestive problems, and can be made into a pleasant tea.
Baldhip Rose | Rosa gymnocarpa| Fall to Winter | Native
Baldhip rose is located in the moist, shaded understory of Northwest forests in mountainous and riparian areas within eastern and southern exposures. It is a spindly deciduous shrub with brittle weak straight spines. Its leaves are alternate and compound, with an odd number of double-toothed leaflets. Its flowers are pink, single, small, and have 5 petals, and pink-rose in color during May and June. Its fruits are orange to scarlet pear-shaped hips.
Rosehips are used for food and medicine. The hips are high in Vitamins A, B, C, D, and K, calcium, silica, iron, phosphorous and pectin. Be sure to only eat the outer rind, because the seeds contain hairs that are irritating to the digestive tract. Rosehips tea is used for sore throats, colds, diarrhea, and other conditions.