As the traditional time for harvest, you might guess that autumn is ideal for foraging wild edibles. You’re not wrong. From fruits to roots, and nuts to fungi, fall offers a fantastic array of fun and unusual foods that you can find as you roam about the forest and field.
Fall fruits are like the final collection of summer sun, packed into a colorful wrapper. Bursting with flavor, they provide an abundance of vitamins and antioxidants to help us stay healthy through the colder months to come.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a very tropical-looking fruit for its native temperate climate of North America. A small broadleaf deciduous tree, or large shrub, the once-abundant pawpaw used to be more widely harvested. Deforestation has caused the population to dwindle, but you can still find pawpaws in some moist understory conditions, or better yet, you can plant some in this preferred habitat.
The mango-shaped yellow fruit has a custardy texture and a sweet, banana-esque flavor, owing to its true tropical relatives, Annona, Custard-apple, and Soursop. As a climacteric fruit, it releases ethylene when ripening, afterwards dropping from the tree. Pawpaws can be collected after falling, or picked slightly under-ripe and allowed to finish at room temperature. The highly perishable ripe fruits will only last about a week in the refrigerator. Fruit should be enjoyed when soft, and some prefer to let the skin turn brown for a richer flavor. Both the skin and the seeds are poisonous, so be sure to only eat the custardy flesh.
Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), a large spiny deciduous shrub, or small to medium tree with silvery leaves, is readily found throughout most of the US. The drought-resistant native to Europe and Asia was brought in as a landscape plant for use as a windbreaker, but quickly naturalized and is now considered invasive. The Elaeagnaceae family includes autumn olive berry and goumi berry, but is not to be confused with the true olive (Oleaceae).
The small (10 mm long) berries grow in clusters and ripen to a bright orange-red. Sweet, juicy, and somewhat astringent, the berries are a good source of flavonoids, alkaloids, minerals and vitamins. The fruit can be eaten raw, added to smoothies, or cooked into jelly. The single seed is also edible. Cedar waxwings, robins, and other birds will harvest them if you don’t, a considerable factor in the continuous spread of this hardy non-native.
Barberry (Berberidaceae genus)
Barberry (Berberidaceae genus) is a small thorny shrub commonly found in the understory of wooded areas or overgrown fields. Japanese barberry, which was introduced to the U.S. as an ornamental, can be distinguished from the native species in that its thorns are presented in singular form, while the American barberry (Berberis canadensis) thorns come in sets of three. While the plant itself is poisonous, the small red berries are edible.
Barberries can be eaten raw, or steeped in hot water to make a fruity tea. The tart red fruit is high in Vitamin C and contains trace amounts of their signature immune-boosting compound “berberine,” making it a good choice for the start of cold and flu season. In large amounts, berberine is toxic, but the small amount found in a handful of berries can be considered a therapeutic antioxidant.
Roots may be the best of all fall-foraged foods, with the energy of the entire plant being stored there for the winter. Sweet and earthy, wild roots may be a challenge to dig, but they are well worth the effort.
Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is a tall perennial sunflower with an edible tuberous root. A native of the central US, it was cultivated and traded by Native Americans, becoming widespread throughout North America, and even invasive in many areas. The tenacious tubers grow deep and dense, and readily sprout up new growth each year, making them a reliable and plentiful food source. An estimated three to six pounds of tubers can be expected from a single plant.
Sunchokes are unusual among root vegetables; In place of starch and sucrose, they contain high amounts of inulin. Inulin is a prebiotic, and provides food for the microbes in the intestines, but it is not digestible itself. So, while it improves gut function, it can also cause flatulence. Frost, cooking, and pickling all help convert inulin to fructose, making the roots more easily digestible. Aside from prebiotics for your gut, sunchokes also offer some B vitamins, minerals, and Vitamin C.
Use a digging fork to lift the soil in the area where the plants have died back in the fall. The roots can reach a depth of a foot or more, so dig deep, and sift out the knobby tubers with your hands. They can be kept in the fridge, or perhaps more conveniently stored in the ground, and harvested repeatedly until they start sprouting in the spring.
Day lily (Hemerocallis fulva) is another widespread introduction from Asia. Originally brought to North America as an ornamental, it has naturalized and is commonly found along roadsides and other sunny patches in the wild. The orange day lily that you are most likely to come across is fortunately the most tasty variety as well. While the big showy flowers are also edible, since summer is past, we will focus on its fall crop: the roots.
When digging for these tubers, take only the fresh, new white ones. The older tubers are tough and nasty, but the young, tender roots are very nice. They taste best in the fall, when the plants have placed their energy for the next season into storage. You can boil them like potatoes, roast them, or serve them raw like crudite. These flowers are so pervasive, you should have no problem finding a good source.
Great burdock (Arctium lappa) is a broadleaf biennial forb, producing a rosette of basal leaves and a deep taproot during its first year; and growing to a height of around three feet in the second year to form flowers and the incredibly sticky ‘burs’ that carry the seeds wherever they can hitch a ride to.
Burdock has been recognized as a blood purifier since ancient times, and has been traditionally used to treat a variety of health conditions; including constipation, hair loss, arthritis, and respiratory disorders. This plant, native to Northern Asia and Europe, became naturalized in the Americas early on; it is known to have been in use by American herbalists since the nation was settled.
Although it is a challenge to dig, the root has a sweet, earthy flavor similar to artichokes. It was sometimes called “poor man’s potatoes.” Don’t bother with the second-year plants, as they have spent their energy on making seeds. Select the first year rosettes, whose energy is now collected in their tender young roots, and carefully loosen the soil around the plant, going as deep as possible. Gently wiggle and pull until the root comes out, hopefully intact. They can be eaten raw, roasted, or dried for use as a medicinal herbal tea.
A satisfying combination of fat and protein, nuts add depth and integrity to your foraged meal. Small and laborious as they may be, a foraging basket would seem somewhat empty without them.
Butternuts, or white walnuts, are very similar to black walnuts, but with a sweeter, creamier flesh. Walnuts can grow to be great, towering trees. Their alternate compound leaves have a sweet earthy scent reminiscent of pine and citrus. The fruits of the more common black walnuts (Juglans nigra) are round, while butternuts (Juglans cinera) have an oblong shape. Both are native to the eastern U.S. and Canada.
Harvesting these nuts basically amounts to collecting them off the ground, as they will fall from the tree when ripe. Dealing with them afterwards is the tricky part. The green husks will decompose to become a dark, soft casing, which needs to be removed. Be sure to wear waterproof gloves when handling the blackened fruit, as the husks’ coloring is powerful enough to be used as dye and will easily stain your fingers and potentially cause skin irritation.
Once the nuts are cleaned, they need to be cured. Choose a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight and stack the clean nuts in shallow layers to dry for about two weeks. The exceptionally hard shells are best tackled with a vice, or a vice grip. If the nuts still have a “raw” taste upon opening, give them some more drying time.
The American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is what one might call “solid stock.” It is a large sturdy tree with fine smooth bark and a horizontal branching pattern, making it a popular shade tree. Native to the eastern U.S. and Canada, the tree produces small edible beechnuts similar to its European relatives. The nuts are a staple food for many foragers of the forest, and you can join them if you’re willing to put in the effort.
For starters, the tiny nuts have a spiny shell which, left to its own devices, will open and drop its two small nuts to the forest floor. An easy way to tackle these shells is to rub clusters of nuts together inside a towel, and then pick out the husks that will have been shed. While the nuts can be eaten raw, it is best to allow them to dry, or “cure” for two to three weeks in a well ventilated area protected from critters.
Once cured, the nuts can be eaten by removing the inner shell (a difficulty level equal to shelling a sunflower seed); or they can be stored in a glass jar, where they will keep for more than a year. The nuts have a sweet chestnutty flavor, and are very tasty toasted.
Some 600 species of oak (Quercus genus) can be found throughout the northern hemisphere, with North America boasting the largest number of species, including both deciduous and evergreen trees. Their lobed leaves vary in shape, with some being rounded and others pointy, but they all bear fruit in the form of capped acorns. Historically, acorns were a major food staple among many ancient cultures, especially during times of famine. You can still find them in use among Native Americans and Koreans in traditional dishes.
Acorns are high in tannins, a phenolic compound which can be toxic. To remove the tannins, these nuts must be leached with water. To get the most from your efforts, try to find a white oak, (Quercus alba), as they have large acorns with low tannins. Leaching can be done in the shell, or after the nut is removed, by soaking repeatedly in water until they are no longer bitter.
Personally, I like to treat the whole nuts as “sprouts,” and soak them in fresh water, changed daily, until I see small roots emerging. Toasting them at this point makes the shell easy to crack, and then they can be ground into a dense, protein rich, and aromatic flour which adds a delicious dimension to baked goods like apple cake, pumpkin bread or pancakes
Fungi are likely to frighten many foragers due to the very real potential for poisoning; but with a little knowledge and some sensible precautions, you can feel safe in sampling some of the most unmistakable edibles.
Puffballs are fruiting fungal bodies that contain spores, which, when mature, are released as a “puff” of fine powder. Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), the favored culinary species, are found in eastern and central US and Canada. They tend to show up in disturbed areas, usually after a good rain, and will appear either on rotted wood or pop right up out of the ground. They can grow to be quite big, with the largest exceeding 50 pounds.
To identify a puffball, simply slice it down the middle. The flesh should be a uniform white and firm, with no trace of stem or gills. Avoid anything with a colored interior, or any visible shapes within the flesh. Take them when they are in the growing stage, before the spores form and the skin turns papery. Enjoy them right away, as they do not keep well. Batter fried, or fried in butter are popular and tasty applications; but sliced, they can also serve as low-carb pizza crusts.
Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is another unmistakable edible. The bright yellow shelf fungus with a porous underside grows readily on oaks and other hardwoods, both dead and alive. This mushroom is parasitic and it will cause heart rot, eventually killing its host tree. Any Chicken of the woods found on non-deciduous trees should not be consumed, as it may have absorbed toxins from the tree.
Chicken of the woods is large to begin with, and sometimes grows in clusters so big that it would be impossible for one family to consume them. They can have a chicken-y flavor and texture, and are often breaded or used like meat. Surplus mushrooms that are cooked and frozen maintain their flavor and texture better than dried mushrooms in this case.
Oyster mushrooms are another easily identified edible. The only potentially dangerous look-alike is angel wing, which grows almost exclusively on rotting hemlock. Oysters prefer deciduous hardwood, like maple and beech. They are saprotrophic fungi, growing on dead and dying trees. These mushrooms have notable gills that extend down an off-center stalk. With their flat, fan-shaped overlapping tops ranging from blue-grey to golden yellow, to pure white; and their delicately patterned underside; the clusters can be so gorgeous that you may have qualms about disturbing them.
With approximately 40 species of oysters, their season can range from spring right into winter, but autumn temperatures and a good soaking rain bring out the most possibilities. They have a mild flavor and a delicate silky texture, and are often used in soups, pasta dishes, and stir fries.
While herbs were covered previously in my (Part 1) spring article, it is worth mentioning them again to round out your harvest. Most spring greens make a comeback with the cool temperatures of autumn, and you can enjoy these nutritious herbs cooked or raw. You might also take advantage of the abundant wild onion, which is generally considered a weed.
With over a dozen species of wild onions growing in North America, they shouldn’t be hard to find. Scratch and sniff is the most reliable method for positive identification. Small but potent, these onions are the perfect seasoning for your other wild finds. Sauteed with mushrooms, roasted with roots, or finely chopped and added to soups and salads, they act like the finishing touch.
I leave you with a challenge: Try to find as many of these wild edibles as you can; at least one in each category, and fashion together a simple meal, what I hereby coin as:
Roast sliced burdock (or other wild roots) and onions to bring out their sweetness.
Saute diced chicken of the woods (or other edible wild mushrooms) in olive oil and sea salt.
Toss these together with a blend of wild rice and brown rice, cooked in a flavorful stock.
Sprinkle with barberries and toasted beechnuts (or other foraged nuts).
Serve over a bed of chickweed (or other wild greens).
Savor both the experience and what you make of it, and “May the forest be with you.”
This is part three of a multi-part series. You can find the previous two parts below: