A Beginner’s Guide to Wild Edibles in the PNW
There is great satisfaction in growing your own food. Here in Portland, Oregon – the land of locavores – a thriving garden is a badge of honor. But have you ever foraged for wild plants to supplement a dinner, make tea, or as a trailside snack?
A small amount of wild plant knowledge goes a long way toward adding a little improvisation to camp food, trail snacks, and home-cooked meals. Our Pacific Northwest home is host to a mind-boggling number of wild edible and medicinal plants. While it takes dedicated study and craft to feed yourself exclusively from the wild landscape, learning a few plants to spice up a dinner or make for trailside treasure hunting is easy.
Whether you are literally in your backyard or off in a remote setting, there are several important factors to consider before harvesting and consuming any wild plant.
1. Have you correctly identified the plant? Huckleberries and dandelions are easy, but a field guide or phone app to wild edibles (the Picture This plant identifier app is one we've used) is important when trying to identify more uncommon edibles. Be sure to match all aspects of the plant from flower to leaf and soil type to location.
2. Is the plant free from pesticides and pollutants? Think roadside locations and urban areas. If you can’t be certain, it’s best to avoid suspect locations.
3. Are you in a place where it is OK to harvest? Some parks and forest regions require a permit to forage in larger quantities, so be sure to check with the managing agency if you plan to go big.
KEEN folks foraging for berries, such as huckleberries and blackberries, here in Oregon.
Here’s a shortlist of common Pacific Northwest edibles to start your foraging adventures:
Huckleberry, Vaccinium membranaceum
No Northwest edible list is complete without the glorious huckleberry. Similar in taste and appearance to blueberries, they are high in vitamin C and a good source of antioxidants. There are numerous huckleberry varieties throughout the Northwest. They tend to grow at middle elevations, and the most sought-after variety is often called thinleaf or mountain huckleberry, with large, sweet, purple berries that grow singly on the plant. Peak huckleberry season begins in mid-August and runs into mid-September.
Salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis
Similar in appearance to a raspberry, ripe salmonberries are yellow-orange in color. They are mildly sweet and make for easy picking along the trail. It’s most common at lower elevations in wetter coastal forests along the Pacific Coast and is often found streamside. Peak season ranges from mid-June to late August. Eat them on the go, or try collecting for use in your morning oatmeal.
Mountain Sorrel, Oxyria digyna
The reddish leaves of mountain sorrel are edible raw. They have a fresh acidic taste and are rich in vitamin C. Try chopping leaves into water and adding a little sugar to make a lemonade-like drink. Or use full leaves to supplement salad greens for a fresh twist. It grows in damp subalpine and alpine regions.
Wild Rose, Rosa acicularis
Wild rose grows in urban and wild areas, and it offers numerous edible options. From tinctures to tea, rose petals and rose hips (the fruit) are plentiful and easy to harvest. Add flower petals to a salad or use them to infuse tea, honey, or oil with rose essence. Even more coveted are rose hips. Rich in vitamin C, the red fruit can be used to make tea, preserves, and syrup.
Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii
The Douglas fir is the most common tree in the Pacific Northwest landscape, and its needles offer multiple uses. You can harvest the needles anytime of the year for infusing tea with a citrus-pine flavor, but it’s the tender bright green branch tips in spring that offer the most flavor. Boil them in hot water or let them soak in water under the sun for a refreshing, nature-made drink. It’s good hot or cold. Or simply chew on the fresh green tips for a natural, energizing treat on the trail.
Next time you head for the hills, do more than stop and smell the flowers. Keep your eyes peeled for wild plants you can actually eat! Once you learn to recognize your favorites, you’ll be surprised how often you can find them. Happy hiking.