The Happy Camper: Wild Edibles

Kevin Callan dishes on wild edibles, with an extensive list of wild edible plants found across North America.

Credit: Kevin Callan

There are survival skills and then there is bushcraft.

Survival experts can definitely deal with unplanned disasters in remote areas. Knowing the art of bushcraft, however, can greatly improve a planned excursion into the wilderness. That’s the difference — and that’s why I prefer bushcraft. When I head outdoors I don’t try to “survive,” I enjoy living comfortably and reconnecting with my natural surroundings.

The skills themselves can obviously overlap. Take wild edibles for example. Knowing what you can eat out there can possibly save your life while others would starve. But the skill can also benefit a normal trip. Prepackaged meals are great, but adding wild harvest to your diet can really be beneficial. Besides, where else are you going to get fresh veggies or berries on day 10 of an interior trip?

Here are a few wild edibles that I’ve come to enjoy harvesting while going on long excursions.

Spruce Tips: The new needle growth at the tip of a black spruce tree makes an exceptional tea when boiled. Pine and balsam fir needles also make an excellent vitamin C enriched tea. As the needles mature, however, they loose their citrus taste and gain a strong resin tang. They can also be added to cookie and cake mix and especially shortbread. Spruce tip vinegar salad dressing can be an amazing addition to your meals while camping. Mix 1/2 cup of spruce tips with 1 cup red wine vinegar and a 1/2 tsp. of peppercorn.

Arrow Root: This water plant, found across North America, grows along the edges of slow moving rivers. The tubers at the end of the roots are high in starch and can be eaten raw or added to a stew. They’re best picked after midsummer to avoid a bitter taste and can even be dried and pounded into fine flour.

Cattail: Another water plant that is found across North America, but prefers more stagnant water. The entire plant is edible and is probably the best survival food out there. The fresh young shoots are the most palatable and are usually eaten raw. The roots also make a great substitute for potatoes in a stew. They can also be dried and made into flour.

Cranberry: The plant, which has a wide range across North America, is found along the shores of lakes and ponds. The berries are traditionally picked after the first frost and made into a tasty sauce.

Birch: Found in most temperate forests of North America. The inner bark is quite bland but can be cut into strips and used as a substitute for spaghetti noodles. The young leaves can also be dried and made into a soothing tea, which is believed to be a cure for urinary infections and kidney stones. Yellow birch roots and young twigs have a strong winter green taste (and smell) and make an excellent tea when boiled.

Blueberry: This is the preferred berry for most campers. It’s located all across North America, including the far north. Huckleberries, which are also edible, are usually found growing alongside it. The berries are ripe around mid-summer and can be eaten directly off the plant or used in pies, muffins and pancakes.

Bunchberry: The range of this plant is north of California and New Jersey, with the plant preferring to grow along the forest floor of mixed woodland. The berries taste something like a bruised apple. They are also somewhat acidic, so don’t overdo it.

Fireweed: This plant has a prominent purple flower and thrives in areas that have been burned by a forest fire. Every part is edible raw (young leaves, flowers, stem and pith). Don’t eat too much of it though — it also acts as a laxative.

Raspberry: This is a compound berry, consisting of a tight cluster of smaller berry-parts. Most compound berries are edible. Grows across North America as a bush. Plant is thorny (more like thistles than thorns). The berry is reddish in colour and sweet to taste. Best eaten fresh since it doesn’t dry well.

Salmonberry: The plant grows in wet, coastal forests. The berry, when mature, is a bright yellow-red colour. The taste is moderately sweet. The young shoots are also edible raw.

Sumac: The plant resembles a tall bush and grows in disturbed areas like roadsides or the edge of farmer’s field. Leaf is compound, made up of several leaflets. The berries grow in clusters and are reddish and fuzzy to touch. It’s the berry that’s edible, and had a lemony/vinegar taste. The berries are usually crushed in water to make a refreshing lemonade-like drink.

Juniper: The berries make an excellent seasoning when dried or crushed on meat or fish. They can also be ground up for a coffee substitute.

Labrador Tea: This is the tea of the north. It’s found in sphagnum swamps across the northern U.S. and Canada. The leaves are dried and boiled. To cut the strong acidic taste, try adding a spoon of brown sugar and a shot of liqueur

Wild Leek: Found all across North America, preferring deciduous woodlots. The root system is best eaten raw for nutrition value and makes an excellent additive to salads. The onion flavour and odour is so overpowering, however, that you may just want to cook them first.

Wild Rose: The petals, buds, young leaves and stalks are edible but the fruit (rosehip) of the plant is the best part. It can be eaten raw or dried for later use. Only eat the outer shell of the rosehip and not the hairy seed cluster.

Wintergreen: The range is more northerly, beginning in the St. Lawrence Great Lakes region and the Mississippi River. The leaves and berries, which remain on the plant throughout the winter months, make a soothing and refreshing tea.

Yellow Pond Lily: Yellow pond lily is aquatic and usually found in slightly moving water, where white water lily is found in stagnant water. The rootstalks are very starchy and can be eaten as a substitute for a potato. Peel, slice and boil in water until tender. The seeds of the yellow flower can be dried and popped, similar to popcorn.