Wild edibles and medicinal plants can be found along the span of the almost 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. Foraging was once a necessary skill that came to our ancestors almost as easily as the breath that filled their lungs. Although hunting for food in the forest is not as prevalent among people today, it is nice to reconnect with nature by identifying and enjoying fresh foods while hiking and backpacking. Also, if you’re like me, eating out of a box (ramen, rice sides & pasta sides) gets old anyway, so reaping some benefits from the forest will help spice things up a little!
(WARNING: Many wild plants and mushrooms have “look-alikes” that can be poisonous or toxic to your body. Be sure to learn these edibles and be 100% confident in your identifications before eating anything in the woods. It’s best to have a mentor to show you. Luckily, there were several people I met during my thru-hike that helped me learn more about wild edibles.)
During my AT thru-hike, I was fortunate to try several different edible treasures from the woods. Below I have listed my top 5 favorites. Keep in mind, I was NOBO (northbound) from March 29th to October 19th, so if you’re hiking during those times you will likely see some of the same types of edibles. Okay, here we go:
#5: Ramps (Wild Leeks)
Ramps are essential wild onions with a garlicky flare. You will recognize them by their 1-2 broad leaves that are approximately 1-2″ wide and 4-12″ long. They are wonderful to add to meals or can be eaten alone. The bulb and leaves are edible and tasty. I sliced up the bulbs, chopped the leaves, and sauteed it all with a little olive oil over the fire.
Be sure when you harvest that you have next year’s hikers in mind. Because people often pull up the entire bulb, the population of ramps is declining along the trail. To harvest properly, dig back the soil and cut the ramp at the base of the bulb above its roots. Leaving a portion of the bulb and roots allows for regeneration.
#4 Crawfish, Crawdads, Crayfish (but not Craydads)
Although crawfish are not plants or mushrooms, they ARE edible (and tasty) so I had to include them! Crawfish, in my mind, are miniature freshwater lobsters. Because some of my trail friends had never tried them, it was pretty exciting to catch some and add them to our dinner menu. Be aware, though, some states require you to have a fishing license while catching crawfish.
Something one of my trail friends brought to light while eating some of the small crustaceans is everyone always calls them, “crawfish, crawdads, or crayfish, but never craydads.” Why is that?
#3 Chicken of the Woods (Sulphur Shelf Mushroom)
Chicken of the Woods was my favorite mushroom on trail. Some people say it “tastes like chicken” and can even be substituted in place of chicken for a vegan diet in regards to flavor and even protein content. I can’t speak to that, but I can tell you that it is enjoyable to eat. You will notice this orange and yellow fungi growing in “shelf” like formations especially on oak trees. When selecting your harvest, be mindful to choose the more tender and younger growth as it more tasty.
We cut the harvest into pieces and simply sauteed it over the fire in olive oil, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. If you don’t try any other mushroom while hiking the AT, you should find someone who can help you identify and prepare Chicken of the Woods.
Emerging fern fronds that have yet to uncurl are termed “fiddleheads.” These will likely be seen in early spring when the forest is just beginning to wake up from winter.
With a pocket knife they are easy to harvest and toss into a pot to sautee with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Not only do they have a good flavor, but they also contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, and are a good source of iron and fiber.
#1 ALL OF THE BERRIES!
Okay, so I kind of cheated on this one, but seriously I couldn’t choose between all of the berries. The great thing about berries is they are delicious and typically packed with antioxidants. Not only did I get to eat some of my all time favorites while on the AT, but I was also able to discover new berries! Here are my on-trail favorites:
Blueberry – I started seeing these around Tennessee and saw them up until New York (at least). Blueberries are easy to identify.
Strawberry – I had never eaten wild strawberries before, and boy was I missing out. I first spotted them in Virginia.
Mulberry – Because I had never seen mulberries, I was very confused when I first spotted what appeared to be blackberries on the ground, but no nearby bushes. Finally I realized the berries were coming from an overhanging tree. After googling “blackberries on a tree.” I discovered my first mulberry.
Cherry – I was probably most excited to see wild cherries growing. I found a few trees in during the small stretch in Maryland and that was all I saw of them.
Wineberry – This was my FAVORITE berry on the AT and I harvested the most in Pennsylvania. It’s a variety of raspberry that is so sweet and juicy! They are easy to identify by the purple hairs leading up the stem to each berry. It appears to be a prickly plant, but the hairs are actually very soft.
Of course these berries can be enjoyed as a simple and immediate snack, but if you have any willpower to not devour them they are good to save for adding to oatmeal in the mornings. Also, the most refreshing way to enjoy them is shaken in a bottle of water. Nothing like strawberry infused spring water to keep your body moving!
So, those are my favorites along the AT. What about you? Are there any wild edibles you are familiar with that you just can’t resist or any you’ve heard about and can’t wait to try? Feel free to share them in the comments below–
Happy Trails 🙂