Common Edible Plants of Cities
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There are so many awesome edible plants growing in cities! Unfortunately, I can’t write about all of them, so I decided to narrow the list down to ten. Only ten! It was so hard to choose. I opted for diversity. This list includes a variety of plant forms— some herbs, some trees, some shrubs. It also has various plant parts— greens, flowers, fruits, seeds, and even sap! Finally, these plants are eaten in myriad ways— raw, cooked, made into tea, or infused. But they should all be easily found in most cities, and they are all delicious!
For more information about urban foraging in general, see here.
So, in no particular order, here are the plants:
Lamb’s Quarters Chenopodium album
Lamb’s quarters is a delicious summertime green, packed with nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and magnesium. It is also very high in protein; in fact, the common name “lamb’s quarters” was coined because it was thought to be as nutritious as a leg of lamb!
The leaves and stems are most commonly eaten, but as a relative of quinoa, the seeds are edible as well. However, it’s debatable whether the laborious process of removing the chaff from the seed is actually worth the end result.
Greens can be eaten raw in a salad or sandwich, or steamed or sautéed into a potherb. They are often compared to spinach, and can be substituted in any recipe that calls for it.
Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica
Though often reviled for its painful sting, nettle is a healthful herb that’s rich in vitamin A, vitamin K, iron, potassium, and calcium. The leaves should be cooked before eating, which disarms their sting. Drying and freezing removes the sting as well, though not as consistently; I have been stung a few times by leaves that I thought were thoroughly dry, but weren’t!
Nettle greens are often compared to spinach, but in my opinion they have a stronger taste and firmer texture. However, substituting spinach for nettle will produce good results in most recipes.
The greens can also be dried and stored in an airtight container, then used for tea year-round. Some people may balk at the vegetal flavor, but personally I love it!
Nettle seeds are gaining popularity as a “superfood.” Strongly stimulating, only around one teaspoon per day is needed.
Garlic Mustard Alliaria petiolata
A highly invasive plant, garlic mustard can be found in many environments and should be pulled out by the roots to prevent it from spreading. Fortunately for us, it’s also very tasty; most of it can be eaten rather than thrown away.
The best part of garlic mustard is the young flowering stems. They should be picked while tender— if they don’t snap off easily with your fingers, they’re too tough! Chop them up and eat raw in salads, sandwiches, or tacos, or steam and eat like asparagus.
The leaves are also edible, though they have a tendency towards bitterness. However, they are delicious blended into hummus or pesto. The flowers make a pretty addition to salads. Garlic mustard roots are spicy and horseradish-like. The seeds are spicy as well, and with some patience can be made into mustard.
Curly Dock Rumex Crispus
Pictured here are the seed stalks of curly dock, and as you can probably tell, they are incredibly numerous! As a relative of buckwheat, these seeds are edible, and their vast quantities make for quick harvesting. However, a significant volume is chaff, and it takes considerable time to separate it from the seed. Luckily, you can blend seed and chaff together into a flour— it just means the flour will have more insoluble fiber.
The greens and stalks are much more popular food items. When harvested young and tender in the spring, the greens taste much like spinach, and can replace spinach in any recipe. Flower stalks should be harvested before they reach their full height, while still supple and bendy. The outer layer may be stringy, but this can be peeled away. Both leaves and stalks can be eaten raw or cooked.
Pineappleweed Matricaria discoidea
This low-growing herb packs a powerful punch! When the flowers are crushed between the fingers, they emit a sweet, fruity smell that many liken to pineapple. The flowers are small— only about 1/4 inch across— so harvesting enough to cook with is a labor of love. But in my opinion, it’s well worth the effort! A tea made from the flowers is similar to chamomile both in taste and medicinal properties. It has a calming effect and helps ease cramping pains.
The flowers can also be infused into cream, coconut milk, simple syrup, and other mediums. You can even make ice cream with them!
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale
Most people are familiar with this ubiquitous plant, but many don’t appreciate its healthful qualities! Dandelion greens are loaded with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, and K, calcium, iron, manganese, and potassium. They should be harvested when young and tender in the spring, and can be eaten raw in a salad or steamed or sautéed as a potherb. Some people object to the bitterness, but bitter qualities actually stimulate digestion and are good for you!
Dandelion flowers are also edible, and make a pretty addition to salads. They can also be made into tea, jelly, or wine. The yellow petals can be pulled apart from the green bracts and added to muffins, biscuits, pancakes, and other bready foods.
The roots of dandelion often grow large and long— as anyone who has tried pulling them knows! They can be chopped and added to a stir fry, or steamed or boiled on their own. They also make a rich, earthy tea, or—after roasting and grinding— a “coffee” substitute!
Maples Acer spp.
Maple trees are a common sight in yards and boulevards, farms and homesteads. All species of maple, including ash-leaf maple or box elder (Acer negundo) can be tapped for sap, but sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the best species, as it has the highest sugar content. Pictured here is a tapped silver maple (Acer saccharinum), whose sap contains a fair amount of sugar.
Sugaring season typically starts in March in the Twin Cities area, but the exact timing depends on the weather. Sap starts flowing when temperatures go above freezing during the day, but below freezing at night. Sunny days in the 40’s and cold nights in the 20’s seem to produce the best sap flow, though this varies from tree to tree.
Sap can be drank as is. It can also replace water in any recipe where you won’t mind a bit of sweetness; try it with your morning oatmeal! Maple sap looks like water, but has a slightly sweet and “woody” taste, for lack of a better description. Sugar maple sap contains about 2 percent sugar (less in other species), plus electrolytes, anti-oxidants, and trace amounts of minerals.
If you have the time, energy, and equipment, you can boil the sap down into syrup. But it typically takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, so this is a lengthy process. Collecting and using sap is easy though, so if you have access to a maple tree, I recommend trying it! Just remember to ask permission before tapping a tree that isn’t yours. Boulevard trees are often cared for by the city, so be sure to check local ordinances before tapping one.
Juneberry Amelanchier spp.
Due to their popularity in landscaping, juneberries are surprisingly easy to find in the city. I often come across them in parks, yards, in front of businesses, and along boulevards. (Just remember to ask permission if picking from someone else’s property, and check park ordinances for foraging legality!) They grow as shrubs or small trees.
Juneberries are easiest to spot in early spring, when their five-petaled, bright, white flowers stand out in the landscape. Return to that spot in early summer (mid-June to early-July in the Twin Cities area) to pick the delicious fruits! They will be a deep red or dark purple when fully ripe.
The berries are tasty right off the tree, or can be added to smoothies, waffles, muffins, and many other recipes! They can generally replace blueberries in a recipe, though juneberries are usually a bit sweeter and less juicy.
Hackberry Celtis occidentalis
Hackberry is a popular tree in urban landscapes. Though often dismissed as a “junk tree,” hackberries produce rich and flavorful fruits that have fed humans throughout history, having even been found in prehistoric sites!
The fruits of hackberry ripen in the fall, usually late August in the Twin Cities area. They are purple-brown when ripe, dry in texture, and contain one single hard seed. This seed should be crunched through when eaten (assuming you don’t have delicate dental work!), as there is only a thin layer of pulp, which isn’t worth separating from the seed. Furthermore, the seed adds fat and protein, making hackberries a very nutritive food. The taste and texture is similar to figs or dates.
Since hackberries are so dry, they stay preserved on the tree for long periods, often through the winter and into spring. Thus, they make a good winter food source for wildlife and humans alike!
Rose Rosa Spp.
With their showy blossoms, roses are a popular landscaping plant. When harvesting them for edible purposes, go for the wild varieties, as it’s unclear whether all cultivars have the same edible and medicinal qualities. While there are hybrids between wild and cultivated species, wild varieties are generally distinguished by their five petals, five sepals (leaf-like appendages that grow underneath the petals), and prominent stamens and pistils (the reproductive parts of the flower) that give the center of the flower a bushy, fuzzy appearance. Most wild rose flowers are pink in color, though they can be white, red, or even yellow in rare cases.
Rose petals make a delicate tea that has a cooling effect on the body. It is also anti-inflammatory, soothes the nervous system, and relieves congestion.
The fruits of roses, called rose hips, are edible and delicious! They ripen in late summer or early fall, but the taste improves significantly after a hard frost. Rose hips are very high in vitamin C; at about 50 times higher than citrus, they are one of the highest plant sources! They make tasty tea, syrup, jelly, and other foods! Just be sure to avoid the scratchy hairs that surround the seeds, as they can cause digestive issues.
What Did I Miss?
What are your favorite common edible plants? Was there something I missed that you think should have been included? What is your experience with the plants listed above? Let me know in the comments below!
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