Harvesting Wild Food Plants in Minnesota

Samuel Thayer
Forager’s Harvest

From the rich prairie soils of the southwestern part of the state, to the steep coulees of the southeastern corner, and the wild boreal forests of the north, Minnesota boasts a great diversity of landscapes and an exciting variety of edible wild plants. Collecting and consuming these delicacies is one of life’s most satisfying activities. All of us have reveled in the wonderful taste of wild rice, blueberries, raspberries, and maple syrup, but dozens of equally delicious foods are available for free across Minnesota’s varied countryside—and even in the parks, empty lots, backyards, and green spaces of our urban areas. Pick locally!

Harvesting Safety Rules

As with any activity, foraging requires attention to some ground rules regarding safety and propriety. These include :

Never eat any part of any plant unless you are absolutely certain of its identity and its edibility. There are no shortcuts or “rules of thumb” for knowing which plants, berries, or mushrooms are edible. Use several of the field guides listed later in the reference section to make a positive identification. Become thoroughly familiar with a plant species before consuming it, and learn the proper season of harvest, edible part, and stage of growth.

Never eat anything that tastes bad or is disagreeable to you. Poor flavor or texture may mean that you have collected the plant at the wrong stage of growth, or that its growing conditions have adversely affected its quality. Or, a plant that is generally safe may be simply disagreeable to your taste. Also, in the unlikely case that you misidentify an edible, a toxic plant that you accidentally harvest will probably have an unpleasant flavor—spit it out.

Beware of pesticides, herbicides, and other pollutants. Plants near agricultural fields, lawns, railroads, and certain other places are likely to be sprayed with dangerous chemicals. Plants near busy roads are tainted with exhaust fumes.

Consider conservation and respect the landscape. Some plants are easily over-harvested, while others are weedy and almost impossible to exterminate. Try to understand the life cycle of the plant you are harvesting and never collect more than appropriate, or more than you will consume. Only harvest in areas where the plants are abundant, and be sure not to collect where plants are rare or protected.

Respect landowners and laws. Some public lands allow limited foraging; others do not. Get permission before collecting on private land.

Harvest Wild Minnesota Foods

With these rules in mind, here are the most common wild foods throughout Minnesota. Savor and enjoy!

Serviceberry or Juneberry: This delicious native fruit looks like a blueberry but is related to the apple. Found throughout Minnesota but more common in the north, the various species ripen in late June, July, and August.

Wood nettle: This herb stings when raw, but cooking renders it innocuous. In spring the young shoots, both leaves and stems, make a wonderful cooked vegetable. Wood nettles grow in river floodplains and rich woods throughout the state.

Blueberry: These wonderful berries are found primarily in the northern part of the state, ripening from mid July into August.

Burdock: This pesky weed produces three good vegetables. The roots are often sold in health food stores. The young stalks, after peeling, cook up like new potatoes, and the young leafstalks can be used in stews like celery.

Basswood: The newly opened leaves of basswood in early spring are a fine salad material.

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads: These coiled shoots, collected in spring, are cooked and served like asparagus. These popular gourmet vegetables are most common in eastern and northern Minnesota.

Chokecherry: Found throughout Minnesota, the chokecherry was once a staple for Native Americans. It is used for jelly, syrup, wine, and makes delicious fruit leather. Let them turn fully black before picking in late summer.

Parsnip: The familiar garden parsnip grows wild over much of Minnesota, and it is extremely common in the southeastern part of the state. The roots are dug in late fall or early spring and are used exactly as store-bought parsnips. However, the juice of the summer leaves and stems of all parsnips can cause a severe rash if it gets on your skin.

Red and Black Raspberries, Blackberies, and Thimbleberries: One or more of these bramble fruits is found in all parts of Minnesota, and they make some of the finest pies, jams, and other desserts ever created.

Hazelnut: Minnesota is home to two species of hazelnut, which are perhaps the most common shrubs in the state. The delicious nuts ripen from Mid August to early September.

Read Up

Abundantly Wild: Collecting and Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest by Teresa Marrone Adventure Publications 2004.The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying Harvesting and

Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer Forager’s Harvest Press 2006.

Act Locally

Wisconsin State Herbarium
Madison, WI

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