ISSUE 84  |  Summer Gardens in the City

65 Backyard Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat

August 07, 2013 5:00 PM

BY Erin Boyle

For me, foraging for edible plants has always been limited to the few I know best. Wild blackberries until my stomach hurts? Check. Linden in the springtime? Always. Stolen juneberries? Guilty. 

But beyond those staples, I admit to questioning both my plant identification skills and my knowledge of what on earth to do with something edible after I’ve found it.

In Ellen Zachos’ Backyard Foraging (Storey Publishing, 2013), I’ve found my answers. Zachos outlines 65 different edible plants, organized into sections according to the parts of the plant that you eat: leaves and stems; flowers and fruits; nuts and seeds; roots, tubers, and rhizomes; and superstar plants with many edible parts. For mushroom lovers, Zachos covers five friendly fungi.

The photograph-rich volume is the perfect field guide for an urban forager with a zeal for finding new and unusual snacks to sample, but who, like me, might also suffer from a lack of confidence. 

Photographs by Erin Boyle.

To put the book (and my skills) to the test, I set off on a little adventure, taking a quick walk around the neighborhood to see which of the plants I could readily find. The answer? A lot of them. Here are just a few:

Hostas: By rough estimation, nearly three quarters of my neighbors are growing hearty hostas in their gardens. Zachos explains that all hostas–blue, green, striped, or otherwise unusual looking–are safe to eat. Harvest is best in the springtime for hostas and according to Zachos the taste is “light, mild, and fresh.”

Sumac: Zachos confirms that sumac is among the easiest-to-identify edible plants. The Dr. Seussian cones of red berries are hard to confuse with anything else. I spotted these sumac berries in Brooklyn Bridge Park (where, alas, foraging is discouraged). I’m accustomed to drinking sumac tea made from dried berries, but Zachos recommends soaking the berries in rum or vodka with a little sugar for a tart cocktail. Woman after my own heart.

Rose of Sharon: Purple and white varieties of Rose of Sharon are blooming all over my Brooklyn neighborhood right now. Larger than many edible flowers, they can be stuffed with sweet or savory fillings for a flowery appetizer. For another take on eating flowers, see Direct from the Farm: an Easy Recipe for Squash Blossom Tempura.

Gingko: Learning more about the Gingko was one of my favorite parts of Zachos’ book. Every fall the trees in our neighborhood drop an abundance of very smelly fruit. And yet! Each season, I see troops of people gathering the seeds into plastic bags and toting them home. Zachos explains that while the fruit that surrounds the nut is stinky, the nuts themselves are delicious. It’s not quite the season for nuts yet, so I’m steeling my nerves before the fall harvest.

Elderberry: One of my favorite immune-boosting fruits to use in my annual gearing-up-for-winter routine. I have yet to forage for elderberries myself. Zachos explains that both the flowers and the berries of this plant are edible. For a very delicious use of elderflower, see A Family Recipe for Elderflower Cordial via Dublin. I found these near the sumac in Brooklyn Bridge Park. 

A copy of Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat is $12 from Amazon.

Overall? I’m calling my scouting adventure successful. The more difficult tasks will be gaining permission to forage and determining whether the soil in which plants is growing renders them safe enough to eat. Luckily, Zachos provides tips for both.