From the Missouri Conservationist Magazine
March 2021 Issue

Wild Edibles

Publish Date

Mar 01, 2021

Morel mania strikes Missouri each spring and thousands of people venture to their closely guarded honey holes in hopes of finding the elusive mushroom. While certainly worthy of great attention, the morel is far from the only wild edible. A variety of wild plants — in the form of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits — can provide tasty nutrition. Dandelions, cattails, pawpaws, persimmons, elderberries, watercress, and even other mushrooms are just a few of the wild edibles that are abundant throughout the state.

Dandelions

Collecting wild edibles can begin by stepping into your front yard. Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), the bane of many landscapers and homeowners, sprout up abundantly in most untreated lawns statewide. Each summer, their feathery seeds are sent floating through the air with the slightest breeze or on the wish-filled breath of a child.

Dandelions can be identified by their toothy, deeply notched leaves that form a rosette, but the most distinguishing characteristic is the bright-yellow flowerhead. Flowering occurs from early spring to late autumn.

All parts of the dandelion are considered edible, but each one requires a different type of preparation. Dandelion roots, when eaten raw or cooked like other roots, possess a bitterness that most people find unappealing. When the roots are dried, roasted, and ground, they can then be steeped in water, resulting in a drink similar to coffee.

Dandelion leaves and stems are best harvested when they are young and tender. A fresh salad is a perfect dish to toss in a few. They also can be used like most greens and sautéed with lemon, bacon, or pine nuts.

The flowers of dandelions can be used as a colorful addition to fresh salads. They can be eaten before or after they are fully opened. Another tasty option is to batter and deep fry the yellow heads, much like zucchini flowers would be prepared.

Cattails

If you are close to wetlands, marshes, ditches, moist fields, or ponds, cattails (Typha latifolia) likely can be found. Sometimes called bullrush, cattails provide another versatile wild edible.

In the spring, a small, green male head is just developing at the top of a tall, slender stalk. Once collected, the “husk” can be removed much like corn. Then, the cattail heads are prepared by boiling for about five minutes, brushing with butter, and eating like corn on the cob.

As the cattail heads mature, bright yellow pollen develops on them and can be collected by shaking them into a sealable plastic bag. The pollen can be used as a flour substitute when baking or as a thickener in soups or stews. The male head falls off during pollination and the female head just below it becomes tough and brown as summer sets in. The female head transforms into fluffy seeds during the fall that can be collected and used for insulating pillows, clothing, and quilts.

Young cattail shoots emerge from the roots in the spring and are also a prize wild edible. The outer leaves of the shoots can be removed and the remaining white core can be eaten raw, boiled, and prepared like asparagus, or sliced and tossed into a stir fry dish. Pickling is another popular way to prepare the young, tender shoots.

The cattail roots, or rhizomes, also can be consumed in several ways. They first must be collected by digging into the mud. Large rhizomes are more desirable and are prepared by cleaning, trimming away any smaller, branching roots, and peeling off the outside layer. The cattail root can be prepared by baking, grilling, or boiling until tender. The result will be a combination of fibers and starch. Eating the root is like eating an artichoke — the starch is removed by scraping your teeth along the fibers. Cattail roots often are used to make a flour substitute or thickener. Allow the cleaned cattail roots to become dry or they can also be placed in an oven, set at 200 degrees, overnight to speed the process. Pound the dry roots with a mallet to collect the flour.

Pawpaws

The pawpaw (Asimina triloba), sometimes referred to as the Missouri banana, is common throughout the state. The pawpaw can grow as a shrub or medium-sized tree and usually appears along river bottoms or shaded slopes near streams. Since they propagate through root suckers, when you find one you usually will find several.

Pawpaws have unique fruits and leaves that help in their identification. The fruits range from about 2 to 5 inches long. Their initial green color and short, stout banana shape as well as the custard-like interior give them their nickname. As the fruits ripen around September or October, their exterior becomes brown. Pawpaw leaves usually stand out amongst the other plants in their habitat. They are large, 6 to 12 inches long, with an oblong shape. As fall progresses, the leaves deep green color change to yellow.

Once collected, the pawpaw fruits are prepared by cutting them in half. This exposes the pulp and the large, brown seeds that are easily removed. The pulp can be eaten raw or used as a banana substitute in many dessert recipes, such as pawpaw ice cream.

Persimmons

Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are one of the most widely known wild edibles in the state. When they are ripe, persimmons have a sweet flavor that it is hard to beat but catching them at the right time is the key.

Often seen in hardwood forests, persimmon trees also can be found in fields and prairies. As with pawpaws, finding one tree often results in finding a grove of trees due to the sucker roots. The leaves of persimmon trees are dark green on top and lighter on the bottom with an oval shape on short stalks, but the most identifiable characteristic (other than the fruit) is the highly textured bark. Often compared to alligator hide, the height of the bark’s ridges and the depth of the valleys appear as if they were formed over thousands of years of movement by a fast-flowing stream.

Persimmon leaves can be collected and steeped in water, resulting in a taste similar to sassafras tea. The seeds of a persimmon can be removed, roasted, and ground to make caffeine-free persimmon coffee. The persimmon fruit, however, is the star of the show. Persimmon fruit is similar in shape to a plum, but smaller, and remains green throughout the summer. As fall progresses and temperatures cool, they transform into bright orange, but the color is not an indication of taste. The bitterness fades as the persimmon becomes wrinkled and squishy to the touch. If you think it is too soft, it’s probably just about right.

Persimmons can be eaten directly from the tree or saved for a variety of uses. Smash the fruit in a colander to remove seeds and skin. The resulting pulp can be used for baking. Persimmon bread is easily prepared by swapping banana for persimmon pulp in your favorite banana bread recipe.

Elderberries

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) bushes are common statewide and can be found along roadsides or streams, in open woods, or hidden in fencerows or thickets. They form colonies from root sprouts and can reach a height of 8 feet or more.

Elderberry bushes are most easily identified by the flowers or fruit. Each flower is radially symmetrical with five flattened, white petals with the flowers forming an umbrella-shaped cluster. The fruit ripens in later summer to a dark purple in drooping clusters. Elderberries are high in vitamin C but should not be consumed raw. The alkaloids in the berries can cause nausea until they are degraded through cooking. The berries are often used in pies, muffins, and jellies.

The elderberry flower clusters can also be eaten but should be cooked as well. As with many wild edibles, the flowers can be dried and then steeped with hot water to make a tea. The flower clusters also can be dipped in batter and deep fried for an elderberry fritter. The leaves, bark, and roots contain a bitter alkaloid and a glucoside that can produce a cyanic acid and should be avoided.

Watercress

If you venture near the cold water of a spring or a spring-fed stream, you will often see a short, bushy colony of small, bright-green leaves emerging from the surface. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a member of the mustard family and a common aquatic plant in southern and central Missouri. White flower clusters with four tiny petals bloom from April to October. The stems rarely grow over 10 inches high and contain three to nine small oval leaves.

To harvest watercress, simply pinch the stems off at the waterline. The plants also can be pulled up by the roots and trimmed later but leaving the roots in place ensures future harvests. The fresh greens can be added to salads or sandwiches for a peppery kick. Watercress, like most mustard plants, can also be prepared by sautéing with butter quickly until wilted.

Mushrooms

In addition to the ever-popular morel, Missouri is home to many other wild edible mushrooms. Dryad’s saddle, inky caps, and turkey tail are just a few of the uniquely named varieties that can be collected. Although deep-frying is a tasty way to enjoy many wild mushrooms, they also can be used in other recipes in place of cultivated mushrooms.

Unlike many mushrooms, Dryad’s saddle mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) don’t typically grow on the ground. You will find them from May–October attached to the sides of logs, stumps, and deciduous tree trunks growing singly or in overlapping clusters resembling shelves. The broad, fleshy, caps are tan and covered with darker scales. Their feathery appearance of the coloration gives them the nickname pheasant back mushrooms. The shell-shaped caps range from 2 to 12 inches with a short stalk and black base, and they emit an odor similar to watermelon rind. The larger Dryad’s saddle mushroom tends to become tough, so collecting smaller caps is recommended. Scrape the spores off the underside of the caps with a butter knife or spoon and trim the tender portions of the cap into thin strips. Sauté in butter for a delicious side dish. The cooked pieces also can be drained, patted dry, and refrigerated in a jar of homemade sugar syrup to create a treat that tastes like watermelon candy.

Inky cap mushrooms (Coprinellus micaceus), also known as mica cap, grow in clusters around woody debris or tree stumps from April to October throughout Missouri. The caps are bell or egg-shaped and transition from light to dark brown and then inky black as they age. When younger, the caps are covered with granules similar to mica that give them their common name. Although growing only 1–3 inches in height, the large clusters can provide an abundance of mushrooms. Inky caps should be cooked and eaten as soon as possible as they will liquify into “ink” during a short time after harvest, even with refrigeration. They can be prepared by sautéing in butter or sliced and used as a mushroom substitute for pizza toppings, in meatloaf, or any recipe calling for button, portabella, or other mushroom varieties.

Turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) grow year-round throughout the state on stumps and deciduous trees. Unlike the soft, thick caps of most mushrooms, turkey tail mushroom caps are thin and leathery in texture. The semicircular, 1-to-4-inch caps have stripes of colors from varying shades of black, gray, blue, green, rust, and white with the outside edge always being the lightest color. It is the color banding that gives the turkey tail mushrooms their name. The texture of turkey tail mushrooms usually limits their edibility to grinding the caps and using to prepare a tea or adding to soups.

Only eat mushrooms you know are safe. To be sure, consult A Guide to Missouri’s Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZYM.

Collecting wild edibles is a great way to spend the day in Missouri’s outdoors. Wild edibles typically have a short storage life, so collect only what you can consume and leave the rest for another day. Ensure that you have permission if collecting on private property. Opportunities also exist on public land but know the regulations. Collection of nuts, berries, fruits, edible greens, and mushrooms for personal consumption is allowed on most MDC areas. Restrictions apply to nature centers, conservation headquarters, and other areas, so it is always best to consult the specific area regulations before venturing out in search of any of the delicious and abundant wild edibles of Missouri.

Precautions

Collecting wild edibles is not something that should be done without caution. There are many look-alike poisonous plants and mushrooms that resemble edible varieties but can result in serious illness. If in doubt on the identification of any wild edible, do not eat it. Wild edibles that are considered safe for most can cause some people to have an adverse reaction. When consuming a positively identified wild edible for the first time, it is best to eat sparingly until you are certain that a reaction will not occur. If taking medications, a physician should be consulted about potential interactions. Wild edibles should only be collected from areas that are free from contamination and be cleaned thoroughly to reduce the risk of ingesting insects, debris, or unexpected contaminants. Those collected from or near water sources should be washed thoroughly.

Wild Baking: Elderberry Pie

Ingredients
  • 4 cups elderberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 6 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest
  • Refrigerated prepared double pie crust

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Heat elderberries, sugar, flour, and lemon juice in medium sauce pan, stirring occasionally. When mixture begins boiling, remove from heat while preparing the crust.

Place bottom crust in 9-inch pie pan. Pour elderberry mixture into crust. Place top crust over berries and seal the edges by pinching the two crusts together. Poke a few holes in top crust to allow venting.

Bake for 10 minutes and then reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake an additional 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown. If edges of crust are browning too quickly, cover them with aluminum foil. When pie is done, remove from oven and place on cooling rack.

Also in this issue

Blue Ash

The Mighty Ones II

A second celebration of Missouri’s champion trees.

boy with a fishing pole

Learning to Fish

Missouri is a great place to fish if you know where to start.

And More...

Related content in this issue Related content in this issue
This Issue's Staff:

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler