The wilderness can be a strange and forbidding place. However, with a little knowledge, even the deep woods of the eastern United States can be a place where one can feel entirely at home. In fact, armed with some plant smarts, you can turn the forest into a full-feature buffet banquet. Learning about edible plants is usually considered within the realm of the survivalist, yet it has a number of other exciting uses. Knowing how to identify wild and edible plants can give you a better sense of your natural surroundings or spruce up your dinner with local organics.
Part of knowing your edible and wild plants is knowledge of what not to eat. Hemlock, a ragweed like plant that grows up to 10 feet in height, is deadly poisonous, no matter which part of the plant you eat. Unfortunately, wild hemlock resembles the cow parsnip, which is edible and quite tasty in soups. This danger highlights the importance of being sure of your identification before eating anything in the wild. The hemlock has broad, fernlike clusters of very small leaves. Flowers bloom at the top in white, flat bunches. Look for purple spots along the stem, one of the telltale markers of this dangerous plant.
One of the hiker's least favorite plants, stinging nettles, release a skin irritant upon contact. However, this prickly plant, with its tall height and narrow, pointed leaves, is quite edible. Simply boil for 10 minutes to eliminate the toxin. The leaves can be used in soups or dried for nettle tea.
Another common sight along eastern hiking trails, the mustard plant can grow up to 4 feet tall and is identifiable by its numerous yellow flowers, which are arranged in clusters atop broad, dark green leaves. These leaves are edible either raw or cooked and are an excellent source of vitamins. Furthermore, mustard seeds can be ground into a powder, then mixed with water to create mustard.
A popular find for nature foodies, the ostrich fern can be found along riverbanks and in damper, shadowy areas. Easily identifiable by their coiled brown fiddleheads, the ostrich fern looks like a curled up octopus tentacle at the top. Collect these bunched tops, scrape the rough patches, then fry or steam. They go extremely well with butter or wild onions.