Edible Wild Plants


While working with my grandsons on a Boy Scout survival project, I came across an interesting book by the Department of the Army, ”The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants”.

It got me  thinking about how our frontier travelers used some of vegetables, plants for spices, and medicinal purposes.  This book answered many of my questions.

It’s most important that I preface this blog with a warning directly from the book:

Very important, please read this before you continue with the blog.

Warning:  The critical factor in using plants for food is to avoid accidental poisoning.  Eat only those plants you can positively identify, and you know are safe.

Plants are valuable sources of food because they are widely available, easily procured; and, in the proper combinations, can meet all your nutritional needs.  Absolutely identify plants before using them as food.  Poison hemlock has killed people who mistook it for its relatives, wild carrots and wild parsnips.

Chicory: I think one of the most popular plants used throughout history is Chicory.  The base leaves resemble those of the dandelion.  The flowers are sky blue and stay open only on sunny days.  Chicory has a milky juice.  It can be found in old fields, along roads and weedy lots.  All parts are edible.  Eat the young leaves as salad or boil to eat as a vegetable. Cook the roots as a vegetable. I wasn’t aware that the plant are edible and had so many usages, but of course, coming from the South, Chicory used as a coffee substitute is well known.  Roast the roots until they are dark brown and then pulverize them.  I just image the frontiersman kept a look out for this plant.

Dandelion:  Believe it or not all parts are edible. I’m not gonna describe this plant, as we all have to deal with it during the spring and summer. The roots are high in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium.  Like Chicory, you can roast and ground the roots for a good coffee substitute.  Another use is the white juice in the flower stems can be used as glue.

Sassafras:  Everybody has heard of Sassafras tea in historical stories.  This shrub bears different leaves on the same plant. The spring flowers are yellow and small, while the fruit is dark blue. The plant parts have a characteristic root beer smell.  The young twigs and leaves are edible fresh or dried.  Small dried young twigs and leaves can be used in soups.  Now for the tea…dig the underground portion, peel off the bark, and let it dry.  Then boil in water for tea.  Of interest, shred the tinder twigs for use as a toothbrush.  Now we know how the frontiersman cleaned their teeth!


Here’s a couple of popular, yet dangerous, common flower garden plants.    

Trumpet Vine or Trumpet Creeper:  The last two very dangerous plants I want to tell you about are ones that almost everybody have around them.  The first is the Trumpet Vine, which climb all over fences and are intentionally planted. The trumpet-shaped flowers are orange to scarlet and climb to 15 meters high and spreads like a wild weed It has pea like fruit capsules.  The caution on this plant is that it causes contact dermatitis, so be very careful working around this plant.  If pruning, I’d make sure I had long sleeves and gloves on.  And, I’d suggest you be very careful touching your face and be sure to wash your hands very good.

Lantana Plant The second is a very popular plant.  The Lantana is a shrub like plant that may grow up to 45 centimeters high.  The color varies from white, yellow, orange, pink or red.  It has a dark blue or black, berry like fruit.  A distinctive feature is its strong scent.  The caution on this particular plant, again very popular, is that it is poisonous if eaten and an be fatal.  It also causes dermatitis in some individuals, so if you’re working with this plant, I’d follow my suggests for the trumpet plant.

Again, I’m going to warn our readers that all or part of many wild plants, once used, can be very dangerous.  Always, always be very careful about eating or cooking any wild plant unless you know for certain it’s safe.  Cautious is best!  When in doubt, don’t eat!

Now my question to you, really two of them:  Do you think the frontiersman used the edible part of wild plants?  The second, do you think people died coming west due to consuming or coming into contact with dangerous wild plants?


To one lucky winner who leaves a comment, I am giving away an eBook of my newest western contemporary romance “Out of a Texas Night”.    



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A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

Visit her at phylissmiranda.com

33 thoughts on “Edible Wild Plants”

  1. I love a good sassafras drink once in a while.

    I think they ate plants for food and used them for medicine and tinctures.

    My guess is they died more from conditions and malnutrition or lack of food than from eating the wrong plant. In their time, most people had an idea of which plants were safe and which were not.

    • Hi Denise. I’m not sure if I’ve ever drink sassafras tea, but I’ve always heard how good it is. I agree with your observations. Likely most died from the conditions than anything. I’ve read some of the later comments, and most agree that the people coming out west know what plants to eat and which were not safe. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

  2. Being hungry I am sure plants were tried. Word would get around what to avoid but not before some died. Medicinal uses were spread with the Indians who knew their plants and nature. Word got out to the travelers who befriended them.
    Thank you for a great piece on plants.

    • Hi Jerri, good to hear from you. I like your comments and no doubt word spread with the Native Indians about what plants were safe to use and which ones weren’t. I’m glad you like my post.

  3. I do think that settlers used wild plants in their foods. They learned from Natives, but mistakes were probably made and people died. There were also plenty of intestinal problems for the same reason.

    • Hi Debra. Great comment. Like you, I have little doubt the settlers were familiar with the plants; and, also agree that some probably made serious mistakes and died consequently. I bet with the unfamiliar foods added to stress there were intestinal problems. Thanks for leaving a comment.

  4. I imagine some people did consume the plants on their trips westward and I imagine there were some who did get pretty sick and maybe even die. I knew dandelion leaves were edible because I had them in salad before. I had heard of chicory, but didn’t know it was a flower. I learned a lot on your post today.

    • Hi Janine, thanks for dropping by. I knew about dandelions but for the life of me I don’t think I could eat them in a salad when I have to fight them like cats and dogs to get them out of our lawn. However, a field of dandelions are absolutely beautiful. My granny was from Louisiana and chicory for coffee is very popular down there, but like you, I didn’t know it was a flower. Glad you learned from my blog. Take care.

  5. Phylliss, I’m sure they did. They had to survive. If they were lucky, they had someone on the wagon train who knew herbs and could steer them away from the poisonous ones. Pioneers used everything they could to survive, didn’t they?
    Kathy Bailey

    • Hi Kathy, good to see you here. I totally agree with you. The pioneers had to survive and I’m sure the organizers/leaders of the wagon trains knew what to steer clear of. And, yes, the pioneers used everything they could to survive. Have a great day.

  6. I believe that the settlers relied heavily on plants for both food and medicinal purposes. And even though there could have been accidental poisonings, I imagine that more deaths were due to the hardships they faced in their journeys. Thanks for a very interesting post.

    • Hi Connie. I think your comment is right on spot. Hardships and accidents, I’d imagine, caused more injuries and deaths than eating the wrong plants. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Take care.

  7. Phyllis, Thank you for this informative post! The Lord placed healing properties in the Earth for us.

    • Hi Caryl, glad to hear from you. You are so right about the Good Lord placing healing properties in the Earth for us. Thanks for your comments. Take care, and I’m glad you found my blog informative.

  8. I do believe they used a lot of plant to eat and for different things and yes I think a few got a few of bad ones and died from them. They had to use what they had to survive. Their are people today that still use plants but you have to know what to look for. I would be afraid to use plant today because of so many pesticides that are used today.

    • Hi Quilt Lady. Good to hear from you. You made an excellent point about the plants of today. One never knows what’s been sprayed in the fields, so I’d be very careful about what I eat too. As most others have said, the frontiersman really had to do what they could to survive, but they probably knew the difference in many of the plants they used. Thanks for dropping by.

  9. Hi Phyliss, great blog post. I’m ALWAYS trying to figure out local flora and fauna for setting purposes and I’m always trying to figure out what people a long long way from a store might eat. Especially pioneers who might have no money.
    I found something … not in a research book but in Louis L’Amour book called Indian Potatoes. I couldn’t track down anywhere what exactly that was…and that sort of set off this firestorm of creativity in me and now I still do the research but I also feel free to sort of make up plants, call them by ‘local’ names. Stuff like that.

    • Hi sister Filly. Research is in your heart! The thoughts about what pioneer people ate along the trail is what made me do the blog. There’s no way they could have brought everything they needed for such a laborious trip. In the book I referenced is the Indian potato or Eskimo potato. It reads that it’s a Western species found throughout most of the northern US and Canada. Also says to boil the tubers, as they are edible. Interesting. Hope this answers your question, if you hadn’t already researched the Indian potato. Have a great day.

  10. I agree with much of what has already been said. I think pioneers learned a lot from Indians, but I’d bet in earlier times folks had a better idea of the natural world than we do–other than to cut things downs as weeds with lawnmowers. I’m sure pioneers on the trail had to eat natural foods since there weren’t supply forts everywhere on the frontier, never mind vegetable gardens. Some wild plants they probably ate include clover, plantain, cattail, chickweed, purslane, wood sorrel and wild onions, among other things. Yes, some people may have died from eating the wrong thing but I think I read more pioneers died from cholera from drinking unsafe water (from previous people on the trails) than ever died from wild plants, or Indian attacks for that matter.

    • Hi Eliza, you did some research of your own because many of the wild plants you listed were also in the book I used as reference. You know it, girlfriend! You’re right with the other readers who left comments. Take care of yourself and so glad to hear from you. Have a great day.

  11. Hi Phyliss, love the blog. Only one thing wrong…I’m not dead yet. I have a ton of Lantana at my house and I’ve always pruned and cut back with my bare hands. The same with trumpet vine. It’s certainly never affected me. Yes, the pioneers definitely knew what to eat and what plant or root or bark helped which ailment. They had to because their lives were at stake. And yes, some might’ve died coming West by eating poisonous plants. What was common knowledge back East where they came from might not’ve prepared them for the pants in the West. In my book The Heart of a Texas Ranger, while on the cattle drive the baby ate jimsonweed leaves and almost died.

    Love and hugs, dear friend!

    • Hi sister Filly, I enjoyed researching and writing the blog, as you know since I tossed it out to you a dozen times! You make some very positive points. I totally agree about the trumpet vine and Lantana because I think we’ve all worked with them. I have seeds from your Lantana that I’m waiting to plant and I didn’t have any allergic reaction to getting the seeds out of the plants. And, you know how sensitive my skin is. I’m wondering if the difference might be how plants we buy are propagated vs. the wild ones found out in the fields and wilderness. Man, do I now about jimsonweed. My daughter had some volunteer plants in her front yard in San Antonio. I think I even wrote a blog about it years ago. It’s an interesting and beautiful plant, but can kill cattle in a heartbeat. Thanks for dropping by and I hope you have a wonderful rest of the day, my dear friend.

  12. Yes, I’m sure they used the wild plants for many purposes, and probably some did die that were new to the area. My only experience is with Lantana. It is in a lot of combination plants I put out on my porch in the Spring. If I touch it when watering them, it makes me itch.

    • Hi Linda, thanks for dropping by and leaving a message. As I recall the Lantana causes dermatitis, so unfortunately, you might well fit that bill. It’s a beautiful plant, but sure is a wild child. I’m fairly sure that some of the pioneers did have reaction to plants along their trip west, but you know, today lots of us have allergies to food that is accepted well by others. I ate a pizza last week and apparently they the peppers were not cooked enough because I’ve been nursing a sore mouth and lip ever since. Makes sense that allergies and sensitivities could be the cause of many illnesses. Have a great day.

  13. I too think many Pioneers coming from the East didn’t know much about the nature of what plants they could & couldn’t eat. I think many got sick and even died. This was a really interesting post. Thank you.

    • Hi Carol. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. I think you’re right about the pioneers simply not knowing about some wild plants, while others learned along the way. Thanks for dropping by and have a fantastic day!

  14. Yes to both questions. I think the wild plants were used and I think there were many instances of people dying by not knowing what they were dealing with. And there are probably too many people still like me, who can’t really recognize these plants. Have to be careful!

    • Hi Sally. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I agree with you about instances of Pioneers dying along the way. I’m totally like you about not knowing what I can and can’t eat that is wild; especially, since I have food allergies. Being careful is very important. I hope I never have to resort to survival because I’d literally starve to death or die eating the wrong things. Hope you have a great rest of the day!

  15. Great post. When I get flowers for the house, I try to buy only those flowers that could be eaten — not that we do, but just for safety. Violets are edible and the one I love best for around the house are petunia’s.

    • I fellow Filly! I think you’re right about buying plants around the house that are edible. I have two cats and they are always taking a bite out of something green, so that’s good advice. I love violets and petunias also! I hope you have a great even, my friend.

  16. Even though I majored in English for my career, history is my other passion. I started reading about pioneers since grade school, and then later in life some of the more technical aspects, particularly of the Oregon Trail. When my son was young, we took a car trip out west following the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and then on the way home followed the Oregon Trail in reverse. A trip of a lifetime. My birthday was even on the day we found Sacajawea’s grave.

    Before I was married I rented an on-site apartment from a botanist from who I learned much, and now on my own property which used to be a farm, I let the fields go back to nature, and it was interesting to see what plant species came in at each progression. After 30 years now, it’s back to tall, tall trees–a wonder to watch nature’s work. You know what came first? Poison ivy, of course, because the birds east the berries in the fall and kindly return, uh, “seed deposits.” haha

    Anyway, I was delighted to see your post on subjects I very much enjoy. Thank you so much! 🙂

  17. Phyliss, fascinating blog. I wondered that you didn’t include oleander! It’s not edible, though, that’s true, but it is dangerous. I loved your warning sign, too. You never know what people might try. I’m a fan of this kind of stuff, learning what the Native Americans or our settler forefathers used or ate.
    Please, don’t enter me in your contest, as I’m another author.

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