It is fun to learn about the plants that grow in your area. And as you would expect, plant cultures vary widely from ecosystem to ecosystem. However, you may be as surprised as we were to find that there are a handful of common edible and medicinal plants that grow just about everywhere! We discovered this while learning to forage in NW Florida, far from our native home in Washington State.
Upon first glance, Florida seems to be the polar opposite of Washington State. While we can go for a walk in Washington and tell you the names of just about every plant along our path, not so down here on the Gulf Coast. Most of the plants here are strangers to us although we are gradually getting to know each other. We are not entirely in the company of strangers though, we are finding ourselves running into a few old friends.
So whether you are wanting to add a little wild interest to your salad bowl or teapot, or if you are more interested in learning a few survival plants that you can rely on if the need ever arises, here are five of the most common edible and medicinal plants that will most likely have no trouble finding.
NOTE: When learning to gather wild plants, especially for food and medicine, a good identification guide in indispensable. I am including photos and some of the identifying factors of each of the plants I talk about here. But it is up to you to make sure that you know what you are harvesting. You can find links to some of our favorite plant reference guides in our shop.
Here are two guides we found helpful during our time in the Eastern US…
Common Edible and Medicinal Plants that Grow Just About Everywhere…
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
We all know dandelion, or at least think we know it. There are many yellow flowering plants that are commonly mistaken as dandelion. But once you learn to positively identify Taraxacum officinale you will easily be able to tell the difference.
Dandelions grow from a basal rosette with all the leaves radiating out from a center point. The ‘teeth’ on the leaves (which is where the dandelion gets its name as ‘tooth of the lion’) always point backward toward the center of the plant. The yellow flowers are found at the end of single unbranched stems. There are sometimes multiple flowering stems per basal rosette, but those stems will never be branched. If you break open the flowering stem you will find that it is hollow and the stem will ooze a white milky sap.
Other than the stem, the entire dandelion is both edible and medicinal. Flower, leaves, and root. Use young luscious leaves mixed in with other salad greens or as a pot herb. The flowers can be eaten by themselves, added to a salad, or made into dandelion wine. The root can be harvested for use in a detoxifying tea or roasted, ground, and used as a coffee alternative.
When harvesting dandelion leaves (much like when I harvest garden lettuce), I make a habit of taste testing the leaves to sample the bitterness. Young leaves of growing dandelions that get plenty of water and are not stressed will be less bitter than older leaves of stressed plants. Use the young leaves in salads, use the bitter leaves more as a potherb to add nutrients to a healthy broth.
Dandelion is a highly nutritious plant that has a strong tradition of being supportive for the kidneys, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas as well as increasing general health and vitality.
Plantain (Plantago spp.)
Broadleaf or common plantain (Plantago major) and narrow-leaf or lanceleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) are plants we typically find in driveways and along paths. Plantain pops up in my garden paths but rather than pulling them I let them grow to be harvested. Plantain is another ‘weed’ that happens to also be both edible and medicinal and has a very wide range.
Plantain, like dandelion, grows in the form of a basal rosette. Seed heads form on tall stalks (very tall stalks in the narrow leaf plantain variety) coming from the center of the plant. Veins of the leaf have a distinct pattern, running the entire length of the leaf, from the base all the way to the tip.
Eat young leaves raw in salads, cooked as a vegetable, or used in herbal tea blends. Seeds can be collected and added to smoothies for additional fiber. Leaves contain sulfur, potassium, calcium, cobalt, copper, iron, silicon, and vitamins A, C, and B2.
Medicinally, leaves can be bruised and applied to minor sores, scrapes, bruises, spider and insect bites. Plantain is mildly antibiotic, antioxidant, and aids in healing. Tea leaves can be helpful for colds and coughs. Seeds are used as a mild laxative.
Blackberry, Raspberry Family (Rubus spp.)
Blackberries, raspberries, and dewberries are members of the larger rose family under the genus Rubus. Of course, you know the fruits and that they are edible. Additionally, the leaves, roots, and young shoots are useful as well! If you make a habit of reading the ingredients list of store-bought herbal teas you will find that blackberry and raspberry leaves are a common ingredient.
There are many species of Rubus, but the most familiar to us will be the blackberries, raspberries, and dewberries. These are prickly to thorny plants with 3-7 leaflets. Five-petaled flowers mature into colorful fruits as the season progresses. Some varieties are upright, some trail along the ground. Use your field guide to identify the particular species you are harvesting.
The strongly antioxidant, superfood fruits can be made into jams, jellies, salad dressings, used in smoothies, pies, and other desserts, or simply eaten as a snack or as a salad topper.
Harvest leaves when young and hang as bundles to dry and use in herbal tea blends. The leaves are astringent, have a history of use as a female tonic and blood tonic and, in addition to many other uses such as reducing the formation of kidney stones, they are also used to treat diarrhea. This is a great herb to incorporate into your herbal tea blends for general health.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
This is a ‘weed’ that pops up in many gardens uninvited. Once I recognized that it is in fact useful, I quit pulling it and actually let a patch grow. I welcome it because it is usually one of the first plants to green up in the spring after a long cold winter.
Chickweed has tiny white double-petaled flowers and usually grows in spreading clumps.
When chickweed is young and actively growing, I snip the tender young tips, 1-3 inches, to add to salads. Beyond that, the stems can tend to be a little stringy. Harvest handfuls, stringy stems and all, to be added fresh or dried to broths or made into tea.
Fun fact, chickweed is incredibly nutritious and gets its name because mother hens will seek the plant out and call her chicks to come and eat it.
Medicinally, chickweed is a common ingredient in salves and ointments used for minor burns, and itchy, dry skin. It is safe and gentle. It softens and soothes irritated skin and tissue. It is a topical anti-inflammatory and mild pain reliever. The juice has been used to sooth painful urination.
Did you know that the needles of just about every conifer in North America – Douglas Fir, Grand Fir, Spruce, Western Red Cedar, various Pines, and yes, even Hemlock – are useful for medicine and food? That is, other than the Pacific Yew, which although the bark has been proven effective in the treatment of certain cancers, is considered toxic and should not be consumed.
Conifer needles of various species make a refreshing addition to herbal teas. Dried and ground, they make a citrusy spice that is great on meats. I particularly like them used in a dry rub for grilled meat. And tinctured Grand Fir, with its notes of grapefruit, makes an amazing addition to a gin and tonic especially around the holidays!
Most conifer needles are medicinally valuable for their diuretic and expectorant qualities. Cedar also provides strong anti-fungal and antibacterial properties, as well as being immunostimulant providing your immune system boost that is especially welcomed during the winter months.
NOTE: Conifer needles are not intended for consumption over a long period. Enjoy here and there but not continuously. They should also be avoided by those with weak kidneys or women who may be pregnant.
These are just a handful of common edible and medicinal plants with a broad range. They grow just about everywhere in North America. We are always working to learn more about the plants in our region. And it is fun to run into some familiar ones when we find ourselves in other parts of the country.
Do these plants grow where you live? Have you tried any of them? Do you plan on trying them after reading this article? I hope so! Let us know what you think! We would love to hear about your experience.
Foster, S., Duke, J. A., & Foster, S. (2014). Peterson field guide to medicinal plants and herbs of eastern and central North America. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J., & Alaback, P. B. (2004). Plants of the Pacific Northwest coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Vancouver: Lone Pine Pub.
Moore, M. (2011). Medicinal plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.
Petersen, D. (2016). HERB 101 Basics of Herbalism. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Peterson, L. A., & Peterson, R. T. (1999). A field guide to edible wild plants: Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Plantain Uses, Benefits & Side Effects – Drugs.com Herbal Database. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2020, from https://www.drugs.com/npc/plantain.html
Tilford, G. L. (1997). Edible and medicinal plants of the West. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publ. Co.