Spring Wild Foods

Yaupon Holly

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is an evergreen shrub native to the southeastern U.S. Yaupon holly produces small white flowers in the spring followed by red berries on female plants that remain through fall. Its small dark green ovate to elliptical leaves are scalloped and occur alternately on the stem. Ilex vomitoria may reach heights of up to 25 or 30 feet. The leaves contain more caffeine by weight than both coffee beans and green tea and it has the highest caffeine content of any plant native to North America.

Traditional Use: 

Yaupon holly tea has been used for ages by southeastern U.S. Indian tribes for both recreation and ceremony. Early white settlers knew the tea as "the black drink." Ceremonially, it was sometimes made as a strong brew which intensified the tea's emetic qualities inducing vomiting and purification, hence the Latin name vomitoria.

During the Civil War, southerners substituted yaupon holly tea for coffee and black tea.

Preparation and Storage: 

Leaves and stems of yaupon holly may be used fresh, dried or roasted and stored like any dried herbal tea. They were traditionally parched to a dark brown over a fire. The leaves may also be parched in the oven or on the stove top at 350-400 degrees F. It may then be stored in jars and can be brewed by itself or in combination with stems and/or fresh leaves. A simple tea is brewed by steeping just a few leaves in a cup of hot water for a few minutes and then straining out the leaves. Parching the leaves imparts a smoky flavor similar to yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis). Again, it's important to positively identify the plant as Ilex vomitoria.

Habitat and Harvest: 

Yaupon holly prefers maritime forests, salt marshes and woods and swamps of the coastal plain at elevations below 500 feet. Although its original range is limited to these areas, it now occurs in areas as far inland the mountains of North Carolina, as it was traded and cultivated by Native American tribes.

Spotting yaupon holly is easiest in the fall when clusters of red berries cover the female plants. To harvest leaves, grasp the stem near the trunk and slide the hand outward to strip off the leaves.


Plantain, (genus Plantago), is a common weed that originated in Europe but has naturalized throughout the U.S. Common plantain (Plantago major) has rounded leaves, while English plantain, or Narrowleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) has elongated lance-shaped leaves. Plantain has a vast history of medicinal use and has long been considered an important herb. Emerging in early spring, it may be harvested and used until freezing weather kills it.

Common plantain

Common plantain, Plantago major

Traditional Use: 

Plantain was used traditionally both externally and internally. Used as a "spit poultice" (chewed thouroughly) it's used to treat snake bites, insect bites, cuts and rashes. Naturally antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, plantain makes an excellent component in healing salve.

Plantain has historically been used internally to treat a number of conditions:

  • kidney disease
  • kidney stones
  • gall stones
  • urinary tract infections
  • influenza
  • bronchitis
  • jaundice
  • ulcers
  • liver disorders
Preparation and Storage: 

Plantain leaves and seed heads may be dried for tea or used fresh. To make tea, shred leaves and pour boiling water over. Tea may be frozen for later use. Young plantain leaves may also be eaten in salads before they get big and tough.

Habitat and Harvest: 

Plantain occurs in yards and fields throughout the United States. To harvest, simply cut leaves and seed heads or dig roots.

Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of our most nutritious wild food plants.  Originally from Europe, stinging nettle has naturalized throughout most of the United States.  The stinging hairs that cover its leaves and stems impart a painful sting and rash that can last hours or days.  Stinging nettle grows 2 to 4 feet tall and has opposite, toothed leaves that can be several inches long.  There are several kinds of nettle including wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), which is native to the U.S. and has fewer stinging hairs.  All nettles are edible.

Stinging nettle in bloom. Nettle shouldn't be consumed while flowering. Photo by J Brew

Preparation and Storage: 

Nettle can be used fresh, dried or steamed and frozen.  Dried nettle makes great tea.  If eating fresh or storing to eat later, make sure not to over-cook.  Lightly steaming is the best way to prepare for eating.

Habitat and Harvest: 

Stinging nettle likes nitrogen, moisture and sun.  It thrives along streams and rivers and on old farms. In the U.S. it's considered invasive.  Make sure to wear gloves and long sleeves to harvest to avoid being stung.  Cooking neutralizes the stinging effect.

If you don't have access to stinging nettles, you can order it dried in bulk from Mountain Rose Herbs.


Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a water plant that can be found throughout the United States, southern Canada, Europe and Asia.


Watercress should only be collected from clean water sources.

Preparation and Storage: 

Watercress is best used fresh but can be kept indefinitely in water if the water is changed daily.  Watercress is good raw in salads or as a cooked green.  It can be used any way cultivated mustard is used.  It pairs well with the following:

  • apples
  • beets
  • chicory
  • eggs
  • endive
  • mustard
  • oranges
  • oregano
  • parsley
  • thyme
  • vinaigrette
  • walnuts
Habitat and Harvest: 

Although watercress typically occurs all year, the cold of winter usually beats it back to a point that makes it difficult to gather in quantity, and the heat of summer makes it hot and bitter.  Nasturtium leaves and flowers make a good substitute in the summer.  Watercress grows in water that is slightly alkaline.  Here in the Southern Appalachians our water and soil are acidic, so we only find watercress in areas downstream of spring boxes or other concrete structures that raise the pH of the water. 

The easiest way to harvest is to cut its stems at waterline with scissors.  It's also easy to gather by pulling clumps out by the roots if you don't mind cutting the roots off later. It's important, especially when eating watercress raw, to take it only from water that's been tested and is known to be clean.  Otherwise, harmful pathogens and toxins can be contracted when eating. 


Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), common elderberry or American elder, is a shrub that is commonly found throughout eastern North America. Its characteristic clusters of small, cream-colored flowers are often seen on the road-side in late spring and early summer. Elderberries have opposite, elongated, toothed leaflets that are three to four inches long.

Elderberry fruit clusters. Photo by dorena-wm.

Preparation and Storage: 

When preparing the fruit of elderberry, it's important to only use ripe berries as unripe berries are poisonous. Raw berries cause stomach distress in some people so it's best to cook them before eating which also improves flavor. After harvesting berry clusters, remove the berries from the poisonous stems and put into a bucket of water to help separate berries from debris. The water can then be poured off. The berries can be baked into pastries, cooked into a syrup or dried for later use. 

Use elder flowers fresh or dried in teas and infusions. 

Habitat and Harvest: 

Elderberry thrives in a variety of conditions. It can be found along streambanks, in moist woods, open fields and power line cuts. To harvest, simply cut off flower or berry clusters with scissors, keeping in mind that flowers develop into berries--harvesting flowers will detract from berry production. It's challenging to get berries before they're picked off by birds. When planning to harvest berries, it's a good idea to watch as they ripen and pick as soon as they're ready.

Wood Sorrel

Wood Sorrel (genus Oxalis), or sourgrass, is a medium sized edible plant that occurs throughout most of North America.  Within the genus Oxalis, there are several species.  Wood sorrel typically grows a maximum of 15 inches tall.  Its small heart-shaped, "folded" leaves grow in groups of 3.  Its tiny flowers are typically white or yellow though they can be pink or violet depending on species.  Oxalis means literally "sour" and is named as such due to its oxalic acid content.  Many domesticated vegetables, including spinach and broccoli, also conta

wood sorrel

Wood sorrel flowers can be white, yellow, pink or violet depending on species.

Preparation and Storage: 

Prepare wood sorrel by picking off the leaves, flowers and seed pods.  Some of the whispy leaf stems are delicate enough to use but tough stems should be discarded.  Wood sorrel should be used fresh.  In addition to making a great seasoning and salad ingredient, it's also good as a tea.  To make wood sorrel tea, pour boiling water over the leaves and flowers and let steep for half an hour or so.  Wood sorrel pairs well with:

  • wild game and other meats
  • fish
  • raw or cooked wild greens
Habitat and Harvest: 

Wood sorrel is a common lawn weed and can also be found in sunny spots in the woods.  To harvest, simply pull it up by its roots.  It can be harvested from mid-spring through fall.  Yellow wood sorrel blooms April through September.


Ramps (Allium tricoccum), or wild leeks, occur at higher elevations in Eastern North America from Georgia to Canada.  Their sharp flavor is characteristic of a combination of garlic and onion.  Ramps are easily recognized by their 1 or 2 broad leaves measuring 1 to 2 1/2 inches wide and 4 to 12 inches long.  Foraging ramps has long been a popular activity throughout their range.

Ramps grow in colonies consisting of numerous clumps of individual plants. Photo by Bev Currie

Preparation and Storage: 

Both the leaves and the bulbs of ramps can be eaten and both are delicious.  They are best used fresh, but can also be prepared for long term storage.  We've found the best way to store the bulbs is by freezing.  Simply cut off the greens, clean the dirt off the bulbs and cut off the roots.  Then spread the bulbs out on a sheet pan or waxed paper so they are not touching and freeze.  This prevents them from sticking together.  Once they are frozen put them in jars or plastic containers, seal tightly and return to freezer.  They may alternatively be stored wrapped individually in wax paper and stored frozen in sealed jars or pickled or pressure canned.

The greens don't last long fresh and deteriorate when frozen.  Although they can be dried, they lose much of their flavor.  We've found the best way to preserve them is by making ramp compound butter and a close second is ramp pesto.  Either may be stored in the refrigerator in the short term or frozen for use later.

For short term storage put ramps in the refrigerator as soon as possible.  They should be stored uncleaned.  If a refrigerator is not immediately available ramps can be kept with the bulbs submerged in a bucket of water and placed in a cool shaded area.  The leaves will begin to wilt in the refrigerator after 4 days or so and in the bucket after a day or so depending on temperature.

Ramp bulbs and leaves may be diced and used just as you would use onions, green onions, leeks, chives and garlic, but they are much more potent.  They pair well with the following:

  • pasta
  • eggs
  • chanterelles and other wild mushrooms
  • potatoes
  • stir fried and raw greens
  • pork
Habitat and Harvest: 

Ramps are normally found at around 3000 ft. or higher in the Southern Appalachian region but occur at lower elevations in colder climates.  They like rich, moist, loose soil high in organic matter and low in pH, which makes mountain hardwood forests perfect.  Ramps grow in small sparsley populated patches up to densley populated areas of several acres.  They are usually ready to harvest by mid March through April depending on the region and only last a month or so before wilting and disappearing.  It is extremely important to think conservationally when considering ramp harvest.  In many areas where ramps were once abundant they are now rare and populations continue to be decimated by over-harvest for ramp festivals, fundraisers, farmers market sales and by individuals who gather as much as they can for their own use.  Please be gentle and judicious.

The most sustainable way to harvest ramps is by using a knife to gently move the soil from one side of the bulb.  Then, taking care not to dislodge the bulb and roots, cut the base off of the bulb leaving it with the roots in the ground. This will ensure new ramps will grow the following season.

Subscribe to RSS - Spring Wild Foods