Native Plants of the PNW

person holding foraged mushroom

A simple walk in the woods becomes increasingly more fascinating when you begin to learn about the flora and fauna around you. Here, in the temperate rainforests of the PNW, there is an abundance of edible and otherwise useful plants with many health benefits not found in the grocery store just awaiting your attention. Any hike can morph into a foraging expedition, a tantalizing opportunity to explore wild new foods, and is perhaps just what you needed to get yourself outside, capitalizing on all that nature has to offer. 

We know that essential oils derived from plants can have positively potent effects on our overall health and well-being when used topically or inhaled, but what we put into our body matters just as much, if not more! However, it can be intimidating to walk off the streets and into the woods on a food-finding mission. Unlike the grocery store, things are not washed, packaged, and neatly labeled for use or consumption. This guide can lower the barrier between the desire to find food, and the real-life ability to do so. 

And, the benefits of foraging for food permeate both physical and mental health! Study after study has shown that all it takes is two hours a week outside to improve our health significantly. From stress levels to self-esteem, immune strength, and cardiovascular fitness, the benefits of prolonged time in nature cut across every age group and demographic. At the end of the day, the practice of identifying, harvesting, and preparing wild-harvested food can bring health benefits and emotional rewards that are hard to find any other way. 

From Survival Instinct to Leisure Activity

Humans are natural-born foragers, and we’ve been doing it… well, forever. In fact, foraging has been our main way of feeding ourselves for about 95% of our time on Earth. Specifically, we’ve been foraging from approximately 200,000 years ago, until about 11,000 years ago, when the rise of agriculture dramatically changed human lifestyles and birthed modern civilization as we know it, all but eliminating our need to venture out and find food for ourselves.

So what is foraging? Simply put, it is the act of relying on food that is naturally occurring and grown in the wild, whether plant, animal, insect, or anything else that can be gathered and is edible. It can be used interchangeably with “hunting and gathering,” although today it is used more specifically to describe the gathering of edible wild plants and fungi. Historically, climate, environment, and culture all created unique foraging practices for any group of people, but some generalities apply. 

The human ability to survive from foraging requires a deep and extensive knowledge of local flora, fauna, and environmental conditions. It requires large amounts of land to roam, particularly in harsh and arid environments, and oftentimes requires seasonal migration patterns based on plant life cycles and availability. The domestication of plants in about 10,000 BCE led to the rise of agriculture, early civilizations, and gathering in the form of the “harvest,” but that doesn’t mean foraging skills have become completely irrelevant.  

Local Foraging: Then & Now

The Pacific Northwest is no exception to this historical legacy, although it was commonly believed, until recently, that Native American tribes remained gathering societies long after Western civilization had embraced agriculture. While not totally inaccurate (many PNW first nations still rely on foraging as a primary means of supporting their families and livelihood)—anthropologists are beginning to acknowledge that the reality was much more sophisticated and nuanced. Evidence suggests that Native Americans were bearers of extensive knowledge of the local flora and fauna, and used this knowledge to manipulate the landscape around them. 

The camas lily (yes, the same namesake of AWB former headquarters), was an important crop to the Chinookan-speaking people of the area, and soil studies of camas plots suggest that native peoples understood the benefits of common agricultural practices like transplanting, weeding, and aerating the soil. Further, it is also one of many plants that benefited from the practice of controlled fires and spot burning. Although discouraged by white settlers, and out of vogue for centuries, forest managers now acknowledge the benefits of controlled burns in preventing the wildfires and disease outbreaks that are increasingly common today. 

Sadly, much of the indigenous knowledge of the local ecology has been lost to mainstream ideals, or disregarded altogether, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still value in learning what we can about the biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest. Modern foraging holds not only the ability to diversify the nutritional profile of any diet, it is also a wonderful survival skill to cultivate. Hiking accidents do happen, and the ability to properly identify local edible plants can be the difference between a happy ending or a tragic one. It’s also a hobby that is bound to make any outdoor adventure both educational and exciting.

Where to Forage

The first step to successful foraging is understanding when and where it is allowed. Rules vary widely depending on the jurisdiction, plant species, whether the food will be used commercially or personally, and how much will be taken. For example, in some cases, it may be okay to take a gallon of berries, but more than that will require a permit, and any leaves, stems, or other parts of the bush are prohibited completely. While this requires some upfront research before starting your adventures in foraging, these rules are ultimately in place to protect biodiversity and should be honored. For a quick index of foraging rules on public lands in the Pacific Northwest, click here. In situations where the information is not available online, a quick call to the appropriate land management office will usually provide an answer.

Another option is to forage on private property, the easiest being your own front or back yard! In the spring, chances are there are wild dandelions and other edible weeds growing nearby. For any property that is not your own, always make sure to ask permission first before gathering, and regardless of who the property owner is, you’ll want to confirm herbicides and pesticides that may be harmful to ingest have not been used in the area. That said, urban foraging can present a wonderful opportunity to get to know the neighborhood and maybe meet some like-minded members of the community. Finally, if you want to take a peek at the delicious foods that might be hiding in plain sight nearby, check out this urban edible food map and get started!

Edible Plants

There is a big wide world of edible wild plants out there, and for the untrained eye, it can be overwhelming deciding where to start. Many plants have dangerous doppelgangers that can cause serious illness if ingested, so it’s best to avoid these duplicitous plants entirely until you have enough confidence and experience to identify them correctly. Below are five beginner-friendly species that are both easy to find and do not have dangerous look-alikes, so they may be enjoyed safely and happily:

  • Stinging Nettle | March – May: High in calcium, iron, protein, and amino acids, and bioactive compounds that have been linked to cancer prevention, stinging nettle is more common than many realize. Known for the tiny hairs that cause a stinging sensation, but once boiled the leaves, shoots, and roots are all edible. Make sure to wear gloves while harvesting and avoid altogether if pregnant
  • Seaweed | March – June: Most seaweed on the Oregon coast is edible, but the flavor and ease of access will vary from plant to plant. Purple laver, or nori, is high in vitamin C, iron, and B12. It can be eaten raw or dried, and grows on rocks along the shoreline. Live seaweed can only be harvested in Oregon from March to June, but dead seaweed is fair game year-round. With that in mind, don’t eat anything that has washed up on shore, as it may be rotting. This is an excellent source of nutrition for any vegetarians in your household.
  • Dandelions | March – October: Probably already growing in your yard, this weed contains more potassium, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and K than kale. All parts of the plant are edible, including roots, and specimens that grow in the shade will be the most tender. New studies show that leafy greens may be good for people taking blood thinners. 
  • Mustard | June – August: This invasive species is high in vitamins A, C, and K, and its bright yellow flowers can be found almost everywhere during the spring and summer months. The greens and flowering tops are edible, as is the seedpod, known for its peppery flavor. New studies show that leafy greens may be good for people taking blood thinners. 
  • Wild Roses | September – November: High in Vitamin C, wild rose hips are best after the first frost, although the petals and unopened buds are edible too. To prepare the hips, cut them in half lengthwise, and remove seeds. It is a great plant for making tea, jelly, and syrups.

Edible Mushrooms

A mycologist is somebody who studies fungi, and a fun term for mushroom-picking enthusiasts. There’s a reason chefs drool at the chance to use wild mushrooms, and that’s because they add umami flavor and enhance the complexity of almost any dish. Beware though—mushrooms can be particularly dangerous if they are misidentified. The five varieties below are suitable for novices because they are easy to differentiate, or have no poisonous look-alikes, but when in doubt, skip it, and always do your own companion research. We love, All That the Rain Promises and More, as a great pocket identification book you can take on the go.

  • Oyster Mushroom | March – June: These mushrooms are loved for their delicate texture and mild, savory flavor, and grow naturally on and near trees in temperate forests around the world. The caps can have frilly edges and usually grow in large, overlapping clusters. 
  • Lobster Mushroom | July – October: Named after its lobster-like appearance, this fungus is not actually a mushroom, but is a parasite that grows on lactarius and russula mushrooms. The fungi, commonly found under hemlock trees, are enveloped completely and turn a bright red-orange color. They are known for a highly variable, seafood-like flavor.
  • Chicken of the Woods | August – September: Also known as sulphur shelf mushrooms, this fungus is named after its distinctive chicken-like flavor, and can be prepared similarly to actual chicken. It is characterized by yellow and orange “brackets,” commonly found in the wounds of oak and conifer trees.
  • Bear’s Head Tooth | October – November: Best picked young, this mushroom is tender and meaty with a mild nutty taste, often compared to lobster or crab if cooked properly. It grows in clusters that look like fungal icicles on hardwood and conifer logs.
  • Hedgehog Mushroom | October – February: Considered one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, the hedgehog has a yellow to orange cap and features “teeth” on the underside—not unlike the back of a hedgehog. With a mild, pleasant taste and no odor, these can be found growing alone or in pairs on conifers and hardwoods.

Cleaning Your Foraged Produce

Of course, just because foraged goods come straight from the source (mother nature, that is), doesn’t mean they can go straight on the plate. Dirt, germs, and bacteria can all find their way onto raw food, and if they don’t wreak havoc on the digestive system they can certainly cause precious food to spoil, prematurely. Give those hard-earned fruits and veggies a thorough wash with essential oils once they come home. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant, while the antibacterial properties of Lemon Essential Oil will keep any unwanted germs at bay. Simply mix the ingredients below, spray as needed onto produce, and rinse off after 30 seconds.

  • 1 ½ cups water
  • ¾ vinegar
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 10 drops lemon essential oil

Safety First

When it comes to foraging wild plants, there are some key safety tips to always keep in mind. Avoid gathering from areas that are up-kept like the sides of major roads or golf courses, as this is a sign the area has probably been treated with pesticides or herbicides. Always research the plants being foraged to make sure they can be properly identified and there are no known health risks to consumption. 

Because so many plants have dangerous look-alikes, the suggestions listed above are relatively easy to identify and do not have similar-looking counterparts that may pose a threat. However, it’s still very important to match all characteristics of a plant—not just a photograph. Check where flowers are blooming, the shapes of the leaves, the kind of soil it is growing in, as well as anything else listed to properly identify the species. The first time you eat a new plant or mushroom, make sure to cook it thoroughly and only consume a small quantity. If there is ever any doubt, stay safe and do not eat it. 

Finally, outdoor safety doesn’t end with where and what you forage. The elements can pose hazards to the unprepared, but luckily all it takes is some proper planning and the right supplies to enjoy a fulfilling and immunity-boosting day outside. Always make sure to carry plenty of water, apply sunscreen and bug spray, and follow basic outdoor safety practices. 

Have Fun

Chances are if you’re interested in foraging for wild food, you already enjoy the many benefits of the great outdoors. Learning about the local flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest will only enhance this experience, and even better—you can enjoy all the delicious plants you picked once you get back home. So what are you waiting for? Grab your field guide, get outside, and get to foraging!

Categories: Essential Oils

When in Rome: The History of Peppermint

Peppermint, like many of our other favorite flavors, is an enduring and global staple and that would not be true unless the benefits it provided were significant enough to warrant lasting attention. From Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve,… Read More

botanical drawings