Food & Drink July 22, 2021

Wild and Edible

Identifying local edible herbs

Along the trails and in backyards across the Wood River Valley, there are a plethora of nutritious plants that are ripe for the picking. More “weeds” are finding their way into local kitchens as the momentum to eat local and in season increases and as the benefits of eating wild becomes more well known. The act of foraging for wild plants is a tasty and healthy way to become more connected to the land, and it’s a great excuse for doing less weeding in yards!

As the landscape changes with the season, wild edible plants grow to provide what our bodies need most to help propel us into the next season. In the spring, when our bodies are most in need of detoxing, dandelions appear. Although often considered a weed, they are actually a perennial herb with a long list of culinary and medicinal uses to help improve kidney and liver function. Stinging nettles—although pesky and painful to touch—are most well known for helping with seasonal allergies. They only grow during the summer months, when pollen count is known to be at its highest.

These wild plants rival and even succeed over backyard gardens. Think about how resilient weeds are and how they keep coming back, despite every effort to eradicate them. Translate that strength and think of them as nutritional powerhouses packed with vitamins and minerals and how our bodies can benefit from their rigor. With proper professional guidance, the medicinal qualities of these tasty herbs can be taken advantage of and enjoyed in many ways. Topping salads, making pesto and using in baked goods are some of the simplest and most common ways to incorporate them into meals. Drying or preserving in vinegar or oil are popular ways of being able to embrace their benefits year-round.

Flavorful, healthy and free. Does it get much better than this? However, there is one big caveat to eating wild: it can be very dangerous (even deadly) as plants need to be properly identified before nibbling out in the woods. The golden rule of foraging is to never eat a plant if it is not properly identified first. It is recommended to reference multiple trusted sources, including professional expert guidance. With patience and knowledge, foraging can definitely be done responsibly. Waiting for a plant to flower can help with identification. Using an app like PictureThis is helpful in getting started on the path to identifying. The key word is “started.” Remember, safety first! Be aware of what parts of each plant can be eaten and at what stage of the plant’s development. There are a lot of lookalike plants out there. Becoming familiar with just one to two new plants a season can make the edible quest less overwhelming.

Amy Mattias, Program Director for the Sun Valley Institute for Resilience, recommends foraging in your own backyard as it can be one of the best places to search, especially since you know whether it’s been sprayed with pesticides or not. And there’s less of a worry about overharvesting. Wildlife relies on these same plants, so it’s important that they have plenty to survive on. She is cautious about sourcing wild plants that are living in water, especially if it’s coming from old mining areas, because of e-coli.

When headed out in the woods, keep in mind that it’s important to be a good steward of the land by not trespassing or leaving litter. Be sure to leave root systems in place when not harvesting the roots and take only small, sustainable amounts so the plants can continue to grow. Look for abundant wild food sources to pick from. Slowing down and being observant will help lead to successful findings in the wild. Taking care of the ecosystem along the way will help it continue to take care of us!


For those who would like to incorporate the benefits of some of these wild edible herbs, but are not ready to jump into foraging for wild foods just yet, NourishMe in Ketchum offers tinctures, teas and freeze-dried capsules of nettles and dandelions.

PLEASE NOTE: Like with all herbs, check with your doctor first before consuming if you have a health condition, are on medication, are pregnant or breastfeeding.


Name: Chickweed (Stellaria media) 

How to Identify: Chickweed has small leaves and small, white, star-shaped flowers with five petals, each one with two lobes. A single line of fine hairs run down the stem. It does not have milky sap.

Edible Parts: The whole plant is edible; mostly leaves, stems, flowers and seed pods are what is typically eaten.

Uses: Helpful for dry, irritated, itchy skin issues.

Recipe Ideas: Best enjoyed fresh, put it on sandwiches or in salads, pestos or smoothies.

Caution: It has a lookalike: Scarlet Pimpernel, which is toxic. Scarlet Pimpernel has reddish orange flowers, unlike chickweed’s white flowers. It does not have the single line of hairs down the stem like chickweed either, although its leaves and overall plant structure is very similar to chickweed.


Name: Cleavers (Galium species)

How to Identify: Cleavers has a whorled leaf pattern that runs up a square stem, which is known for its ability to stick to clothes like Velcro. The leaves are oblanceolate in shape and grow in whorls of four to eight. The flowers cluster in groups of two to three, are tiny and are white to green in color.

Edible Parts: Young leaves, stems and seeds can all be eaten.

Uses: It is supportive to the lymphatic and urinary systems, and helpful for healing ulcers.

Recipe ideas: Enjoy in pestos, soups and stews or a juiced, cold-water infusion.

Caution: There are no toxic lookalikes.


Name: Dandelion (Taraxacum species) 

How to Identify: Dandelion has a signature yellow flower and basal leaves that are lobed. The stems and leaves exude a milky sap, and the stocks the flowers grow on are hollow.

Edible Parts: Roots, leaves and flowers can all be easten.

Uses: It is helpful for digestion, liver skin issues and reducing muscle pain.

Recipe ideas: Use the greens in salads; the root can be roasted for a coffee substitute, and the flowers can be infused for drinks and in baked goods.

Caution: People allergic to the Asteraceae family of plants should not consume Dandelion as they could have an allergic reaction.


Name: Mallow (Malva neglecta)

How to Identify: The Mallow leaves are roundish, waved and lobed with tiny hairs. The flowers can be pink, purple, or white (or any combination thereof). The seed pods look like a cheese wheel.

Edible Parts: Roots, leaves, stems, flowers and seed pods can be eaten.

Uses: It is high in minerals, great for the digestive system, sore throats and coughs.

Recipe Ideas: The seed pods taste like capers when pickled; use like spinach in scrambled eggs. Also great in salads and cold-water infusions.

Caution: There are no lookalike plants.


Name: Stinging Nettle (Urtica species)

How to Identify: Stinging Nettle leaves are coarsely toothed, pointed on the ends and can be several inches long. Smaller, younger leaves are more heart-shaped.

Edible Parts: Leaves, seeds and roots can all be eaten.

Uses: It can be used to help the body detox by purifying the blood and body. It also has the ability to reduce the amount of histamine the body produces in response to an allergen.

Recipe Ideas: (Be sure to expose the leaves to high heat first so they lose their stinging ability.) Great in soups and pestos, as chips, tea or in baked goods.

Caution: Wear a pair of gloves when collecting. Harvest the top five leaves or so. Harvest leaves before it starts flowering.


This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.