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Midwest foraging: 3 common plants you didn’t know were edible

by Timber Press on August 12, 2015

in Food


Yarrow, monarda, and serviceberries. Three Midwest plants that many don’t realize are edible. All images by Lisa M. Rose

Learn to identify, harvest, and prepare these common plants with the help of Midwest Foraging author Lisa M. Rose.

So many of us are seeking a connection to the land and to each other. Foraging, local foods, and community gardening connect us in a deeper way to the world around us. That need for escape into the wild is very real: we desire space and clarity. I believe this is one reason foraging is gaining in popularity. We are also making the connection between healthy soil, healthy foods, and healthy people. The food on our plate has—or should have—roots in the earth.

As a forager, I have learned to sense and anticipate the subtle changes in the seasons, almost like a sixth sense. On sunny February days that are cold but bright, I can actually hear the sap in the maple trees begin to run. April rainstorms and warmer weather means it’s time to go mushroom hunting. On muggy days in June with frequent pop-up thundershowers, I always check on the roses and elderflowers—one round of summer thunderstorms could decimate the delicate blooms that I so love to dry for tea. And nuts falling in the green gulch next to my kitchen window? I try to harvest those walnuts before the squirrels do. I feel empowered with this ability to “read” the wild world around me. I will always have the ability to find food and these skills connect me to the natural world in a deep way.

Amelanchier species

With its perfectly balanced, sweet fruit, serviceberry is a delightful June find. Its berries are easy to gather and abundant, and they make delicious pies and jams—that is, if any make it home without being eaten. Quite possibly, this is one of my summer favorites.

How to Identify
Serviceberry is a small, fruiting, deciduous shrub or small tree that grows to a height of 20 feet. Its bark is smooth gray with dark vertical furrows. The leaves are oval, serrated, smooth or slightly hairy, and alternate along the stem. The white, five-petaled flowers bloom in early spring, and dark purple fruit in racemes ripens in midsummer. Each fruit has a small crown at the base, similar to an apple or pear.

Where and When to Gather
Serviceberry is found in the wild along hedgerows and in open woodlands. It is a common landscape plant whose fruits usually go unnoticed. The berries ripen in mid- to late June.

How to Gather
Harvest when the crop on the tree is mostly ripe and dark red, leaving the green fruit for later harvests over subsequent weeks. Bring baskets and gather by hand in the morning on a clear, dry day. A few pints can be easily gathered in a half hour or so. Before preserving, make sure the fruit is dry and clean of debris.

How to Eat
Serviceberry makes a nice jam, fruit leather, and, of course, pie. If the harvest is small, the berries can be mixed with other seasonal foraged fruits like blackberry, blueberry, or raspberry for baking, ice cream, cordials, and jams. The fruit, with its mild flavor like a cross between a cherry and a blueberry, is a lovely complement to fresh farm cheese, yogurt, or ice cream. Like the huckleberry, serviceberries are excellent in milkshakes. Herbs like basil or lemon verbena pair well with serviceberry. It can also be combined in simple syrup for cocktails with a tequila or vodka, or simply to flavor a refreshing homemade soda.

Future Harvests
Serviceberry is a widely distributed plant that is also common in the landscape industry. Because of its appealing fruits, it is also becoming more popular as an early summer crop on farms in the northern areas of the Midwest. Harvesting the fruit will do little to impact the plant’s future harvest or distribution across the Midwest. It propagates easily by cuttings and bare-root transplants, and it tolerates a variety of temperatures and soil conditions. Serviceberry makes for an excellent edible plant addition to a permaculture landscape design.

Achillea millefolium

Yarrow is a beautiful, perennial wildflower that dots fields and open spaces in the summertime landscape. Its aromatic, bitter flavor makes it a useful herb for brewing beer, making cocktail bitters, and flavoring beverages.

How to Identify
Yarrow grows to be 2 to 3 feet in height, with tall erect stems that have flat, umbel-like flowers made up of many five-petaled blooms that range in color from white to pinkish white and even purple. The leaves appear fine and hairy, but actually they are lance-shaped and cut into many small, silvery gray segments, growing in a basal rosette and then alternating up the stem. The finely divided appearance of the leaves is an aid to identification and is how yarrow got its species name, millefolium, or thousand leaves.

Cultivars of yarrow that are deep yellow have found favor for use in floral arrangements and ornamental landscaping. They are more resinous, but sometimes escape gardens and end up wild. These can be used similarly to the white yarrow found in the wild.

Where and When to Gather
A hardy perennial and native wildflower that prefers full sun, yarrow can often be found in open fields. It blooms toward the beginning of the summer solstice and continues to bloom through the end of July. The flavors and mild aromatics of the flowers can remain through the fall; however, I always suggest you go by your nose to test for yarrow’s strength in the off-season.

How to Gather
Yarrow is a perennial herb. Depending on the size of the stand, the entire stalk can be gathered. Take care, however, not to cut down the entire plant. Stalks can be bundled toward their bottom ends and hung to dry for later use.

How to Use
Yarrow is aromatic: its flavors are predominantly bitter with a hint of warming spice. The plant is also astringent, leaving your tongue dry when you taste the leaves or drink yarrow tea. As it is bitter, mixologists can use it to create a brightly flavored cocktail bitter. Yarrow has been known to brewers for many years as a classic bitter brewing herb, and the lore around using yarrow in brewing is abundant. Yarrow’s warming spicy notes and predominantly bitter flavor profile can work well in IPA-style recipes. Take care, though, to monitor yarrow’s tendency to be overly bitter. This can be managed by adding yarrow to the second fermentation of a brew process: the longer it processes, the more prominent the bitter flavor and less aromatic it will be.

Future Harvest
Yarrow is a perennial native wildflower. If care is given to only harvest just basal leaves or a stalk or two from each plant, it will regrow for you each year.

Monarda fistulosa

Not only should corn be knee high by the 4th of July, but the fiery pink blossoms of monarda open up right in the height of the summer sun. It is a spicy and aromatic herb similar to oregano and can be used similarly in cooking.

How to Identify
Monarda fistulosa is a perennial native plant, from the mint family. Typically 24 to 36 inches tall, it grows in patches in sunny open fields and prairies, often interspersed with black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, and goldenrod. Monarda fistulosa is a relative of common bee balm (Monarda didyma) and also of spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) and can be used interchangeably in both cooking and herbal medicine. The stem is square, and the leaves are opposite and slightly toothed and hairy. The blooms of monarda are showy, with individual pink blossoms radiating from the center seed head.

Where and When to Gather
The fresh spring leaves and stems of monarda can be gathered anytime and used in the kitchen fresh or dried. The summer’s blossoms can be gathered and used until they become dry in the fall.

How to Gather
In summer, the stems can be gathered, bundled, and dried for use as tea in the winter. Store all fully dry plant material in airtight containers to preserve the aromatics.

How to Eat
As a culinary spice, monarda can be included in recipes calling for Italian seasoning combinations, such as pizzas, pasta sauces, and chili. Infusing this spicy herb into olive oil can result in a versatile aromatic oil that can be used as a dipping oil for breads and as a base for salad dressings.

Monarda can be infused into cold water for a refreshing summer iced tea. When it’s prepared as a warming tea, the spicy aromatics can dispel the damp chill of a rainy day and can stimulate circulation in cold hands and feet.

Monarda leaves and flowers can be extracted in raw, local honey and served on toast or as a complement to a platter of fresh, local goat cheeses and bries. The honey can flavor meringues, cake icings, tea cakes, and other baked goods.

Future Harvests
This easy-to-grow perennial is a pollinator magnet, so it’s important to preserve it. Depending on the size of the stand, do not cut down full plants for their stems, as nothing will be left for butterflies and honeybees. Monarda can be propagated by cuttings as well as by transplanting clumps in the fall. Preserving open space for native wildflowers will also support the long-term survival of this beautiful plant.


rose_lLisa M. Rose is an herbalist, forager, urban farmer, and writer. With a background in anthropology and a professional focus on community health, she has gathered her food, farming, and wild plant knowledge from many people and places. Lisa’s interest in ethnobotany and herbal medicine has taken her across the United States and into the Yucatan, mainland Mexico, Nicaragua, and Brazil to study plants, people, health, and their connection to place. When she is not in her own gardens or kitchen, Lisa can be found in the fields and forests, leading foraging plant walks and teaching classes on edible and medicinal wild plants. She forages for her own family, herbal apothecary, and community herbalism practice with her favorite harvesting companion—her dog, Rosie.



“A beautiful book that any forager in the Midwest will want to own.”—Sam Thayer, author of The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden.

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