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Top 5 Easy-to-ID Edible Backyard Weeds

Avatar for Jodie Weston Jodie Weston  |  Updated: May 24, 2021
Top 5 Easy-to-ID Edible Backyard Weeds

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Like the white picket fence that surrounds it, a thick, green, weed-free American lawn is a symbol of suburban success. But for all the pulling, mowing, weed-whacking, and spraying of poison we do to kill these fast-spreading invaders, few homeowners stop to learn exactly what the plants are that they’re so dutifully destroying. If they did, they’d learn that most of the peskiest and most common backyard weeds are also nutritious, delicious edible plants.

Even for people who can identify some edible weeds, a frequent assumption seems to be that while they’d be great to know in a survival situation, wild edible plants would need to be choked down just for the nutrition, and couldn’t be prepared in a tasty or satisfying way. The reality is, harvested at the right time and cooked the right way, wild edible veggies are at least as delicious as anything you’d buy at the store.

Many people are intimidated by “not knowing” how to cook with these plants, but it’s the same as cooking with plants from the produce section. Cook wild leafy greens as you would store-bought ones. Some are too bitter for salads and make better pot herbs, but with a tiny bit of research, they’re no more difficult to cook into delicious recipes than what you buy at the market.

For this list, I selected:

  • Plants that most US-based readers are likely to be able to find right now, right outside their back door, or at least somewhere on their property.
  • They’re easy to identify and have no poisonous or even non-poisonous lookalikes.
  • They’re easy to harvest sustainably, because all of them either grow in abundance or are non-native invasive species.
  • They’re also loaded with vitamins and minerals, and are easy to incorporate into recipes.

These features make them ideal plants for anyone just getting their feet wet in the world of foraging.

For this guide, each plant listed has a description section. These sections give identifying characteristics, but since plants change appearance with the season, note that not all characteristics will appear at once. For example, plants won’t show open flowers or seed pods all year long, and may only show stems and leaves during some seasons. I simply listed key characteristics that each plant exhibits in at least one of the four seasons, so that you have a way to identify them year-round. As a general rule, the younger a plant is when you harvest it, the tastier it will be.

Before we begin, some basic tips for safe foraging:

  1. Study every identification characteristic closely, and never eat anything if you aren’t 100% positive of the identification. Don’t let your eagerness for a plant to be “the right one” cause you to overlook differences or inconsistencies. Assume the plant you’re looking at isn’t correct until you can prove that it is.
  2. Only eat a small amount the first time. Even with correct identification, you have some chance of being allergic to any food that you’ve never tried before.
  3. Don’t harvest near roads, in yards or parks where pesticides might be used, or near farms or industrial areas.
  4. Learn all potential lookalikes, and when you think you’ve made a positive identification, always compare your plant against any others with similar features.
  5. Know which plants can be over-harvested and make sure you forage sustainably. Take only what you can actually use. With a bit of knowledge, foraging can always be a completely sustainable activity that causes no harm to plants or animals.

Basic Foraging Tools:

  1. Gloves
  2. Trowel/small shovel
  3. Plastic bags

1. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

About two or three years ago, I first noticed industrially-grown dandelion leaf selling for $1.99 per pound at a major supermarket chain in my town. To think, a completely ubiquitous lawn weed that thousands of gallons of poison are sold to consumers to obliterate in their own backyards, being sold for two bucks a bunch at the grocer!

Imagine if we did the same for other vegetables: think if great big peppers or vines loaded with succulent tomatoes grew naturally in yards, and instead of walking right outside and reaping an enormous, free harvest, people poisoned them and bought industrially-grown versions at the store instead. It’d make no sense, but apparently, we do it with dandelions.

Many people know dandelion is edible, but haven’t taken the plunge in actually eating it. Since it’s one of the widest-growing and recognizable weeds in the United States, I thought it perfect to start with. Although pretty much everyone knows exactly what a dandelion is, we’ll still start with a very brief description.

Dandelion Description:

Leaves are deeply-lobed and jagged. When broken, leaves and stems bleed a milky sap. Stems turn white as they fuse into the base that connects with the roots. Flowers are golden-colored. They turn quickly into those iconic fluffy white seed clusters that kids love to kick, sending the seeds floating everywhere.

Edible Parts:

Leaves, flowers, roots.

How to Harvest, Cook, & Use:

Harvest leaves young, in early spring, before they get too bitter. Young leaves make a good salad green, but if they’re already a bit too bitter, try boiling them in one change of water and using them in soups, stews, sautées, or stir fries. As a nutritional bonus, dandelion leaves are quite high in protein for a plant, coming in at about 1.5 grams per cup. Unopened and freshly-opened flower heads make attractive, crunchy additions to salads and can also be fried or used to make dandelion wine. Roots can be finely-chopped for soups, boiled into a medicinal tea, or dried and roasted into a coffee substitute.

Poisonous Lookalikes:

None. Flatweed, also known as False Dandelion and Cat’s Ear Dandelion, looks somewhat similar but is also edible. Chicory, as well as many varieties of wild lettuce, have similar-looking leaves. However, all these potential lookalikes are edible.

2. Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed is great because you can find it for most of the year and it’s easy to grab up in quantity. I love putting it onto sandwiches for a slightly crunchy, mild-tasting green vegetable that’s loaded with vitamins.

It tends to grow in soft-looking clumps that grow low to the ground. This “chickweed pillow” is the form that chickweed hunters usually recognize first.

Chickweed Description:

Chickweed grows in dense mats made up of long, overlapping, entwined stems. Leaves have pointy tips but are otherwise ovoid, lengthening more as they age. They appear opposite each other and in pairs along the stems. The flowers are white and small (around 5 mm), growing between branches and on the stem tips. They have five petals, but because each petal is branched, they look like ten petals at first glance.

Chickweed comes in different varieties that have slight differences, but all have the small white flowers and leaves that are paired and opposite along the stems. Fine white hairs can be found with a close inspection of the stems and leaves.

Edible Parts:

Leaves, stems, flowers, and seed pods.

How to Harvest, Cook, & Use:

People say they only eat the leaves raw, but I eat the stems, flowers, and seed pods raw as well. I’ll pluck some, rinse them, chop them up a bit, and throw them onto sandwiches instead of lettuce. All of Chickweed’s edible parts also work great sautéed and in soups. For a healthful tea, steep all parts that grow above-ground. I find Chickweed palatable any time I find it, but sometime around late spring/early summer is the best season for most areas.

Poisonous Lookalikes:


3. Wood Sorrel (Oxalis family)

Often mistaken for clovers, wood sorrel is a tasty little edible with leaves that look like shamrocks. It grows all over the place – yards, disturbed lots, even between the cracks in sidewalks – and has a sort of tart, lemony flavor that makes it a refreshing addition to salads.

Members of the oxalis family have one extra consideration with regard to safety, and that is that they all contain oxalic acid. This substance is perfectly fine in the right doses, but excessive amounts contribute to kidney stones and prevent the body from absorbing certain nutrients.

Oxalis Family

It’s important to know, especially for people prone to conditions like gout, arthritis, and kidney stones. But it shouldn’t scare you off from enjoying wood sorrel! From kale to coffee, many foods contain at least a little bit of oxalic acid. Spinach is loaded with it, and you won’t see any warning labels on bagged spinach at the supermarket.

If you’re still worried, stick with younger sorrel plants (they become richer in oxalic acid as they age), or blanch before cooking, as this can reduce oxalic acid levels by up to around 30%. In general, just be sure to get enough variety in your diet, and you can easily off-set the effect of potentially negative compounds.

Wood Sorrel Description:

Wood sorrel has distinctive heart or “shamrock” shaped leaflets. Flowers are usually yellow, with five petals each, and when seed pods appear they try to point upward. Tiny hairs grow on the stems. Look for those heart-shaped leaflets, and it’s hard to go wrong identifying it. That said, no plant is foolproof, so always tread carefully.

Oxalis Flowering

Edible Parts:

Leaves, stems, flowers, and seed pods.

How to Harvest, Cook, & Use:

To harvest wood sorrel, I like to pluck it by the stem, and then gently pinch the stem at the bottom. Then holding it over a bowl, I slide my thumb and forefinger all the way up, which plucks off the leaves, flowers, and seed pods for eating. I then discard the naked stem. Flavor is sour and lemony. They wilt and turn brown when cooked, but retain their distinctive tartness. Any recipe that calls for lemon juice, try halving the recommended amount of juice and throwing in some finely-chopped wood sorrel instead. It’s really a green you use to add flavor to recipes, rather than one that acts as its own side dish.

Poisonous Lookalikes:


4. Red & White Clover (Trifolium pretense & Trifolium repens )

Now that we’ve covered wood sorrel, we’ll cover clovers — the plant that many people think they’ve found in their yard when they’ve actually discovered wood sorrel. The main way to tell clovers apart from wood sorrel, other than the distinctive flowers, is that the leaves are teardrop-shaped rather than heart-shaped. Thankfully, if you still confuse them, both are edible and delicious!

Red Clover

Clovers Description:

Leaves are teardrop-shaped, and more elongated on red clover than on white. They have a light-colored stripe, or “chevron,” pointing toward the leaf tip, which wood sorrel does not.

Clover Leaf

The distinctive flower heads are either reddish or whitish depending on clover type, and is actually an “inflorescence,” which means it is really a clump of many very small flowers.

White Clover

Edible Parts:

Leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, and roots.

How to Harvest, Cook, & Use:

Harvest like wood sorrel, but pull the root up as well if you’re planning on eating the whole plant. Flowers are pleasant and sort of tart and nutty; great in salads. Leaves are best as raw greens, but are mild-tasting enough to be tossed into most recipes as well. The flowers, either raw or steeped to make tea, are the most treasured part of the clover plant.

Poisonous Lookalikes:


5. Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Garlic mustard is a pesky weed that has taken over swaths of the east coast. I remember many a long spring weekend where my dad would send me and my brother out to pull up seemingly endless fields of garlic mustard in the woods around our house.

Garlic Mustard Flowering

Since it’s invasive, you can harvest as much of it as you please. Pull enough of it, and you might even catch a whiff of the onion-like aroma that makes this plant so special.

Garlic Mustard Description:

Young and old garlic mustard plants are quite different-looking. Leaves of young, first-year plants grow in low rosettes and are kidney or heart-shaped, with scalloped edges.

Young Garlic Mustard

Young Garlic Mustard

Mature second-year plants grow taller, with leaves that are staggered (alternating) up the stalk. Leaves in second-year plants are also pointier, and more sharply toothed instead of scalloped. Flowers are very small, with four white petals that are ovoid to almost rectangular. If you crush and sniff any part of the plant, it will smell distinctly oniony. Roots smell like horseradish.

Edible Parts:

Leaves, flowers, seeds, and roots.

How to Harvest, Cook, & Use:

Older leaves will be more bitter than younger ones. Spicy garlic mustard root is great in anything requiring horseradish. All other parts of the plant give a nice garlicky kick to recipes.

My favorite use for it is making garlic mustard pesto – throw some leaves and chopped root into a food processor with pine nuts, parmesan, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and you have a truly delicious forager’s pesto that friends will rave about.

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Poisonous Lookalikes:

None. If it looks like the pictures, and it smells oniony when you crush and sniff it, it’s almost certainly garlic mustard.

For Further Reading on Backyard Edibles

The following are some good adds to your resource shelf:

  • Edible Wild Plants: a North American Field Guide by Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman
  • Nature’s Garden: a Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer

For Regional Foraging:

  • Northeast Foraging by Leda Meradeth
  • Midwest Foraging by Lisa Rose
  • Wild Edible Plants of Texas by Charles Kane
  • Southeast Foragingby Chris Bennett

Author Bio:

Eric Raue is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!

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3 Responses to “Top 5 Easy-to-ID Edible Backyard Weeds”

  1. I highly recommend chickweed. Haven’t tried the others, but went into a forest during an herb class and picked a bunch of them. I thought they were delicious and tasted better than any greens from grocery stores. Chickweed also has good medicinal properties, so I made a tincture from them.

  2. Very helpful! Could still use a few more photo references (like done for the dandelion — the easiest to recognize of the 5). Even links to book reference pages showing all the parts of the plant can help.

    I like the close-ups, but given that I am not 2-3 inches tall (LOL), some photos from human eye-level (like of what a mat/clump/pillow of Chickweed would look like to a person walking) would be extremely beneficial.

  3. This has to be one of my favorite post! Great info, photos and how to eat. These are the ones we’re going to start teaching our family and 5 year old grandchild.

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