From desert treks to backpacking in the alpine, keep an eye out for these wild eats

For thousands of years, inhabitants of the Southwest have foraged for plants, herbs, nuts, seeds, berries and more — many of which served as food staples or offered medicinal properties. Nowadays, packing in the food needed for a day trip or a multiday excursion is common practice. While foraging is seen as a hobby these days, knowing which plants are edible in the backcountry could save your life in a pinch — or at the very least, serve as a tasty trail treat. Many different kinds of edible plants exist, but these six are quite common and easy to identify.

wild raspberries
Wild raspberries.

Keep your eyes to the ground and alongside alpine trails for wild strawberries and raspberries.

Wild strawberries are best identified for their long runners called stolons, often shooting across the ground in every direction. Small, white flowers with yellow sepals are a good indicator of strawberry plants, with the fruits much smaller than those found in the grocery store. 

Depending on climate and summer conditions, raspberries can be harvested for almost two months out of the season. But be careful; berry bushes tend to have thorns. Practice caution when picking a handful of these sweet berries.

dandelion flowers
Yellow dandelion flowers.

This common naturalized plant packs some serious nutritional value compared to other plants on this list. Dandelion leaves are an excellent source of Vitamin A, Vitamin K, calcium and iron. Both the leaves and yellow flowers make for a good addition to a salad. Dandelion root also serves as a good coffee substitute when baked.

cattails as edible plant
Look around wetlands and marshy areas for cattails.

Reminiscent of a corn dog, cattails are prominent in marshy areas and wetlands. Many different parts of the plants may be consumed. The roots can be baked, boiled or grilled, and are best consumed in a similar manner to artichoke leaves. The stalks are also edible and can be eaten as is or cooked. The pollen is also high in protein and works well as a flour substitute.

Prior to harvesting cattails, make sure that the water source surrounding the plant is clean and free of pesticides.

piñon pine tree
Piñon pine.

The piñon pine is best known for its seeds, which produce a mild and sweet buttery flavor. These seeds contain numerous vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, and are also high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids (good for lowering LDL, or “bad” cholesterol). Enjoy them by themselves, or take them home and use them in a pesto. Piñon seeds have been harvested by many Indigenous tribes in the area for thousands of years.

edible plants prickly pear
The fruit of a prickly pear cactus.

A staple in many Mexican dishes, prickly pear is used both for its fruits as well as its pads, also called “nopales.” The cactus fruit is sweet and can be eaten right from the plant. Nopales can either be eaten cooked or raw, and is best harvested first thing in the morning to prevent bitterness. When handling the cactus pads, make sure to wear thick gloves to prevent getting poked by the spines. Use a knife to scrape off the spines and peel off the skin.

wild onion edible plants
Wild onion.

Wild onion grows in abundance, offering many different species of the plant across the Southwest. These edible plants are found in the same regions of piñon-juniper forests, the subalpine, foothills, woodlands and meadows. When identifying wild onion, look for an underground bulb and the signature onion scent. This is crucial in identifying wild onions, as the absence of the unmistakable scent could result in the discovery of a different plant that is potentially non-edible and toxic. Wild onion can be eaten either raw or cooked, with both the bulb and the stem providing nourishment.