20 Edible Plants and Fungi You’ll Find on the Appalachian Trail
This post was originally published on July 9 2014. It was updated on December 14 2020.
One of my favorite activities, when I worked with the Scouts, was to go on nature walks and pick wild berries. Naturally, living in the woods for the past three months and experiencing both spring and summer changes in the plants around me has given me the opportunity to get to know the plants, trees, and fungi a little more each day. Many species that I’ve often overlooked have turned out to be some of the greatest secret treasures the trail has to offer. I figured I’d throw a few of these puppies out there for you other brave souls to scout out and see if you too can identify and enjoy!
Warning: Make sure, particularly with berries and mushrooms, that you are 100% positive on the identification of the species before you consume them! This guide is meant to spark your interest in studying edible and medicinal plants and should not be used as any sort of scientific identifier or medical advice.
1. Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus)
(Also check out the red and black raspberries, also Rubus species)
The thorny blackberry bushes produce delicious black and purple berries that ripen in the Summer. The roots and shoots of the plant are also edible when peeled and cooked. The roots can be dried out and infused into a tea that can be used as a herbal remedy for the treatment of diarrhea.
2. Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
The purple flowering chicory plant has many uses both as a food source and as a medicinal plant. The leaves can be consumed raw in a salad (or in a hiker’s tuna wrap, yum!) while the roots can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable. When the roots are roasted and pulverized they can also be used as a coffee substitute.
3. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
The dandelion plant is probably one of the most easily identifiable plants you’ll see on the AT. You’ve probably grown up as a child picking these bright yellow flowers or blowing wishes on their puffy seed pods in later stages of the plant’s maturity. Did you know they’re also edible? Indeed, similar to chicory, dandelion can be eaten raw in salads—or boil the roots if you are looking for more veggies. The roots can similarly be used as a coffee substitute, and if you look hard enough in the supermarket, you might even see some dandelion wine!
4. Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
These orange flowers grow all over the trail, mainly on the side of road crossings or in sunny areas. Sometimes they are even grown in front yards as ornamental flowers, but I’d recommend not picking them from someone’s house! The flower itself can be eaten in a variety of ways, boiled or even deep fat fried. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked up like any other green!
5. Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata)
A cousin of the blueberry, these look-a-like imposters grow EVERYWHERE on the AT. From VA-PA I have had entire days of hiking where the trail is literally lined completely with young huckleberry plants, and for good reason! These plants are short, only about waist-high, but they produce dark blue sweet berries with a tart little zing to them. The berries are a little smaller than a wild blueberry and they grow a little more spread out on the plant itself (blueberries grow more in clumpy clusters).
6. Mulberry (Morus nigra)
All around the mulberry…..tree? Yes, mulberries grow in big ole trees all up and down the trail. For the most part, I haven’t seen too many spread out in the wild but they are all over towns and parks and other slightly more inhabited areas. I *may* have creeped in a stranger’s backyard once or twice (or three times…) and swiped water bottles full of these sweet purple berries. They are so juicy and derichioush! Warning, these suckers will stain your hands and clothes. Also, as with most fruits, consuming too many will make you poo!
7. Pine Trees (Pinus spp., many varieties)
There are several different pine trees growing all up and down the AT. I can imagine the Forrest Gump spoof now… “We got pitch pine, loblolly pine, white pine, Virginia pine…” While several parts of the tree have a variety of practical and medicinal uses, pine trees are particularly known for the strong teas made by brewing the young green pine needles. This tea is high in vitamins A and C, and with a little sugar can be a great post hiking treat!
8. Pokeweed. (Phytolacca americana)
This one came as a shocker to me. Growing up I was always told that pokeweed was super toxic and that I should do everything in my power to exterminate it from the fields. Okay, well now I know a little more. As it turns out, pokeweed might actually turn out to be a lifesaver for someone someday somehow. Yes, it is true that the entire plant is poisonous. It is also true however that by boiling the plant stalks and berries through multiple water changes you can remove the toxins and have an edible veggie. What nutritional value remains I would guess probably wouldn’t get you very far, but it’s kinda cool to know you can conquer the toxin after all. DO NOT EAT THE ROOTS!
9. Ramps (Allium trucoccum)
If you are a NOBO hiker leaving Georgia in April, keep yer eyes *peeled* for this wild cousin of the onion. Ramps have big wide green leaves and are pretty easy to pull straight up from the side of the trail. We collected them in fields and packed them out for wraps, soups, salads, etc. They are so versatile and are so abundant during the Spring. Many smaller trail towns even host Ramp Festivals in honor of this awesome, delicious plant.
10. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
The sassafras tree, also known (by me) as the Dinosaur-Foot-Tree is a pretty cool one with some historic significance in the industry of yum. The plants, roots, and bark were originally used to make root beer, but they can also be used to make a pretty strong tea when dried and steeped. Even the younger twigs and leaves are edible, although as they age they become less palatable.
11. Scallion (Allium spp. Related to ramps.)
As a kid, we called these suckers “Wild Onions” but they go by many many names. While these grassy little onions grow in many of the same places as ramps, scallions do not have the big broad dark green leaves. Instead, they typically have rounder, almost hollow tube-like stems and they grow in clusters or as singles. There is not a major pronounced bulb, but some of them might get as fat as your finger. The bulby root and the green stalks are both edible. Think of it as a wild leek.
12. Thistle (Cirsium spp. Many varieties)
Another plant that I was told to kill on contact. Growing up riding horses and playing in fields these things always killed my fun for the day by stabbing me in the shins. The plant grows tall and atop the spiny stalk is a pinkish-purple flower that looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss cartoon. If you have the patience to peel back the spikes along the stalks of the plant, chop up the stalks and boil them with the roots to add some veggies to your meal.
13.Water lily (Nymphaea odorata)
There are a lot of different types of water lilies growing along the east coast but from the research I have done on them, I have yet to find a toxic one. (If you do please comment!) The flowers, seeds, and rhizomes of these cool plants are edible and can be eaten raw, dried, or cooked. Boiling the roots of this plant produces a thick liquid that can be used as a gargle for sore throats or as a remedy for diarrhea. (But please, if you are having significant problems be smart and visit a doctor.)
14. Wild Grape. Vitus species. Many varieties.
If you are a wine nut and can name and identify the four gazillion types of grapes out there, that’s awesome. You will probably be disappointed with these wild-growing, under-producing but still yummy and slightly sour wild grapes. These are scattered all over the trail, I saw the vines in Georgia in early spring when I started the trail and am seeing them now in northern PA although they are still not yet ripe. Once the berries soften and ripen they are very rich in natural sugars and are therefore a great energy source for hikers.
15. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
This dark green plant is often found on the ground next to huckleberry plants but can be found in a variety of other places. Snap a leaf in half and take a whiff, if you’ve got the right plant you’ll instantly know it by the familiar chewing gum smell! The dark green leaves often have white flowers growing on them and when dried make a refreshing and minty tea!
16. Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.)
Also known as sour grass, wood sorrel almost looks like a cartoon shamrock or clover. The flowers can range from white to yellow to even pink, although I have yet to see pink ones on the trail. The entire plant is edible and even has a medicinal purpose in that it can be used to cure stomach cramps. Beware of eating too much, however, particularly if you have kidney or liver problems.
FUNGUS AMONG US!
17. Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)
These yellowish-orange mushrooms have a convex or vase-shaped cap with false gills. When compared to other mushrooms, the false gills under the cap are not easily separated from the rest of the structure and almost look like they have melted into the stalk. The best way to tell a true chanterelle from the poisonous (although not deadly) false chanterelle is to examine the gills as the false chanterelle mushroom has more defined and prominent gills. These prized edible mushrooms are also easily confused with the toxic jack-o-lantern mushrooms, which (like the false chanterelles) have true gills and tend to grow in larger groups with the stems clustered as one. Chantrelles typically crop up as singles or in small bunches with separate stems. If you are not positive about your identification, please don’t try these as the toxins in both look-a-likes will cause cramping and intestinal adventures.
18. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus spp.)
When you find this bad boy you know you’ve scored big. Chicken of the woods grows in shelf-like clusters on trees and on the ground (making it almost look like a fungus version of cabbage). This fungus lacks a central stem and when broken open, looks like white chicken meat. A similar cousin, hen of the woods, looks almost identical but is less orange-more brownish tan and bruises more easily. It can be prepared the same way as chicken and is a great addition to your pasta sides or other backcountry meals, just make sure it’s fresh or you may find maggots (trail spice!).
19. Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Stir-fried, sautéed, boiled, or baked, these white, gilled mushrooms make an excellent addition if you’re bushwhacking it in the wild. They are commonly found on logs or tree trunks and have a floppy, oyster like appearance. Carry a little garlic and olive oil with you and make yourself some amazing wild onion and mushroom mixes!
20. Rock Tripe. (Umbilicaria spp. Many varieties.)
This is one of those things you’ve probably seen a hundred times on a hike but never really known what it was. Kinda flat, kinda green, kinda black, and not very appetizing looking, rock tripe can be scraped off, cleaned, and soaked to make a…..slightly more palatable ingredient. Several species are collected and eaten around the world and I’m sure you can find a cool way to cook them up….probably with lots and lots of salt, oil, butter, and strong spices though…..
So there you have it, twenty edibles you will no doubt encounter while thru-hiking the AT. These plants and fungi are fun to seek out and identify if nothing else, and if your feeling froggy why not get your camp stove fired up and give them a whirl? =) Plus, all hikers love food and if you spread your knowledge and share your findings with your fellow trail mates you are sure to get the best camp spot! 😉
Featured image: Graphic design by Sophie Gerry.
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