Like the birds she recently got into watching, Alexis Nikole Nelson sees tasty food everywhere she looks. She has loved foraging—hunting for edible, wild plants—since her mom introduced her to it at age 5. Now Nelson, known as “Black Forager” to her millions of followers on Instagram and TikTok, uses her irrepressible enthusiasm and nerdy humor to inspire others to give wild food a place at their table. “I think it’s so exciting that we have all of these flavors hiding in your front yard, a local park, a local woodland,” says Nelson, whose expertise and social media savvy earned her a prestigious James Beard award in 2022. (Scroll to the bottom for one of her favorite foraged-food recipes.)
Foraging provides a deeper understanding of your local ecosystem, its native plants, and the birds that rely on them. “I think when people realize that there is some sort of inherent value in the space around them, they take better care of it,” Nelson says. “They pay closer attention to it, and I think that extends past just the edible plants.” Plus, you can bird while you forage and forage while you bird. (You might get more than you bargained for: An American Robin once pooped directly on Nelson’s head while bird and human both were appreciating a mulberry tree. “I couldn’t even fault them!” she says.)
You don’t need much to get started—Nelson carries a multitool for snipping stems and a soil knife for cutting roots. Keep in mind, however, that you should only harvest what you need, leaving enough for wildlife and for the plant to continue its life cycle. When it comes to edible plants that you’re certain are invasive, she says, go nuts. Before taking anything, though, make sure foraging is legal where you are, and that you understand local regulations.
It’s also essential to eat only what you can identify with 100 percent certainty. “And that’s not 90 percent,” Nelson cautions. “That’s not 99 percent. That is, you know beyond the shadow of a doubt what that plant is.” Go with a trusted guidebook; Nelson recommends Sam Thayer’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America (Forager’s Harvest Press, $33). Or learn from edible-plant experts, such as through a local botanic garden.
Nelson also recommends foraging with a buddy so you can help one another in case of injury or anything else unforeseen. As a Black, queer woman, Nelson faces additional risks in the outdoors, like being accused of not belonging or having the cops called because of alleged trespassing. “I dress in like a very flouncy, fancy, fairy princess-esque way that lets people know that I’m not gonna hurt them,” she says. “I always have a full face of makeup on, very dressed up, even on the days when I do just want to go out in, like, basketball shorts and a T-shirt.”
When you return home with a bounty of wild plants, don’t let your excitement get the better of you. “Try a little bit first—just a little bit,” Nelson says. “Moderation: so important.” Starting small is a good idea in case you discover a new allergy. Plus, just like that robin with a bellyful of mulberries, eating too much wild fruit will send you to the restroom. “So, just a thing to keep in mind.”
But don’t be intimidated. Gathering edible plants, Nelson says, is “like a big, wonderful gift from the planet, over and over and over again.” Here are 8 species to get you started.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Bird It: Orioles use the previous year’s stem fibers to build nests, while hummingbirds visit the flowers. Milkweed is also an essential food for monarch butterflies.
Find It: A weedy perennial, this species is found across the central and eastern United States and Canada.
Eat It: Coat flower heads in batter and fry them, or boil shoots, leaves, and flowers like greens.
Cactus apple (Opuntia engelmannii)
Bird It: Sweet, reddish-purple fruits are a hit with cardinals, grosbeaks, and thrashers.
Find It: This prickly pear species is common across the Southwest.
Eat It: Nelson recommends making agua fresca: Puree the fruits, or tunas, then strain out the seeds, and add water and sugar to taste. Once dethorned, the cactus pads, known as nopales, are also tasty.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Bird It: Turkeys, thrushes, and finches savor pawpaw fruit, while the leaves feed the caterpillars of the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly.
Find It: If you spot a tree with six-petaled, purply-brown flowers in the spring, return in the fall to harvest any pawpaws that have fallen to the ground—fruits picked from the tree won’t ripen on the shelf. Pawpaw trees grow in forests and riparian areas of the central and eastern United States. The leaves produce an odor when crushed, and turn yellow in the fall.
Eat It: Eat the tropical-tasting fruit, sometimes described as “custard apple,” raw (but do not eat the toxic skin or seeds) or add it to smoothies and baked goods. Check out Sara Bir’s The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook (Belt Publishing, $5; introduction by Nelson) for more pawpaw culinary delights.
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Bird It: Goldenrod seeds draw goldfinches, sparrows, and buntings.
Find It: Harvest this member of the sunflower family from meadows and roadsides throughout most of North America.
Eat It: Follow Nelson’s instructions for goldenrod soda or, for a tasty tea, add fresh or dried flower heads to a jar of water, leave in the sun for several hours (or steep in boiling water for at least 15 minutes), and sweeten to taste. Beware this plant’s strong botanical taste if you’re in the cilantro-tastes-like-soap crowd: “It’s like cilantro turned up to an 11,” Nelson says.
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)
Bird It: Sumac fruits feed thrushes, chickadees, and waxwings.
Find It: This shrub forms dense thickets in a range of habitats. Look for pyramidal clusters of reddish-brown, fuzzy berries.
Eat It: For a tangy “lemonade,” soak whole fruit clusters in cold water for at least 30 minutes, strain, and sweeten to taste. “This is one of the traditional uses of sumac here in the States,” Nelson says. Or dry and grind the fruits into a sour seasoning powder, great on both savory and sweet dishes.
Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Bird It: Persimmon fruits are a sweet treat for turkeys, catbirds, and woodpeckers.
Find It: Across many southern and eastern states, look for common persimmon trees’ furrowed, dark gray bark and glossy, leathery leaves that turn yellow to reddish-purple in the fall. The bell-shaped yellow flowers bloom in spring and produce plump orange fruits in early fall.
Eat It: Wait until the fruits are mushy before gathering them. When unripe they contain a tannin that can be dangerous to ingest, so only eat them if they look overripe and are extremely sweet when you take a small taste. Enjoy persimmons, which Nelson describes as “tree marmalade,” raw or baked into puddings and muffins.
American hazelnut (Corylus americana)
Bird It: Jays, crows, and quail power up with hazelnuts.
Find It: Found along roadsides, fencerows, and other disturbed areas across eastern and central North America, this woody shrub has smooth bark and fuzzy, oval leaves with toothed edges and a heart-shaped base. Fall is the best time to harvest the brown nut, usually encased in a protective, leafy husk.
Eat It: Use foraged hazelnuts as you would the store-bought kind: “Roast them to get them nice and oily and really bring out that flavor,” Nelson says. Grind them into a flour to add to baked goods, or try the hazelnut spread she calls “knock-off Nutella.”
American Black Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Bird It: Elderberries entice waxwings, mockingbirds, and thrashers.
Find It: Look for this shrub in shady edge habitats across most of the Lower 48 and eastern Canada. White blooms in early summer yield bunches of deep purple fruit in August and September.
Eat It: Cook the berries—they’re mildly toxic if consumed raw!—into jams and syrups, or make a fragrant tea from the flowers.
Recipe: Alexis Nikole Nelson’s Acorn Pancakes
Abundant and widespread, acorns, when ground, produce a rich, nutty substitute for all-purpose flour. Processing them takes time, but Nelson suggests making it a party. “I think we forget,” she says, “that this work used to be done in community.” Grab your pals, harvest some acorns from whatever types of oaks grow near you, and reward yourself with these tasty flapjacks. (Pre-reward yourself—preward yourself?—with Nelson’s delightful video tutorial.)
• 1/2 cup acorn flour
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 1 cup oat milk (or milk of your choosing)
• 1 teaspoon nocino (or vanilla)
• 1 tablespoon fruit vinegar (e.g., apple cider vinegar)
Pass acorns (and other foraged nuts) through the float test: Only keep those that sink.
Remove the nut meat from the shells, then soak it in cool water for days to weeks (depending on the species) to remove the bitter tannins. Strain and repeat as needed until the acorns no longer taste bitter. Then, dry the nut meat and pulse it in a blender or food processor until you’ve got a fine, powdery flour.
In a bowl, gently mix the acorn flour and other dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine the wet ingredients, then fold them into the dry mixture.
Spoon the batter onto a medium-hot griddle and flip when bubbles stop coming to the surface. Serve hot with maple syrup or Nelson’s personal favorite: smoked hickory syrup.
This piece originally ran in the Fall 2023 issue as “Eat Like a Bird!” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.