Finding nutrition in wild plants may be an ancient necessity, but for Alexis Nelson — known as the Black Forager on TikTok, where she has 3.5 million followers — it’s urgently 21st century. “Foraging is the piece of the puzzle that is the solution,” says Nelson, 29. “It makes you think about your food choices, and helps you cherish the food you are lucky enough to have.”
Between her mother’s teachings in the garden and summers at camp, Nelson, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, knows about edible plants. So when she graduated college, tired of ramen and Boca burgers, she returned to the familiar: “Some neighbors started doing urban foraging and that lit up a lightbulb for me, like ‘Oh! I used to do that!’ ”
If done responsibly, foraging has myriad benefits: It encourages plants to produce fruit, while helping slow demand for mass-produced foods. “It has a lot to do with the footprint of your food,” says Nelson. (Always double-check what you eat. A mistake in the field can end in an upset stomach — or worse.)
Foraging while Black is also a revolutionary act for Nelson, who hopes her presence encourages more people to join. “So much foraging knowledge was being passed around during slavery, because if you weren’t creative with the meager amount of food you were given, you couldn’t take care of yourself. Foraging feels like tapping back into a practice that we just forgot about for a couple of generations.”
Here, Nelson suggests 10 common plants that you can forage.
Roses and Rose Hips
Roses are more than a romantic gesture, they’re a tasty addition to meals. ”Here in Ohio, if you give wild roses an inch, they’ll take 17 miles,” says Nelson. Although the petals are edible, boiling them and condensing the steam makes rose water, which is common in Middle Eastern desserts and can be used on your skin and hair. “I love making rose water each summer, when the first roses are in full bloom,” says Nelson, who adds that rose hips, the fruit that forms after a rose gets pollinated, are high in vitamin C and make a great tea. In order to get the full properties, use it when its scent is still strong and lingering. “Also, don’t eat the roses that you picked up at the grocery store,” warns Nelson. “Those were definitely sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, and your stomach will get mad at you.”
Sometimes called “wild spinach,” this plant is a double for the supermarket staple. “In a blind taste test, I would not be able to tell the difference,” says Nelson. She likes them for their tenderness — which they maintain throughout the summer, “a rarity for a lot of greens” — and because they’re high in B6. “You can eat them right off the plant — the seeds, too,” says Nelson. “They are cousins to quinoa. They’re super-tasty.”
Dandelions are the perfect foraging food — tasty, nutritious, and versatile. “If we’re lucky to find a dandelion that’s already blooming, I would bask in their sunshine,” says Nelson. “Then I would take them home and dip them into cornbread batter and give them a bake or a fry. You’ll get these delicious fritters — savory on the outside, sweet and floral on the inside.” They’re full of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as iron. “They’re really good for you,” says Nelson, who suggests using the leaves in a salad. “Be smart about where you’re gathering,” though. “If it’s on the dog-pee side of the sidewalk, you do you.”
Most people might know juniper as a cure for lox or a flavoring for gin, but Nelson sees it as something more versatile. “It makes a nice, bright, salty seasoning, so instead of using lemon salt, consider juniper,” she says, noting that it makes a tasty addition to holiday cookies. It also creates a natural yeast. “I love using junipers for the little bloom of yeast that grows on the outside of the fruits as they ripen,” she says. “I use juniper to start ferments and to start sourdough.” To drive home just how many uses the plant has, Nelson points out that, in the U.S., juniper has been burned to make an alkaline ash that is used to “nixtamalize” corn. “It’s the process of breaking down the outer shell of corn, to make the nutrients of corn more bioavailable for our bodies and help us absorb the things about corn that’s good for you,” she explains. “Shoutout to indigenous food science!”
Not to be confused with the banana-like fruit, plantago major and plantago lanceolata are weeds found all over the country. “There’s a joking name — white man’s footprint — because indigenous groups realized that the plant followed behind the settlers,” says Nelson. That’s not to say the plants, at least, are unwelcome: “These leaves are fantastic both for food and their medicinal properties,” she says, noting that they’re full of calcium and beta carotene. “When the leaves are small and tender, they are delicious to eat as salad greens. When they get older and more fibrous, cook them how you’d cook collard greens.” For Nelson, though, the plantain is more medicinal than edible: “A trick that a lot of outdoorsy kids learn is that if you get a mosquito bite or bee sting, you find a leaf from the plantain and you either crumble it up real hard or you chew on it to make a poultice,” she says. “It takes the swelling out and helps the itching stop right away.”
Pines, spruces, and firs have edible needles that are high in vitamin C. Historically, people have made teas using the needles in the wintertime. “One of my favorite uses of pine is out of the Russia-Georgia border region,” says Nelson. “There is a pine-cone preserve, where fresh, green pine cones are put in a sugar or honey solution, and they are very slowly brought to a boil and cooled back down until the pine cones themselves are like candy, and a syrup is made.” She says the solution has been used as both a dessert and effective cough medicine. Be careful, though, that you don’t get them confused with the yew plant, which is similar looking but entirely toxic. “That being said, once you look at the yew plant and look at any of the others, you will not get them confused,” says Nelson.
Though common mugwort is invasive, there are upsides to it being everywhere. “When I’m in New York, I see huge spans of it,” says Nelson. “It’s very good at colonizing spaces humans have touched.” In the West, California sagebrush — also in the mugwort family — is roughly the same: “They both do similar things for cooking, giving a sage-meets-rosemary flavor, especially the younger leaves.” In Europe, it’s infused in alcohol, while in Asia, it’s used as a flavor additive in local cuisine. “I love making mugwort green tea,” says Nelson. “It can cause crazy dreams — but I can only speak for myself.” Plants from the artemisia family are used to moderate hormones, including those affecting the uterus, says Nelson, making it useful for things like easing menstrual cramps or symptoms of menopause, though experts advise that those who are pregnant stay away from eating it.“ The name comes from the moon goddess Artemis,” says Nelson. “Across the globe, it’s synonymous with uterine health.”
“Growing up in Ohio, the way I knew summer was here was by seeing how the mulberries ripen around June,” says Nelson. The dark-purple berries — high in iron and vitamin C — have been used by indigenous people in North America for hundreds of years, for everything from fabric dye to flavoring in corn bread. “You can make jelly from the berries,” Nelson explains, noting that it’s got some more adult uses, too: “Last year I made wine with a combination of mulberries and juneberries. Half of it was bottled as wine and the other half I let it continue aging, so now I have mulberry vinegar.” While its fruit is the most popular part, the tea made from its leaves are known to have antidiabetic and antioxidant effects.
Curly dock may not be as popular as dandelion, but it’s just as readily available in many cities. “This is the one that I see invading little areas, where trees are planted along the sidewalk,” says Nelson. The tart leaves can be used in salad, and the flowers can be added to bread dough. “I make little sourdough crackers and add some curly dock flowers into the batter to make it really nutty when it roasts,” Nelson says. Curly dock has high levels of iron, which has historically led societies to use the plant as a treatment for anemia. “That being said, they can lead to an increased likelihood of kidney stones,” says Nelson. So, those with a family history should probably steer clear. “For everyone else,” she says, “go wild, fam!”
Acorns are everywhere, so it’s not surprising that the oak is said to support more life forms than any other tree in North America: They give housing to animals, insects, and humans (or wood for housing), as well as edible treats. “Most cultures globally, at some point in their history, have eaten acorns. And not just as a starvation food — but as an important part of their culinary culture,” says Nelson. “These days, you mostly see it in indigenous groups here in the United States.” According to Nelson, indigenous groups in western California and Koreans utilize acorns in the most creative ways. “In Korea, acorn jelly, called dotori muk, is still a really popular dish,” says Nelson. “It’s just taking cornstarch and water and boiling it down until it gets thick. It then sets like a savory Jell-O, and you cut it into pieces and serve it with sauce. It’s really tasty.”