Wisconsin Native Culinary Herbs
The earliest human beings on this planet got their food in two ways: by hunting animals, and
by gathering wild plants. All the food they ate was gathered with their own hands, including
berries from bushes, wild greens from fields, and mushrooms from decaying trees. Through
long practice, they learned to recognize which plants were edible, which were poisonous, and
what could be found at different times of year.
Foraging for food is more than just a fun pastime – though it certainly can be that too.
Gathering your own food offers a wide variety of benefits including free food, new flavors,
good nutrition, susatainablity and a deep connection to the natural world.
One caution! Although many wild plants are tasty and nutritious, some are poisonous – and
many of these closely resemble edible plants. Foraging novices are particularly likely to
mistake a poisonous plant for a safe one. Do you homework or find a foraging group or mentor
to help you get started.
Take a 'Walk On The Wild Side' and try some of these edible Wisconsin natives.
While many people are familiar with the garden variety of chives, imported from Europe
many years ago and widely planted, few people realize that there is also a native North
American variety. The purple or white pom-pom flowers of chives top aromatic stems in
summer. The leaves are edible and have a mild onion flavor; the flowers can be used
as garnishes. Chives can be harvested any time during the growing season after the
leaves are about 6″ long, although the older leaves will be tougher than the new ones.
The flavor will be more pungent in hotter weather. Plants can be cut back to about 3″ high
after flowering to force the plant to produce new, tender leaves.
Wild ginger is unrelated to commercially available ginger; however, it is named wild
ginger because of the similar taste and smell of the roots. Early European settlers
used to dry the rootstalk, grind it to a powder and use it as a spice. Nowadays, one of
the best ways to enjoy wild ginger is as a candy or as a syrup. Wild ginger can be
harvested from late-summer through fall. Because of the way wild ginger grows and
spreads, harvesting the rootstalk of this plant is fairly easy. The rootstalk, or rhizome,
grows along the surface of the ground and can be easily pulled up. You can discard
the leaves and flower if it still remains; you will not be using these parts
Field Mint has a reasonably strong minty flavor with a slight bitterness. The mint
flavored leaves are used as herb in various cuisines. Sometimes raw leaves are
added to salads and other preparations to add flavor to the food. Fresh or dried
leaves are used to make herbal tea. The oil extracted from these plants is used as a
flavoring agent for beverages and sweets. The leaves contain about 0.2% essential
Meadow garlic is an ephemeral, meaning it dies back to the ground when
temperatures start warming up for summer. Look for it in August and you will be out of
luck. It is easy to identify because of the pungent odor of onion or garlic. During the
cooler months from fall through spring, this is one wild edible you can count on. Both
the leaves and the bulbs of meadow garlic plants can be used, most often in the
springtime. Make sure to rinse the plants thoroughly. Common uses include its
addition in soup recipes and meat-based dishes. Though small quantities of the plant
are considered safe to eat, it does contain sulfides
Nodding onion is edible, and its bulbs were widely eaten by native peoples and
European settlers, either raw, cooked or dried for winter. Being strongly flavored, it is
mainly used as a flavoring. Cooking removes the strong smell and flavor, converting
the sugar inulin to the more digestible fructose, and the bulbs become very sweet.
The leaves are edible, raw or cooked. They have a delicious, strong-onion flavor, and
are said to be very nice in salads. The flowers can be eaten raw or cooked. They have
a delicious strong onion flavor, somewhat stronger than the leaves especially if the
seeds are starting to set. They make a very decorative and tasty addition to the salad
The leaves and berries of this plant can be eaten raw or cooked. A tea can be made
from all parts of this plant, most commonly twigs and leaves, it has a refreshing flavor
and texture. Also the berries that ripen in early fall have a taste similar to allspice, it is
a warm spice that can be used in baking and pies. They are usually used fresh or
frozen for later use. The leaves can also be eaten raw, usually as a condiment, and
the young bark is said to be good to chew on.
The foliage and bulb of this onion are edible, if somewhat strongly flavored. The bulbs
of wild onions have a strong flavor but can be eaten raw or parboiled. Early explorers
ate them, and they were also used by settlers to treat colds, coughs, and asthma, and
to repel insects. It can be used like any other onion – raw, cooked, or pickled.
Prairie Parsley seeds can be used as a seasoning substitute for dill or carrot seeds
and the leaves can be cooked, usually boiled. As a herb the flavor is not anything over
which to get excited. In times of starvation supposedly the root was also boiled or
roasted but honestly, it would have been during some pretty rough times. The flavor
is not good.
Unlike commercially grown Fennel, Sweet Fennel does not produce a bulb but has
flavorful greens and seeds. Very hardy, green fronds sprout in the spring from
last-year roots. If you like the flavor of sweet licorice you will like fennel. Preparation is
easy: To cook the young fronds bring a large pot of water to roiling, boil the fronds
for 10 minutes or so, drain, use whole or minced. You can also save the cooking liquid
for flavoring. The cooked fronds are used in several ways. Some folks eat the fronds
mixed in with other greens. They are a bit overwhelming on their own. Seeds are
commonly harvested for use as flavoring in a variety of foods such as bakery
products or sausages.
The leaves of Wild Basil can be used fresh or dried as a flavoring in cooked foods or
fresh as a flavoring in salads. A sweet and aromatic herb tea is made from the fresh
This herb has been consumed for thousands of years by Native Americans. The
leaves, stems, bulbs, and flowers of this plant are all edible. Wild Leeks are famous for
their strong garlic-like aroma and delicious onion-like flavor. It can be used and
cooked as you would with regular leek and spring onions. It can be adapted into
numerous recipes as a substitute for onion, garlic, or the common leek. You can also
chop up ramps and sprinkle them over a salad. Use Wild Leeks sparingly when you’re
using it as a seasoning as its strong flavor can easily overpower the taste of your dish.
Wild Licorice root can be used raw as a flavoring. The source of licorice powder that
is extracted and used in sweets, baked goods, ice cream, soft drinks etc, it is also
used medicinally. A sweet and delicious flavor, but the root is very fibrous. The dried
root is often used for chewing, as it is excellent for teething children and also as a
tooth cleaner. A tea made from the roots is an excellent thirst quencher. The powdered
root is also used as a sweetener in other herb teas.
The leaves of Wild Mint have a distinct peppermint smell when pinched or crushed as
the plant contains aromatic oils and are edible, raw or cooked. Pick leaves at any time
during plant growth, and they may be dried. Having a quite strong minty flavor with a
slight bitterness, they are used as a flavoring in salads or cooked foods. A herb tea
can be made from the fresh or dried leaves. An essential oil from the plant is used as a
flavoring in sweets and beverages. The leaves contain about 0.2% essential oil.
Mint jelly is a popular preparation. To make mint tea, pour boiling water over a scant
teaspoon full of dried leaves, or over 1/3 cup fresh leaves. Iced tea is also a treat. Mint
leaf candy can also be made. The First nations used mint tea to remedy bad breath,
toothache, or to cure hiccups.
Wintergreen has a variety of uses as a food. Wintergreens mint-flavored berries are
edible and it has a very strong spicy taste. It is best to harvest the berries after a
frost. The berries have been used to make pies or jams. The leaves of the plant were
used to make oil of wintergreen to flavor candies, medicines, and chewing gum.
Several sources caution that large doses of wintergreen oil can be toxic. A very
agreeable tea is made from the fresh leaves. A stronger tea can be made by first
fermenting the bright red leaves. Oil of wintergreen can be distilled from this plant. It
can be used to flavor beer, sweets, chewing gum etc.