Washington has a unique abundance of wild foods that grow across the entire state. From the coast to the eastern plains, these rugged lands offer an unparalleled diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. Many of the forest foods of Washington are nutrient-dense, packed with vitamins and contain medicinal properties. Whether you’re looking for wild foods to enhance your diet or boost your immune system, there are edible plants all around the state for everyone to enjoy. While there are ample foraging opportunities year-round in Washington, spring is the ideal time to start venturing out in search of edible herbs and wildflowers.
Early Spring Herbs
As the snow melts and roots thaw, the first of the spring herbs reawaken. Tufts of yarrow begin to break ground in open meadows and nodding onion pop up in rocky fields as the days get longer. You can harvest the flavorful greenery from these plants as soon as they begin to appear in the early weeks of spring. From the shady forest floor, fiddleheads of edible ferns and fronds of stinging nettle begin to emerge. These forest foods should be gathered in the earliest parts of spring as they become less tender and flavorful as the seasons progress.
Along the Pacific coast, you can forage the new growth from red laver seaweed and salty sea palms as they start their growing season. In the high desert around the Columbia Plateau, swaths of golden balsamroot crop up between the sagebrush. Known for their edible roots, leaves, and stems these plants can sometimes be tricky to identify; please note that there are many other yellow wildflower look-alikes in the state that are not edible, so be sure to exercise caution when searching for balsamroot.
There are an array of edible wildflowers that grow in this region and while some are rare, you can find common edible varieties in your own backyard. Dandelions, though sometimes referred to as weeds, have great edible and environmental qualities. These early spring flowers are an important part of our state’s ecology, serving as one of the first sources of food for bees and insects after the long winter. Their flowers and leaves can be harvested in the early spring and summer and tossed with other fresh greens in a salad, while their roots can be pulled for roasting later in the season.
In the mountains, avalanche lilies are some of the first edible wildflowers to break through the dirt, dappling the alpine meadows with bright spots of yellow. There are a handful of edible lily varieties in the state that can be enjoyed fresh or their bulbs can be dug up and cooked later. Please be aware that not all lily varieties are edible and most are toxic to pets.
As spring progresses, yarrow will send up brilliant white flower stalks that can be gathered and consumed. Make sure to double-check the foliage for identification as there are many white floral look-alikes. Yarrow flowers are best harvested early as they dry out quickly in the summer sun. If you miss the opportunity to gather the blooms before the high heat of summer, you can wait until the end of the season to find their edible seeds.
Throughout spring and summer, you can find blooming clusters of white elderflowers that can be enjoyed fresh or prepared at home later. Wildflower season goes by quickly, so be sure to get out and explore early before they fade away!
Late Season Foraging
Later in the summer, as the chill of fall begins to settle in, you can find the fuschia flowers of fireweed in burn-scarred forests. Wild mint with purple blossoms can still be gathered as temperatures drop and the white papery flowers of pearly everlasting can be found in dry, rocky terrain. The southern Cascade mountain range is home to sugar pine with large cones bearing big, hearty nuts. On the eastern slopes of the range, there are lodgepole and ponderosa pines to harvest from.
In the fall, as storms agitate the waters along the west coast, edible giant and bullwhip kelp can be gathered on the beaches. There are many different wild root vegetables to gather and most are best eaten after the growing season has ended. As you are harvesting herbs and flowers in the early parts of the season, remember to mark plants on a map or with natural objects to indicate where you want to harvest roots after their foliage has faded away.
Herb and Wildflower Uses
Some of Washington’s herbs, bulbs and edible wildflowers can be enjoyed raw when out gathering while others should be prepared before consumption. Stinging nettles should be steamed, cooked, or dried prior to eating and most roots and bulbs are more palatable when slow-roasted and seasoned. Air drying herbs is a great way to preserve and prepare your foraged foods. In the more humid regions of the state, you can speed up the process by baking the herbs on low heat to extract the moisture. Once dried, you can combine and grind the herbs into your own spice blends or store them loose to be steeped in teas throughout the year. Try experimenting with different varieties of wild herbs to make your own herbal tea and seasoning blends. Pair your hand-picked teas with local honey for a seasonal immunity-boost and allergy-prevention beverage.
Edible wildflowers are perfect for adding colorful decorations to baked goods or used as elegant garnishes on special meals. Sprigs of fresh herbs can be added to your favorite cocktails for extra flavor and flare — clap the leaves between your hands a few times before adding them to your drink to release their aromatic oils. Raw greens can be tossed in a salad to add a unique taste. If the leaves are particularly bitter, soak them in cool water baths, exchanging the water a few times to lessen the sharpness of their flavor. With most herbs, you can opt for foraging younger leaves and foliage which tend to have a more mild taste.
When heading out to gather forest foods, you first need to know who governs the land that you are hoping to harvest from and adhere to their rules. The National Forests of our state issue personal use permits for foraging edible plants and you can find other regulations for public land use through the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, and Department of Natural Resources. Be sure to check with private landowners before entering their property or harvesting on private lands.
Helpful Tips to Get Started
● Bring a reusable harvesting bag or pail, preferably one with sturdy walls that’s easy to carry and fill. If you are picking leafy greens on a hot day you might consider folding the herbs in a cool, damp cloth to prevent wilting.
● Pack a reliable plant identification guide with you so you can easily identify species while out in the field.
● Wear appropriate footwear and clothing, and pack gardening gloves with you. Some of the herbs you find are nestled with other plants that might have thorns or skin-irritating agents. Harvest with caution and be aware of your surroundings.
● Bring small shears or scissors to help you harvest efficiently and without causing damage to the plant.
● Don’t forget to bring a map and GPS so that you can mark where you find edible plants along the way.
Forage Wild Foods Sustainably and Respectfully
● Be respectful and conscientious when foraging plants that are culturally significant to the indigenous peoples of these lands.
● Gather only what you will consume and do not harvest any single plant or area until it’s bare, leave some in nature.
● Do your best to preserve the integrity of the plant you are foraging.
● Please be mindful when you are harvesting bulbs and roots, as it typically destroys the plant entirely. Be sure to take appropriate quantities and only forage where species are established, thriving, and repopulating. Roots and bulbs are the anchors holding the soil together — be aware of your disturbance to the earth and the potential of erosion from your gathering.
● Do not propagate or disperse seeds of invasive species.
● Harvest with intention and be aware of your impact on the plants beneath your feet.
● Be mindful when gathering in highly trafficked recreation areas. It’s best to avoid harvesting in places that suffer destruction from human use, in order to give the land space and time to recover. Instead, if you see an herb on a busy trail that you want to pick, take note of where you saw the plant then try to find it again in a similar environment with less human disturbance and gather there.
Anyone can forage, you don’t need to be a skilled explorer or certified botanist to safely identify and harvest wild foods. If you are interested in learning more about edible plants in Washington, check out resources like “Wild Remedies” by Rosalee de la Forêt & Emily Han with Illustrations by Tatiana Rusakova, “Pacific Northwest Foraging” by Douglas Deur, or reference Erna Gunther’s “Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans.” I would like to acknowledge the indigenous peoples of these lands. Their profound knowledge of the natural world has laid the foundation for much of what I have learned about foraging here.
Never consume an herb, root, bulb, or flower unless you are certain of the species and variety. Some plants have varieties that contain mild toxins that can upset digestion and there are many plants in this state that are not edible. Do not harvest plants where pesticides or other harmful chemicals have been used. Do your research before eating wild foods. Test your sensitivities when trying new wild foods to make sure you don’t have an intolerance. Do not forage seaweed or other ocean foods from polluted waters as they can absorb heavy metals and other toxins. Don’t put yourself or others in danger to forage edible plants. Be prepared for the conditions where you will be harvesting and know that the weather can change in an instant. Wear sun protection and bring plenty of water with you. Be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife that may be grazing the same fields you are. They have the right of way, so do your best to not disturb them as they feed. For your safety, when adventuring in the wild please let others know where you are going and your anticipated return.