Edible Foraging In Summer
Part One

By Douglas Boudreau

Photo by Douglas Boudreau

In this series, foraging edibles expert Douglas Boudreau will be sharing some seasonal varieties for late spring and summer.


With spring fully sprung here in my state of Florida, I thought it best to start with a valuable and plentiful edible for a large portion of North America. Its most-used common name among foragers is the genus/genera name, smilax.

The best variety is smilax bono-nox, for the green shoot-tips at the ends of each vine eaten either raw or boiled. They are thorny vines known under numerous common names like green briar, cat briar, and bull briar. Some reports on them say the leaves are edible boiled with cooked greens, but you must only choose the most delicate of the light green-leaved species if at all. As I say about using any leaves of a plant for cooking greens or as a potherb, there are plenty of really good plants, which I call choice edibles, and not so choice greens can be foraged from famine food edibles. Smilax leaves are not a choice edible by any stretch of imagination.

The thick-growing tips, however, which grow most abundantly in the spring (but year-round for the most part), are edible raw or cooked somewhat like asparagus. To identify the thorny vine, repeat a mantra that goes: “One leaf, two tendrils . . . One leaf, two tendrils . . .” (on repeat), which alternate down the vine. For some species, the thorns are few and far between. For other species, the vine is extremely thorny. Break off the most tender ends of the tips, growing shoots, and vines. The flavor is unique but tasty, if you’re hungry. The roots of some species were/are used as a beverage, flour, or tonic, but are extremely rock-hard, making it very difficult to process. I don’t suggest using the berries for anything. The vines can be used for cordage needs if not too thorny, or you can carefully cut the tips of the thorns. The places I find them most abundantly are near oak trees in areas of mostly oak hammock woods.


Chickweed, or stellaria media, is a cool-climate plant, but comes up here in central Florida in shady, healthy soil wherever it gets established, but only in our winter starting in December. It is freeze-tolerant, but not heat-tolerant. Central Florida and all of Texas is about as far south as it can handle. In the north, it can nearly reach the Arctic Circle from east to west. Introduced centuries ago from Europe, it was a prized herb by gardeners until the latter half of the last century; now it resides as a noxious weed to a shallow, shortsighted, and spoiled society.

Chickweed contains certain amounts of beta-carotene, vitamin C, high amounts of potassium, iron, and zinc, with modest amounts of other minerals like copper and manganese.

I pick the top portions of the thickest colonies in bunches and pull the leaves off. Delicate when boiled, simmer for a few minutes and add butter, salt, and pepper to taste, or chop and add to salads. Remember to identify it with the single line/row of soft hairs along the stem, changing sides from one node to the next. Its name comes from how much chickens like to eat it. I’ve fed chickens, geese, and turkeys with chickweed.


There are some 106 species of sonchus worldwide, all with reported edibility. Two kinds of sonchus are seen around central Florida in winter, and elsewhere in the US in spring; both are greens with edible leaves, stalks, and unopened flower buds. They both appear a little on the prickly side, with sharp-edged leaves that soften after boiling, and one appears more prickly than the other. They are the common sow thistle, sonchus oleraceous, and the spiny sow thistle, sonchus asperThese are the two species of sonchus that I find here in west-central Florida.

The stalks can be used for famine food by peeling/stripping the leaves and skin off the main stalk and then chopping to boil with butter and spices. The leaves of both get somewhat bitter with age and might require a double boil. Leaves of both should be cooked, but especially the spiny cousin of the common one. The unopened flower buds might be edible after boiling but taste a little bitter.

My best advise concerning a survival situation where one is getting malnourished and weak for lack of food…and for foraging in general: When finding a plentiful source of what appears to be wild edibles, even if you are sure of their edibility, a little bitterness is tolerable, but in any case of a flavor that seems so bitter or rank that you feel like spitting it out, you must spit it out. Getting nauseous in an already precarious situation where heightened levels of starvation loom around the corner, you can’t take the chance on something that might make you sick. It will speed up the process of your possible demise.


Frequently called wild spinach and goosefoot, lamb’s quarters is the closest thing to real spinach that you can find in the weeds. This is a powerhouse of nutrition that only comes up here in Florida during our winter months and is gone by late spring, but it is so plentiful in the spring and summer throughout North America that the west coast foragers mostly call it wild spinach. However, in a shady spot in my native land, with frequent watering you can keep this thing producing and seeding out to October.

The leaves are like spinach at any stage, and the seeds make a good grain. The white coloration on the tops of young plants is a good identifier. The roots might have been used for soap with its high saponin content. This is one species that is found in just about every guide book on edible wild plants. Boiled, the leaves make a tasty greens dish at all stages of development, but it is suggested by some to only be eaten when young and before seeding.


Cenchrus species aka sandspur or sandbur, is a widespread genus of spiky-topped plants in the grass family. Its species are native to many countries in Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas, and various oceanic islands. The thorny little devils that stab their way into your skin are actually a result of natural selection's mutation process to protect the seed of the plant from herbivores and omnivores like us.

The easiest way to harvest them in a survival/famine/doomsday scenario is to burn off the sharp spurs, enough to eat right from the stalk. It must be burnt enough to char the points off the spurs but not burn the seed inside to a crispy chunk of ash. With all the oil in the seeds, they will frequently flame up over the campfire; you must back it away from the fire and blow out the flaming sandspurs stalk. Remember, the goal is to burn off the sharp points on the spurs enough to eat it, not burn the entire thing to a crisp.

Green ones are not yet ripe, so only harvest the yellowing ones. Seeds from plants like these invariably contain amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as certain vitamins and minerals.


Kudzu, ueraria montana var. lobata is a fuzzy, big-leaved vine from east Asia that can grow thirty centimeters per day. It presently ranges from Florida north to Massachusetts, across to Nebraska, and in parts of Oregon and Washington, where it's working its way northward as global temperatures increase due to climate change. When the temperature drops to -20 Celsius (4°f.), the roots of kudzu die. Parts of British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia are already seeing the invasion of the kudzu vine, which can expand to four inches thick and a hundred feet long. Square miles of forest in the southeast have been inundated by it.

First of all, the seeds and seedpods are not edible and the only part of the fuzzy vine's stem that is edible are the growing tips or shoots. The vine produces offshoots in various places, and all growing tips can be cut off and boiled like asparagus. However, the vines, leaves, and shoots are very hairy—even along the margins of the leaves—so the texture is an issue and is the reason it's only used as a famine food, along with young leaves raw or boiled, baked in quiche, cooked for greens, or deep fried. Older leaves can be used, but young are best. The blossoms smell like artificially flavored grape (think Kool-Aid) and can be used to make jelly, syrup, and candy.

Per 100 grams, the cooked leaves contain 36 calories, 89% moisture, .04 grams protein, .01 gram fat, and 9.7 grams carbohydrates, along with an assortment of vitamins and minerals. The roots are dried or dehydrated and then grinded and pulverized into a powder that is used for thickening soups, stews, sauces, and batter for frying. The raw root can contain drinkable fluid in extreme conditions and is used medicinally for treatment of extreme alcoholism. The tuberous root system, however, can grow well under the ground with stems leading to the main root. Finding the actual tuberous root will require a backhoe or other digging tool. Kudzu might be beneficial as a antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory with benefits to cardiovascular functions.


The fruits of creeping cucumber or melothria pendula are the size of jelly beans, resembling tiny watermelons, and are edible raw, tasting like cucumber with a hint of lemon. When you find these little, delicate, crawling vines on the undergrowth along the ground and crawling up bushes, start looking for the fruits. If there is active wildlife in the area, you may not find many, even in their most prolific fruiting season, which is usually late summer to early winter and sometimes seasonal depending on your climate. The fruits can be found any time of the year in deep forests or along the side of roads or trails. I have found them in Florida in the bushes of parks, along bushes beside a highway, along the ground off dirt roads in deep woods and far from signs of civilization. Always leave plenty for the critters if you can. However, where you find one you can usually find plenty.

They are small but very tasty, and the leaves can be added to greens. However, you must stay away from the dark and especially black ones. Once they turn dark, they have a laxative effect with the black ones causing extreme diarrhea.


Cleavers are also called bedstraw for use as filling for mattresses. I have my own name for this plant, Velcro weed. When gathered in bunches, it connects and clumps together in such a way that can create a cushioning effect under a sleeping pad.

The young leaves and shoots (minus any stems) are added to salads or boiled ten to fifteen minutes and served with butter and condiments as a side dish or used in stews, soups, and stir-fries. It requires some effort to pick the tips and leaves off. Any stem material included will have the texture of stiff Velcro. When the tiny fruits/seeds are mature they can be slow-roasted until dark brown and ground up to make a passable non-caffeinated coffee substitute. The dried leaves and tops can be steeped for tea and are used in herbal medicine. Cleavers are also known as goosegrass.     


Peppergrass, or lepidium virginicum, has been used as a substitute for pepper since medieval times. To me, it has the flavor of mild, peppery radishes. It can be found prolifically in winter and spring but will stick around late into the summer. The roots were baked or roasted and ground into a meal/flour that was mixed with vinegar for a horseradish substitute. Some called it “Poor Man’s Pepper” and pepperweed.

Collect the seeds when they turn brown to save if you need to plant around some secret bugout site. I once collected jars full of seeds from these and lamb’s quarters, swamp dock, wild yams, sow thistles, purslane, and wild passionflower to spread around town and in some of the woods where future refugees might find a suitable campsite. In my central Florida area and when I traveled around the country, I identified many wild edibles from north of Maine to just west of Montana and down to Texas and to all points in between.

Douglas Boudreau is co-author with Mykel Hawke of Foraging For Survival: Edible Wild Plants of North America.