When dealing with any wild food, it is vital that you never eat anything that you aren’t 100% sure about the correct ID of. The risks are significant, with several plants and fungi growing in Australia known to cause serious bodily harm if ingested, and some even if you just touch them. Check not only that you know for absolute certain that a plant is an edible species, but also that it is free from contaminants.
The Urban Nanna cannot take responsibility for any reader becoming ill after eating wild food.
What’s in this article
We’ve spoken quite a bit about foraging in the past – mushrooms, weeds, flowers etc – but we’ve never written a catch-all article about the vast array of plants you can forage for in Australia. So here we are with a winter instalment!
So you know what you’re in for, this article doesn’t contain ID notes for every species we list, as we couldn’t possibly cover enough to do that in a way that would keep you safe and healthy while foraging. (Well, actually, we *could* cover enough, but you’re here to get the basics, otherwise you’d already have bought one of the excellent ID guidebooks available (more on that later)).
What you *WILL* get here is a bit of a ‘starters guide’ to foraging, and a list of plants growing during winter-spring in temperate to cool zones of Australia (linked to good ID guides so you can learn more if you want to) with some ideas on how to use them.
Where to begin
As with most things in life, we like to begin any new learning with Permaculture Principle #1 – Observe and interact. Start paying attention to the plants around you. Notice shapes & colours of different plants and their different parts, locations, timing of growth etc.
Then start learning from various reputable sources. Research & learn from experts by way of:
- Going on an in-person foraging course. We run these in Spring & Summer in Victoria, and many other educators run classes around the country.
- Reading books – there are several brilliant Aussie ones, but also Californian & South African ones are useful as we’re similar climates. We’ve listed these at the bottom of the article. We’ve also produced a selection of instructional booklets which you can find here.
- Watching online videos – we did one with ABC Everyday last year on Urban Foraging
- Following online social media profiles (eg Diego Bonetto, Black Forager, Edulis Wild Food, Pascal Baudar – linked at the end). Even if they’re overseas, there are many similar species growing around the world.
- Reading websites and online articles – again, from reputable sources. There’s a lot of info out there, but it’s not all good.
Once you’re set up with some good observation skills and research avenues, start collecting specimens and getting up close and personal with them. Sniff them, feel them, notice if they change over time. Make some notes, and maybe take photos to help you remember what you observed.
All these things should quickly help you get to the stage where you feel confident in telling your dandelion from your catsear, and from there it’s just a hop skip and jump before you’re making Weedy Green Pies or Weedy Green Pesto!
5 simple starters
One of the easiest plants to start your foraging journey with is Dandelion. All parts of the plant are edible – leaves, roots, flower buds, flowers, even the seeds – and it has some great easy defining features to help you tell it apart from its many close relatives.
Ways to use dandelion:
Leaves – salads, sauces, pesto, smoothies, pies
Flowers – garnish for salads, cakes, desserts; in fried fritters; to make mead or champagne; make vegan honey; pickle or ferment the unopened buds as caper substitutes
Roots – dried, roasted and used to brew a coffee substitue
This is an unmistakable plant which many of us recognise from cultivated gardens. All aboveground parts edible, they’re incredibly easy to grow, and pollinators love them, so consider chucking a few seeds in the ground and using them as an edible green all year round.
Ways to use nasturtium:
Leaves – pesto, salads, sandwiches, as dolmades wraps, in smoothies
Flowers – garnish for salads, cakes, desserts; stuffed with ricotta & tempura fried; infuse vinegar to use as salad dressing or dipping sauce
Seeds – make a paste like horseradish; serve shaved over open sandwiches; in a sauce to serve with fish; pickle them as “poor man’s capers”
These are a great plant to forage, as there are loads of varieties, and they crop up almost everywhere. All aboveground parts are edible, and there are some sub species that have favoured edible tuberous roots too.
Common names include Sourgrass, Soursob/sop, Sour Apple Grass. Often confused with clover, but clover leaves have teardrop-shaped leaflets, whereas oxalis has loveheart-shaped leaflets. All oxalis have a delightful citrus tang thanks to the oxalic acid in them. It’s advised to avoid over-consumption, especially if you have kidney issues, so maybe don’t make a green soup out of just oxalis!
Ways to use oxalis:
Leaves – use in salads instead of dressing; add to pesto, smoothies, sauces; add citrus zing to desserts or breakfasts (panna cotta, yoghurt etc); decorate cream cheese on toast with little leaflet love hearts
Flowers – mostly useful as an edible garnish or to add colour to dishes; but you can also make an eco fabric dye with them!
This is an edible weed that can cause contention between foragers, as there are many plants growing in Australia that are given the common name “Onion grass”. Other names that could cause confusion are Onion weed, Wild onion, Wild garlic, Wild leek, Tri-corn leek, Three-cornered leek.
The species we’re referring to hear is Allium triquetrum which is most commonly found in SE Australia. We’ve written a whole lot more about this one here, but as a key takeaway, if it smells strongly of onion when you crush it, it’s most likely a plant is from the Allium family, and all Alliums are edible.
Ways to use Onion grass:
Again, we’ve got lots more on this in this article, but the basics are:
Leaves – use wherever you’d use spring onion or chives; ferment & dry to make an umami spice powder
Flowers – as garnish; infuse vinegar; dry & grind as a mild onion powder
Bulbs – clean (it takes ages) and pickle or ferment; on open sandwiches; in soups; in pesto
Roots – clean and shallow fry to make crispy onion toppers for sushi, soups, noodles, yum bowls
Flowerheads & young seed heads – pickle or ferment to use like cocktail onions
Seeds – dry and use as an oniony seasoning; sprinkle over crackers or bread
These are great as they’re so recognisable, and grow all around Australia. The flower buds and petals are edible, including the reproductive parts in the middle. The seeds of magnolia are toxic to humans and should be avoided. We’ve got lots more info here, and you can check out this video of how to make pickled magnolia buds.
Ways to use magnolia:
Flowers – eaten raw in salads, sandwiches; added to desserts & breakfasts (goes very well with chocolate); added to dumpling filling; pickled and used wish Japanese dishes; dried and used to make tea or used as a spice.
What else to look for
At the time of writing this, late winter-early spring, we have HEAPS of lush weedy greens all around us, and the beginnings of spring flowers emerging. Here are some of the things to look out for at this time of year. (We’ve stuck with plants that are easy to ID, and don’t have close toxic lookalikes).
We’ve listed what these plants are similar to, and/or how you can use them:
- Hairy bittercress Cardamine hirsuta – use like rocket
- Chickweed Stellaria media – use like butter lettuce, chopped as a bulk filler, or to make pakoras
- Wild brassica Brassica oleraceae – use like cabbage/kale/broccolini; can even make mild mustard from the seeds!
- Wild radish Raphanus raphanistrum – tastes like daikon; roots to add flavour eg kimchi, flowers for garnish
- Wild fennel Foeniculum vulgare – like cultivated fennel; add to roast pork or root veg, with smoked fish, fresh fennel & orange salad with almonds, flowers for tea, pollen is more expensive than saffron! Seeds as a spice – curry, baking, preserving, spice rubs.
- Cleavers/sticky grass Galium aparine – excellent nutrient source. Sautee, blend, cook. Seeds can be roasted to make coffee substitute
- Stinging nettle Urtica urens – leaves. Sting is neutralised with cooking/drying. Make soup, in smoothies, dry into chips, steep for tea
- Wild/sweet violet Viola odorata – make colour-changing cordial, floral sugar for baking or cocktails
- Lilli pilli Syzygium smithii – fruit. the most interesting fun texture! Make jam, cordial, on toast, sandwiches, fruit salads, on desserts
- Common mallow Malva sp. – leaves thicken soups like okra, seeds taste nutty, roots can be used to MAKE YOUR OWN MARSHMALLOWS!!!
- Wild/Dog rose Rosa canina. – flower petals. Dehydrate for tea, add to jam, infuse cream to make ice cream
A safety note before you start picking
Once you’re feeling absolutely confident and want to head out to pick wild foods to eat, there are a couple of things to be aware of so you don’t end up having a nasty gastrointestinal encounter!
Avoid areas where plants may be contaminated – think about pesticides, herbicides, chemical runoff or fume deposits from roads, passing dogs…
Consider soil quality – was the plot the plant is growing on ever used to store chemical containers? If so, there will likely be some that’s leached into the soil. Are you in an area where lead levels in the soil are of concern? Is it an area where microplastics are a risk?
Stay legal – there are different rules in different places about the legality of foraging plants, so it’s important to know if you’re in danger of breaking any rules. Never pick from State or National forests; Stay off private property unless invited or authorised.
With all this in mind, it’s best to begin with a space you know well, such as your backyard, or a local community garden space. The more you know about what goes on in that space when you’re not there, the more chance you have of picking uncontaminated plants.
So why not consider letting a patch of garden or lawn somewhere near you (it could be a neighbour’s place if you don’t have your own patch to work with) ‘go to weed’, and see what crops up. Its free food for you, and the added bonus of providing mini green corridors for various pollinators too!
The Weed Forager’s Handbook, Adam Grubb & Annie Raser-Rowland, Hyland House Publishing Pty Ltd, Australia, 2012
The best little book to have on hand whenever you head out. Full of ALL the weedy greens. Particularly suited to Victoria.
Weeds, Brenna Quinlan, Australia 2021.
Fabulous little zine by artist and friend Brenna Quinlan. Great starter resource for beginners and kids.
Let’s Eat Weeds, Adam Grubb & Annie Raser-Rowland, Scribble, Australia 2021. Fantastic book for beginning foragers, and to get kids involved too. Lots of recipes & illustrations.
Eat Weeds, Diego Bonetto, Thames & Hudson, Australia 2022.
One of Australia’s best known foragers, Diego has just released this book which promises to be an invaluable guide to becoming a confident forager.
Wild Food Plants of Australia, Tim Low, Angus & Robertson Publishers, Australia, 1998.
A fantastic guide to an absolute stack of fruiting and flowering plants. Thorough, good distribution maps, good photos, and there’s even a ruler printed in the cover so you can measure your finds to help with IDing them! A must-have for those interested in native foods.
Bush Tukka Guide, Samantha Martin, Hardie Grant Books Guides SBS, Australia, 2014.
Excellent resource on native bush foods. Well worth having, especially if you travel in to the tropical regions of Australia.
Wildcrafted series, Pascal Baudar, Chelsea Green Publishing, USA.
My FAVOURITE wild food books. 3 out now, 4th is on the way.
Milkwood: Real skills for down-to-earth living,, Kirsten Bradley & Nick Ritar, Murdoch Books, Australia, 2019.
Written by our dear friends Milkwood Permaculture, this book is like a comforting, encouraging hug. It teaches, guides, calms and nourishes all at once. There are 5 sections on great topics, and one of them is dedicated to wild foods and foraging in south-eastern Australia. So worth owning, and simply wonderful to read.
The Forager’s Calendar, John Wright, Profile Books Ltd, London, 2020.
Although this is a British book and therefore the seasons/months are flipped for what we find here in Australia, the detail covered for each plant entry makes this an invaluable book for the avid forager, as many of our wild foragables are introduced species found originally in Europe. Nice and light for a thick book, which makes it easy to carry with you.
If you’re interested in wild foods, you may like some of these recipes and articles: