Apiaceae - the carrot family
I want to introduce you to the Apiaceae (carrot/parsley) family, but I am going to generally discourage you from foraging for plants from this family, at least in your first year.
While there are some choice edible plants here (not to mention many common cultivated veggies and herbs), they can be difficult to distinguish from some of the most toxic species found in North America. I’m not one to fear-monger when it comes to foraging — I much prefer to present friendly and accessible information in the interest of encouraging more people to give it shot — so trust me when I say this is not a family to be trifled with!
If you know what carrots and parsley plants look like, then you’ve already got a pretty good idea of the kinds of traits to expect from the family as a whole. The single unifying trait here is what’s known as a compound umbel.
‘Umbel’ refers to an inflorescence (fancy way of saying “arrangement of flowers”) in which a cluster of flowers is borne from a common point, giving it a shape akin to an umbrella — see the common etymology there?
What’s unique about Apiaceae’s umbels is that they are compound, which is to say, at the end of each pedicel (flower stalk), you’ll find yet another cluster of pedicels which terminate in the flowers. These flowers have 5 petals and 5 stamens, but they’re usually teeny-tiny and tough to examine closely. They are often white or yellow.
The flower stalks are often hollow, as are the stems — usually. Leaves are often, but not always pinnate, which refers to the structure of the leaf.
See, a leaf can either be simple (one discrete unit: think basil, or maple) or compound (meaning each leaf is further subdivided into leaflets) — Apiaceae leaves fall into the latter category. Compound leaves may be pinnate, bi-pinnate (or beyond), or palmate. Check out this page for more on simple vs. compound leaves.
Plants in the Apiaceae family tend to be rich in aromatic volatile oils, giving us spices like anise, cumin, fennel, coriander and more.
Many plants in this family also produce furanocoumarins, which are pretty fascinating compounds because they can cause dermatitis on contact, but usually only after exposure to sunlight — this is phytophotodermatitis (try saying that five times fast!). I’ve experienced it a few times over the years, and It. Really. Sucks.
Rather than actively foraging for these plants, I’d encourage you to instead locate and identify wild populations in your area, and observe them across the entire growing season. Wild Apiaceaes are much easier to identify when in bloom, and if you miss out on the ideal moment to harvest this year, you can always come back next year.
Common wild plants from the Apiaceae family include:
Carum - caraway
Cicuta - water hemlock - considered to be thee deadliest plant in North America
Conium - poison hemlock - slightly less deadly than Cicuta spp. but not by much
Daucus - carrot / Queen Anne’s Lace - D. carota is our cultivated carrot, and it’s very closely related to the common wildflower Queen Anne’s Lace
Heracleum - hogweed / cow parsnip - these plants are lousy with furanocoumarins and can really mess you up if you’re not careful when handling them
Pastinaca - parsnip - delicious edible roots, but the aboveground green parts are also contain furanocoumarins and should be handled carefully
Solanaceae - the nightshade family
The nightshade (Solanaceae) family is home to some of our favorite cultivated flowers and veggies — petunias and tomatoes are ideal model species for typifying this family.
Both of these species exemplify the key traits to look out for: fuzzy alternate leaves (usually) and flowers with 5 united petals, 5 united sepals, and 5 stamens.
Nightshades are generally rich in alkaloids, and they get a bad rap for that, but I think it’s over-exaggerated. Many people associate “nightshade” with “deadly nightshade” (Belladonna, Atropa belladonna) and thus conclude that “nightshades are deadly.” And yet the Solanaceae family gives us hot peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and many more of our favorite annual vegetables. “Nightshade” does not equal “deadly”!
Another well-known plant from this family is tobacco (Nicotiana spp.), which produces the alkaloid nicotine, and I think this compound does a good job demonstrating the effects of many alkaloids on the human body: in small doses they can be valuable analgesics; go overboard, though, and you can make yourself pretty sick.
All that said, there is a lot of misinformation out there regarding the edibility of wild nightshades, particularly the very common annual “weed” Solanum nigrum. Check out the Wikipedia page for instance: first they tell you that’s it poisonous and shouldn’t be consumed. Then they explain how it’s one of the most commonly consumed wild plants on planet Earth. Notice some inconsistencies there? (We’ll talk more about S. nigrum when we get into summer foraging opportunities.)
Common nightshade genera include:
Capsicum - peppers
Datura - jimsonweed - highly potent (and potentially deadly) medicinal narcotic
Lycium - goji berry / wolfberry
Nicotiana - tobacco
Physalis - ground cherry / tomatillo
Solanum - tomato, potato, eggplant, etc.
Asteraceae - the aster family
You’re going to want to take your time exploring this plant family, the second largest on Earth (after the Orchid family). Asteraceae contains almost 20,000 (!!) species, of which more than 2,000 are found in North America. I could easily teach an entire course on this family alone.
Because this family is so huge, it is divided into several subfamilies, which are essentially a way of grouping similar genera together within the family itself. Subfamilies are further divided into tribes. These are not always indicative of actual genetic relationships, but more about the common morphology between genera.
Asters have one unique defining feature that unites all members of the family, and is sure to confuse the hell out of you at one point or another when you’re examining an unknown species for the first time: compound “disk/ray” flower heads.
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) and dandelions (Taraxacum spp.) demonstrate this unique trait well: what we think of as “the flower” is actually a very complex, compound inflorescence composed of potentially hundreds of individual, highly modified flowers.
When identifying plants, we learn to count the flower parts to narrow down our search, but when you try to count the parts of an Asteraceae inflorescence, chances are you’re going to be baffled: how could this one flower have 50+ petals?! And where are the stamens and pistils?
In fact, what appear to be “petals” at first glance are actually individual ray flowers, and what may look stamens or pistils are actually what’s known as disk flowers. Any given inflorescence could have dozens or hundreds of both types.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these subfamilies and tribes:
Chicory / Dandelion subfamily - Cichorioideae
As the name suggests, the common dandelion (Taraxacum spp.) is a good model for this group. Most members have that characteristic dent-de-lion (“lion’s tooth”) leaf shape. The inflorescences consist entirely of overlapping ray flowers, with no disk flowers present. These ray flowers are characteristically “strap-shaped” — terminating in parallel edges, rather than tapering off. They also contain a bitter, milky sap within the stems (but keep in mind that this trait alone is not enough for a positive ID).
Nearly all constituents are edible, but that bitter sap may make any given specimen unpalatable. It’s also responsible for the medicinal quality of these plants: they’re known to have a tonifying effect on the liver, and the more bitter, the more potent.
Common genera in the dandelion subfamily:
Cichorium - chicory / endive
Lactuca - lettuce
Sonchus - sow thistle
Taraxacum - dandelion
Tragopogon - salsify
Thistle subfamily - Carduoideae
Members of the thistle subfamily have flower heads that are tightly wrapped in numerous bracts. Thistles are also usually pretty prickly, especially those bracts. Despite the spikiness, they are all generally edible as well.
Common genera in the thistle subfamily:
Arctium - burdock
Carduus - thistle
Cirsium - also commonly called thistle
Aster subfamily: Chamomile tribe - Anthemideae
The Aster subfamily is divided into several tribes, two of which we will explore here. First up is the chamomile tribe. Two primary features define this tribe: scarious bracts (this means they tend to be thin, brittle and somewhat translucent) and an aromatic odor. Many of these species have medicinal uses and can be made into lovely teas.
Common genera of the chamomile tribe:
Achillea - yarrow
Anthemis - chamomile
Artemisia - tarragon / sagebrush (not sage: Salvia spp.)
Chrysanthemum - mum / daisy
Leucanthemum - oxeye daisy
Aster subfamily: Sunflower tribe - Heliantheae
The key trait of the sunflower tribe is the small bracts attached to each disk flower. These species are also generally resinous, whereas members of other tribes and subfamilies are not. The common cultivated sunflower is a perfect example of this tribe.
Ragweeds used to be grouped into their own tribe, but more recently, taxonomists have relocated them within the sunflower tribe. Their flower morphology scarcely resembles that of the more common sunflower (Helianthus) species, and they are unique among the Asters for the fact that their flowers are unisexual, with distinct male and female flowers appearing on a single plant.
Common genera of the sunflower tribe:
Ambrosia - ragweed
Echinacea - purple coneflower
Galinsoga - soldierweed - the bane of my farming career in southern Indiana! One of the weediest plants I’ve ever encountered
Helianthus - sunflower, sunchoke, Jerusalem artichoke
Rudbeckia - coneflower, Black Eyed Susan
Xanthium - cocklebur - I’m currently picking dozens of these damn seeds off of my dog every day!