How to forage for wild winter greens in NC

How to forage for wild winter greens in NC

*This was a document as part of our market mini-demo on edible leafy greens


Important notes:

  • Never forage where chemicals have been sprayed, or near roadsides where chemicals may come off passing cars (such as brake dust)
  • If you forage on land other than yours, be sure you have permission from the landowner. It may be illegal to forage in some municipal or state parks.
  • Never consume something that you cannot identify. While misidentifying leafy greens is generally not as dangerous as misidentifying wild mushrooms or berries, it’s better to not get sick or make someone else sick.
  • Be aware of potential hazardous look-alikes in the area you are foraging, and what to do if you’ve accidentally eaten a hazardous look-alike.
  • When consuming a wild green for the first time, consume in small amounts and monitor yourself for severe allergic reactions. This is very rare for leafy greens, but it’s better to be cautious. 
  • Google Lens has become popular for plant ID, but it is ONLY a starting point. Always go beyond google lens results, as many plants look alike, and the program is only comparing similar pictures without taking into account the small but important differences in plant biology (like serrated vs. smooth leaf margins)

Other great resources



Edible Wild Plants of the Carolinas: A Forager’s Companion. By Lytton John Musselman, Peter W. Schafran. 2001

Common winter greens edibles in the piedmont NC area:

Dandelion, wild lettuce, cat’s ear, wood sorrel, sheep’s sorrel, docks, clover, wild onions/chives, ramps, plantain, chickweed, violets

Important dangerous leafy green look-alikes in NC:

Thankfully, the majority of the more dangerous look-alikes in NC are not frost hardy and are not available for foraging (the greens, anyway) during the winter. One exception is foxglove, which may overwinter some leaves and appear similar to other basal rosettes of leafy greens. One identifying factor is that foxglove leaves are VERY hairy, sometimes fuzzy. And, it is not common for foxglove to overwinter with leaves intact. Another look-alike appears in late winter/early spring; pokeweed begins to emerge, and the young plants can look very similar to docks. If you’re familiar with your foraging area, however, you will notice these new plants as a contrast to the existing docks you’ve already been harvesting. For future reference, N&O has a good list of what to avoid in the spring and summer

Health considerations:

Because wild edible foods are PACKED with nutrients, some plant compounds in wild edibles can have negative effects if eaten in large quantities, or they might contraindicate medications you might be taking. Generally, if you are only eating a handful or so every few days, you should be in the clear. Most side effects or negative interactions occur when eating a lot of it regularly, or when taking concentrated amounts as a supplement. But please do not be alarmed by this section. We are already aware and educated on common food/drug/health interactions, and wild foods are no different. For example, people on blood-pressure medication are told to not eat grapefruit and people with recurring kidney stones are told to reduce consumption of foods with high concentrations of oxalic acids. Labels on herbal tea, even a tea meant to increase milk production in breast-feeding women, include warnings for breast-feeding women to ‘consult your doctor’ before consuming. Caffeine and alcohol shouldn’t be mixed with certain over-the-counter drugs, like acetaminophen. Wild foods are no different than the above, they’re just simply not on our radar since they’re not regularly seen in grocery stores.  

That being said, a few known considerations are:

  • Docks, sorrels - contain higher amounts of oxalic acids and may cause kidney stones or kidney stress. HOWEVER, common foods like spinach or parsley often have more oxalic acid than these wild plants, so it’s only important to note this for people who have been told by doctors to avoid foods with higher oxalic acids.
  • Plantain - may interact with blood pressure-lowering medication (like grapefruit)
  • As with any food, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or people on medications, should be aware of phytochemicals that may be more concentrated in certain foods, and check with their doctors before consuming. 

How to identify, aka plant biology terminology

Basically, consider the plant as a whole (sprawling vs, tall, for example), its individual parts (leaves, flowers), and the plant environment (shade vs sun, for example)

Flowers are usually a dead give-away when identifying plants. For example, many plants have leaves and structure similar to dandelion, but you definitely know if it is or isn’t a dandelion once you see its flowers. Leaves are usually what you will go by when identifying plants.

Important leaf terminology for identifying plants

Leaf shapes:

  • Lanceolate and linear - skinny and long, like a blade of grass
  • Ovate, obviate, oval, elliptical - all variations of oval leaves
  • Star-shaped - think sweetgum leaves
  • Heart-shaped - think redbud leaves

Leaf margins (edges):

  • Smooth
  • Serrate - toothed
  • Lobed - think oak leaf, or arugula
  • Incised - like lobed and serrate combined

Leaf appearance:

  • Consider what shade of green, whether it’s shiny or dull

Leaf veins pattern:

  • do the veins run mostly parallel in a neat pattern, or more like a spiderweb? Do the veins have a color different than the rest of the leaf?

Leaf arrangement around the stem:

  • Opposite - two leaves touching the stem in the same place
  • Alternate - two leaves touching the stem in different places
  • Whorled - leaves almost don’t appear to touch a stem, rather they seem to go around a base in a round pattern (dandelion, collard greens)