Using Foraging to Teach Plant Biology (and More)

Using Foraging to Teach Plant Biology (and More)

Reading Time: 5 minutes


By Wren Everett  For the homeschooling parent, some topics may seem intimidating. If we ourselves struggled with math or science in school, attempting to adequately equip our own young wards may initially seem like an insurmountable task. Teaching biology may hold that anxiety for you, especially if you don’t feel like you have a firm understanding of life outdoors beyond “green growing things” and “some sorta critter.”   

Thankfully, kids are often naturally attracted to animals and want to learn about them. That enthusiasm, however, doesn’t always extend to plants, which makes the plant anatomy portions of the lessons a real bore. There are only so many petunias you can dissect before your porch plantings look depleted, and the kids are wondering what the point is anyway. So, I’d like to offer a unique spin on teaching young people about plants that is almost guaranteed to get them interested and engaged: foraging!   

Whether your students are in kindergarten or their senior year, the practical and delicious skill of finding food in the fields and forests is a great way to get students to observe, explore, and understand how important and fascinating the botanical world can be. Plants get a lot more exciting when you get to eat them.  


Good reference books will be imperative for this edible adventure. For the family looking to add wild plants to both their lesson and dinner plans, I can’t recommend the following highly enough:  

Identification using multiple books for safety.

Newcomb’s Guide to Wildflowers, Lawrence Newcomb: This field guide offers an advanced level of plant identification that is inaccessible to students younger than middle school. That said, it’s one of the best references for flower ID I’ve ever found.  

Botany In A Day, Thomas Elpel: This book teaches about plants in terms of their family traits, making identification instinctive. You may not be able to say what species a certain plant is, but you’ll definitely know where to start searching.  

The Forager’s Harvest, Nature’s Garden, and Incredible Wild Edibles, Samuel Thayer: Leagues beyond any other foraging book series I’ve found. Thayer explains and explores edible plants with the knowledge and enthusiasm that only comes from years of eating them himself.  

Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons: Like walking in the woods with a knowledgeable, lovable grandpa, this book was the foraging gateway for many folks.  

Getting Started  

The best place to start looking for wild edibles is the backyard. And the best plants to start with are the plants you likely already know. There’s a surprising amount of edible goodness growing as “weeds” in your garden and shade trees overhead. (Of course, these plants will only be safe to consume if you don’t spray your lawn with chemicals).  

Wild spinach grows in many places.

Some prime candidates for backyard food-gathering are these common weeds and trees. They have no toxic look-alikes, are easy to identify, and can help build up your confidence.  

  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis): Edible leaves, flowers, taproot  
  • Chickweed (Stellaria media): Edible leaves, stems, flowers  
  • Broadleaf Plantain, English Plantain (Plantago major, Plantago lanceolata): Edible leaves  
  • Common Violet (Viola sororia): Edible leaves and flowers  
  • Oak (Quercus spp.): Edible seeds (acorns, when prepared properly)
  • Wild Spinach (Chenopodium album): Edible leaves  

Gathering chickweed.

Even if you know the identity of a plant you’ve found, take the opportunity to identify it using at least two field guides (any two of the books I’ve listed above would work fine). Identify each part of the plant using the botanical language used in the descriptions in the books. This will get you and your students learning terms like alternate, composite, petiole, or basal rosette almost instinctively (much more fun than memorizing vocabulary terms!). Furthermore, getting a solid grasp of these identification terms will allow you to soon branch out and start identifying less familiar plants with confidence. When it comes to plant identification, especially when foraging, details really matter. Don’t gloss over this part, even if the plants are “easy.” The last thing anyone wants is young people emboldened to indiscriminately (and potentially dangerously) graze on just any plant!  

Wild greens

Once identification is assured, it’s time to gather! You’ll find, depending on what time of year you go out, that different plants will be available at different times. Dandelions are usually best in spring, wild spinach is a card-carrying summer plant, and acorns only begin to drop once fall arrives. Students can start to naturally anticipate the seasonal shift of plant life cycles when they’re looking forward to the arrival of a wild edible.   

This whole endeavor, of course, now leads to the kitchen. If you allow your students to cook alongside you, these lessons will soon transcend science and build domestic life skills as well. Try a spring frittata of dandelion and violet greens, topped with cheese, a summer sauté of savory wild spinach with garlic and ginger over rice, and some spicy cinnamon-acorn pancakes to warm you up on a cool fall morning.  

For the interested parent, it is very easy to continue branching out from science and adding more interdisciplinary elements to this botanical adventure. Conservation goes hand-in-hand with foraging, as some plants are sensitive natives that should be gathered sparingly, while others are invasive spreaders that can’t be eradicated no matter how many of them you pick. History is also waiting in the wings, with traditional Native American uses and pioneer lore easily accessed through the plants that sustained the past. Art can also be foraged from pressed leaves, wild dyes, and natural inks.  

Acorn pancakes!

You could even literally bind all these elements together and write your own homemade family foraging book. Have your students draw detailed illustrations of each plant they forage, describe it botanically accurately, and give seasonal tips and notes for when and how to gather. Include any fascinating background information you discovered about the historical uses of the plant. Then, record your favorite recipe for eating it. Whether you decide to add pages to a dedicated binder or get a glossy-printed book printed through an online service, within a few years, you’ll have a beautiful, memory-full, and useful tome as proof of your botanically edible adventures together.  

I hope it is obvious that this is a very brief, incomplete introduction to a very deep and complex topic. But I also hope that this whets your appetite to explore and teach with the world of edible plants that are bursting out of every corner beyond your door.  

Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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