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Chiropractor Heather Goodspeed-Walters was exploring the running trails of her new hometown of Nevada City, Calif., when something small and shiny caught her eye. Little wild blackberries dotted her path. “I stopped to eat one, just to get a little hydration,” explains Goodspeed-Walters. “Boy, they were a treat. So sweet and juicy!” After that, she was hooked. The runner started identifying other edibles on the run and soon she was foraging for everything from manzanita berries to cattails, carrying bags and pruning shears to tuck away treats.
North Carolina–based runner Hyewon Grigoni, who has been foraging on the run for years, says the benefits are multifold. From a fitness perspective, running with a goal of finding flora “motivates me through dry spells”—plus, she adds, “I love free and organic foods!”
Both adventurous pickers agree on one rule of thumb: You must be completely certain (Goodspeed-Walters says “110 percent”) that you know what you’re grabbing—and, more importantly, what you’re putting in your mouth. Consuming poisonous plants can be damaging or even deadly.
But Grigoni says that with a little chutzpah and knowhow, there’s nothing to fear. “It may feel daunting at first, but once you go, you’ll find it’s super fun and rewarding.”
The edible flora you will discover depends largely on the region where you run, but a few pervasive species can be found nearly anywhere in the United States. Here are some plants to look for during your next workout.
How to ID: Raspberries and blackberries are easy to spot as they grow in brambly thickets and look just like they do when you buy them in a grocery store; wild blueberries tend to be smaller than the store-bought variety and usually grow close to the ground on small bushes. Other good finds include mulberries, huckleberries and wineberries—but do some additional research before experimenting with small fruits and don’t assume all berries are safe to eat.
Health benefits: Rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals, berries have been found to aid in the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer.
Eating ideas: Just pop them in your mouth! Berries are also wonderful when dropped into everything from salads and salsa to spritzers and smoothies.
How to ID: Found in marshes, wetlands and swamps, these distinctive plants can be identified by the hotdog-shaped seed-heads growing off shoulder-high shoots. In the spring, the seed-heads are green and good to eat. Once they turn yellow, the pollen can be used for flour; when brown, pick the underground stems (rhizomes).
Health benefits: A good source of starch and fiber, cattails also contain beta-carotene, niacin and riboflavin; those with a gluten intolerance should avoid cattails.
Eating ideas: Boil green seed-heads and enjoy just like corn on the cob. Remove tough outer leaves from shoots and then sauté like asparagus. Thoroughly wash rhizomes, peel like a potato and then thinly slice and mix into salads, or boil and season for a starchy side.
How to ID: The bright yellow flowers are a dead giveaway, but you can also look for a rosette base with spiky notched leaves about 6 inches tall. The flower, leaves and root are all edible.
Health benefits: Rich in vitamin C and beta-carotene, dandelions are known as a digestive aid and promote kidney and liver health.
Eating ideas: If the leaves are tough, soak in cold, salted water for 10 minutes; enjoy sautéed with garlic, as a replacement for basil in pesto or wilted into a soup. Roots and flowers are great for tea.
How to ID: The little pink flowers look like pompoms. Pick just the blossoms; the leaves are edible but too tough to enjoy.
Health benefits: Clover is commonly used to reduce symptoms of PMS and menopause, thanks to isoflavones that mimic the effects of estrogen.
Eating ideas: Mix the buds into a salad or sprinkle over rice to add some crunch.