A Field Guide to North America’s Wild Crops

When I was a child in New Jersey, summer meant berry picking. As the wild raspberries ripened, the emerald woods around our house became spotted with bright bursts of deep purple. We would plunge through the brambles to collect enough juicy, tangy-sweet berries to make a pie. We didn’t realize that the local black raspberries were a cousin of the plumper, red variety we bought at the grocery store. We just knew that they were delicious.

These berries are just one of the many species of wild or feral edible plants dotting the North American landscape. Called crop wild relatives, they’re the genetic cousins of the strawberries, hot peppers, and hazelnuts found in grocery stores around the world. Many of these plants, such as chiltepins, a tiny, fiery Sonoran desert pepper from which dozens of pepper cultivars were bred, remain an important foraged food for Indigenous people. Others, like apios, were once cultivated by Native Americans; apios is no longer widely cultivated due to the European colonial destruction of Native food systems, but the species now spreads freely across eastern North America as feral plants. Species such as wild strawberries, which dot fields and forests from Oklahoma to Ontario, are native plants that agricultural breeders crossed with other species to create the produce at your local supermarket.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Featured image: Mageejp, Wikimedia Commons.