Can You Eat Leaves – Are Tree Leaves Edible?


Last year, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that over 50 million Americans have “poor access to healthy food.” That includes green, leafy vegetables and fruits.

As any good survivalist knows, healthy foods don’t only appear on supermarket shelves but actually grow on trees. 

We’re used to eating lettuce leave and spinach leaves, but few of us consider eating the leaves of trees.

There’s a good reason for that.

The human digestive system isn’t capable of breaking down the cellulose found in a lot of leaves, and the process of chewing those leaves will burn more calories than you’ll get from ingesting them.

Fortunately, some common tree species produce edible leaves suitable for human consumption. That means almost everyone can access healthy food, whether living in a city or surviving in the wilderness. 

Not every tree leaf will taste as good as the best freeze-dried meats, but they will supply you with much-needed nutrition and add a healthy boost to your diet.

10 Trees With Edible Leaves

#1 American Linden or Basswood

American Basswood

The American Basswood is one of the most useful trees for survival. The wood is soft enough to make into ropes, rugs, and even bandages, and all parts of the tree are edible.

The bark also has medicinal qualities and, when consumed as a tea, eases heartburn and other stomach complaints.   

The leaves are packed with “important nutrients like potassium, magnesium, nitrogen, and calcium,” so they offer substantial health benefits in a survival situation. 

They also have an almost gelatinous, or gummy, texture that some may find off-putting. 

In terms of flavor, the leaves of the American Basswood are slightly sweet and nutty, especially when picked in spring, although they are edible throughout the year. 


#2 Mulberry 

mulberry tree

Few people can resist the sweet spiciness of a mulberry, but even fewer are aware of the benefits of the mulberry leaf. 

Mulberry leaf tea is gaining popularity and notoriety due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. 

Recent studies have also found that mulberry leaves reduce the cardiometabolic risks associated with type 2 diabetes and other cardiovascular diseases.

Eaten raw mulberry leaves have a “mild, subtly sweet, and vegetal flavor.” You can add young, fresh leaves to salads or use them to make herbal tea. The leaves can also be cooked or dried and used to thicken soups and stews.

You can also stuff them with a herbaceous rice mix to create mulberry-style dolmas.


#3 Maple

Maple tree

A tree that produces something as delicious as maple syrup surely has tasty leaves, and most varieties of maple do.

Some people recommend eating the young leaves raw, including Greg Osowski from the Atlantic Wildlife Institute, who says, “they have a slight maple flavor to them” and a slight sweetness. As they mature, however, the leaves “lose their flavor and become harder to digest.”

You can also cook maple leaves, and deep-fried yellow maple leaves are a tradition in parts of Japan. The veins in yellow maple leaves are softer than those of other varieties, making them easier to digest and enjoy. 

However, you can’t just rustle up a batch of deep-fried maple leaves over a campfire. You must first dry the leaves in salt for 10 months to enhance the taste. 

Once complete, you can coat the maple leaves in batter or add a drizzle of maple syrup and deep-fry the leaves until golden brown and crispy.  

Clearly, this isn’t a delicacy many survivalists will get the opportunity to enjoy. Nibbling on a young leaf is probably the closest you’ll come to deep-fried maple leaves in the wilderness.

Still, even that will give you a pleasant taste sensation, a little nutrition, and a good dose of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.


#4 Birch

Birch trees

Birch leaves are edible, and because they’re packed with vitamin C, they have a wide range of health benefits.

Birch leaves aren’t particularly pleasant when eaten raw, having a somewhat bitter taste and fibrous texture, not unlike kale. When steamed or sautéed, however, they can add a healthy, nutritional boost to your favorite survival meal. 

You can also harvest the twigs, leaves, and catkins to make a “peppery, minty tea” that will aid digestion, detoxify your kidneys, and ease pain and inflammation.

The birch tree’s bark is edible and can be stripped off (in small quantities) to make a spaghetti substitute. Throw in a few steamed leaves, and you’ve got a complete and healthy meal from one tree.

Read our guide to Birch tree uses.


#5 Sassafras 

sassafras leaves

The FDA may have banned sassafras because of its “reported health risks,” but its issues with the tree do not appear to extend to its leaves. 

Sassafras root contains a substance known as safrole, which was found to have carcinogenic effects on rates in a 1979 study. 

Some claim that “safrole levels are not detectable in the leaves themselves, but rather in the bark and the root,” making them safer to consume. Still, I wouldn’t recommend tucking into a bowlful of them. 


#6 Beech

Beech tree and leaves

The American beech tree is indigenous to the US and grows throughout eastern North America. Although valued for its wood, the beech tree also produces a range of delicious snacks, with small, edible nuts that “are high in protein and fat.” 

In spring, beech trees produce young, edible leaves that have a pleasant citrus flavor and can either be eaten raw or cooked as a green vegetable. You can also harvest the shoots, which have an even softer texture.


#7 Pine 

young pine tree

Although pine needles don’t look very appetizing, they are both edible and relatively tasty if picked young. They contain essential nutrients, including vitamins C and A, and antioxidants. 

Although you can eat pine needles, many people prefer to chew them and swallow the juices rather than eat them whole. You can also use them to make teas and syrups.


#8 Willow 

willow tree

Willow leaves are more commonly used for medicinal purposes but also serve as a good survival food, even if they don’t taste great. 

Willows are fast-growing trees that love water and usually grow along rivers and streams. They are most easily identified in spring when they produce soft, fuzzy catkins, which are also edible but should only be consumed in moderation.

Eating more than 12 willow catkins at a time can produce mild side effects, including nausea and tinnitus.  

Willow has been used for thousands of years as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. Think of it as nature’s aspirin, and use it accordingly!

Unfortunately, it tastes a bit like aspirin, with its bitter flavor and “tart vitamin C aftertaste.” People with an allergy to aspirin should steer clear of all parts of the willow tree, particularly the bark, which can cause itching, rashes, and other allergic reactions. 


#9 Hawthorn

hawthorn leaf

There are hundreds of species of hawthorn tree which, although native to Europe, are relatively common in the US. The mayhaw is the most common and grows in seasonal swamps and wet woods throughout the southeastern USA.

The hawthorn is better known for its berries, which have a tart, yet slightly sweet flavor, but its leaves are also edible and have a fresh green taste that’s both sweet and lightly sour. 

Hawthorn leaves contain antioxidants that “help protect against heart disease and help control high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”

Most commonly consumed as a tea, hawthorn leaves can also be eaten raw and, when young, have a mild nutty flavor.


#10 Moringa 

moringa leaf

The Moringa tree is a superfood, containing “seven times more vitamin C than oranges and 15 times more potassium than bananas.” You can use the leaves to treat inflammation, infection, heart problems, and joint pain.

The only trouble is you’ll struggle to find a Moringa tree growing wild in the US. Native to South Asia, the Moringa prefer tropical conditions and, as such, can only grow outside in warm climates, like those found in the southern areas of Florida, Arizona, California, and Texas.

If you are fortunate enough to have a Moringa tree you can harvest from, you can blanch the leaves and use them in stews and other dishes, as you would any other leafy green. Dried and powdered, they can be added to teas and soups to boost their nutritional value.

Eaten raw Moringa leaves have a bitter, slightly peppery taste, not unlike spinach, but with a stronger flavor. They also contain a natural laxative, so they should only be eaten in moderation. 


Conclusion

As long as trees are nearby, there’s no reason to go hungry, even when your emergency food supply is exhausted. 

Many trees have edible parts, including berries, nuts, bark, and leaves, but not all are easy for the human body to digest. 

Some are also bitter in flavor, which many will find off-putting. Nevertheless, edible leaves are an excellent survival food, especially if you can identify the species and prepare the leaves accordingly. 



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