Can You Eat Tree Leaves? | 7 Types That Are Edible


Bright Green Tree Leaves

Knowing whether you can eat tree leaves and which types are edible is good information to have whether you are a survivalist or not. When in nature, I have often wondered if a particular tree had leaves that could be eaten by humans. I mean, if the leaves in our salads are edible, are the leaves on trees edible too? So I did some research and this is what I learned.

Can you eat tree leaves? Some types of tree leaves are edible, provided they do not contain any toxins. Younger trees are typically a better option than mature ones. However, humans are not able to digest leaves readily due to their high fibrous content. Therefore, while some leaves contain minerals, we get very little energy from them.

Tree leaves are numerous and plentiful throughout the world. Humans tend to think of tree leaves as food for the animal kingdom and not a source of nutrition for ourselves. However, there are many tree leaves that we can safely incorporate into our diets.

Edible Tree Leaves

Most of us would forage near the ground when in the woods searching for food. Few of us would probably consider looking up toward the trees for a source of nutrition. Even so, several tree leaves, and even bark, are sometimes known to be safe for human consumption. Here is a guide to some of them and how to best eat the blades safely.

  • Beech
    The American beech tree, F. grandifolia, is natively found in Eastern America. These trees can grow to over 100 feet. They are distinctive due to their gray-tinged bark and deep green leaves. Its young spring leaves can be eaten if cooked. Note, you can also eat its nuts.
  • Birch
    These thin-leaved, white bark, deciduous trees are synonymous with survivalism as its inner bark is edible and can be turned into flour. It can also be eaten raw or as an ingredient in soups and stews when prepared like fine noodles. Its spring leaves are also edible, though they are commonly used as an ingredient in tea due to their analgesic properties.
  • Linden
    This is one of the most popular trees leaves to eat and is characterized by its grey fissured bark. Young spring leaves from Linden can be consumed raw or lightly cooked. Its flowers are also a well-known ingredient in teas.
  • Maple
    The sugar maple, A. saccharum, has distinctive, three-lobed leaves that are slightly notched. While these trees are mostly known for their delicious syrup, you can eat their young leaves and seeds too.
  • Pine
    Conifers are vital for wildlife and hold many uses for human survival too. While its bark is the primary source of nutrition, you can eat the pine needles. They are rich in vitamin C and do not taste unpleasant. Typically, you will chew the needles, removing the juices and spitting out the pines, rather than consuming the entire thing. You can also make tea with them to extract the nutritional elements.
  • Sassafras
    Tea from the sassafras is well-known, and it has a distinctive, fragrant taste. Their leaves are also delicious. Unlike some species, the leaves from these trees do not need to be cooked and are ideal for tossing into a salad.
  • Willow
    Although bitterness is a warning sign to not to eat a leaf, the willow tree leaves are an exception. Young willow leaves can be eaten in desperate situations without any ill-effects.

Deadly Trees to Avoid

Trees are like most things in nature; they come with a defense mechanism to help them survive. Consequently, many species of trees are toxic, even lethal to humans. Here are just a few that you should aim to avoid:

  • Manchineel
    Widely considered as one of the most poisonous trees in the world, Manchineels are native to Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Central America, and parts of South America. While the fruit is frequently considered the poisonous aspect, so is every other element of the tree. Eating any portion of this tree will commonly lead to an agonizing death, including the leaves.
  • English yew
    While these are native to Europe, these evergreens can be found in the Americas. The berries aren’t toxic, but the rest of the tree is, leaves included. Its toxins will lethally interfere with cardiac function, and there is no antidote.
  • Pacific yew
    These tall, 30-foot trees find their natural habitat in the Pacific Northwest. It is distinctive due to its thin, scaly bark, delicate leaves, red berries, and seed cones. These leaves contain an alkaloid toxin and just lie the English yew, which affects cardiac function.
  • Horse Chestnut
    This is a common tree in the Pacific Northwest, cultivated for its flowers. You can identify it due to its white flowers with pink splotches at their base. Their leaves contain alkaloid saponins and can kill in if you ingest them, or its seeds, raw.
  • Cheery Trees
    The ripe fruit of a cherry tree might be a commodity, but the rest of the tree contains cyanogenic glycosides. These toxins can result in vomiting, anxiety, headaches, and dizziness. In some cases, reactions to the poison can lead to death. You can recognize the tree by its springtime white flowers before the fruit appears. Its leaves are serrated and have red glands running through them.

How to Test if a Leaf is Edible

Survivalists long ago devised a test to ascertain if a plant was edible by breaking it down into components (roots, stems, leaves, buds, and flowers) and dealing with one aspect at a time. The same mythology can be applied to testing tree leaves. Here are the main steps you should take to ensure you’re not eating a tree leaf that will harm you.

  1. Smell it
    Strong, unpleasant odors are a bad sign, and if encountered, don’t eat it.
  2. Test for contact poisoning
    You want to be sure that the leaf doesn’t react with your skin before you ingest it. Take the leaf and place it on your wrist, lower arm, or elbow for several minutes. If you react to the leaf, be it a rash, itching, swelling, burning, or numbness, the foliage should be avoided.
  3. Prepare a small amount for eating
    However, it is that you plan to consume the leaf, prepare a few in this manner. Boiling is advisable for most leaves.
  4. Lip test
    After preparing the leaf, place it against your lips. Wait for 15 minutes and assess if there was any reaction. Usually, you will feel a tingling or burning sensation if the leaf is toxic. If there is no reaction, proceed.
  5. Tiny taste test
    Place a small amount of the leaf into your mouth and chew it, do not swallow. Keep it in your mouth for 15 minutes. If you detect a bitter or soapy flavor, spit the plant out. Watch for any sensations that suggest your body is reacting to a toxin.
  6. Swallow
    If nothing untoward has been detected, swallow the small bite. Wait several hours to evaluate if your body reacted to the leaf. You are looking for ingestion distress, fever, chills, vomiting, or nausea. If your body doesn’t respond negatively, then you can conclude that the leaf is safe to eat.

Issues With Humans Eating Tree Leaves

While it may first appear that the threat of toxicity is the main deterrent preventing humans from eating tree leaves regularly, the main reason for abstaining is due to the lack of energy they provide. As humans evolved, our brains grew in size, and we needed a lot of energy from food to feed them.

Despite leaves being full of cellulose, a type of sugar, humans do not possess the required enzymes or bacteria to break this down. Humankind evolved to be able to extract carbohydrates and fat from higher energy sources, like meat.

As a result, we don’t have the enzymes or bacteria that produce enzymes like cows do, to digest most leaves and grass. Therefore, leaves have limited value in our diet. Even leaves from the ground provide us with very little energy. Also, if we could digest the cellulose in leaves properly, we would have to eat vast quantities to fuel the human body efficiently. Such a consequence can be observed by more substantial, but lazy animals that graze all day, like sloths or giant pandas.

While leaves may lack energy, they can contain a few useful vitamins and minerals. Vitamin A and C are commonly found in leafy greens. You can expect to ingest calcium, potassium, and sodium from tree leaves too. However, being deficient in so many components the body needs to survive, leaves cannot be the basis of your diet.

Final Thoughts

Leaves from many trees are edible. Generally, leaves are only able to be consumed in the spring, when young leaves have sprouted. For some species, leaves can be eaten raw, while others require boiling before they are safe to ingest. To be sure you are not eating anything dangerous, put the leaf to a rigorous in-person poison test before consuming them. While you can eat tree leaves, there isn’t a lot of energy that humans can extract from them due to the inability to break down the sugars, specifically cellulose, that leaves contain.

Related Questions

Can Humans Eat Bark?

For centuries, humans have eaten bark. For Native Americans, it was an essential part of their survival. Depending on the species, some barks are delicious and nutritious when eaten raw. Many traditional recipes use bark in soups or a substitute for noodles. Note, it is the inner bark of the tree that is the edible portion, not the outer, seasoned parts. Tree bark is full of nutritional goodness.

How Do You Get Syrup from A Tree?

There are far more trees that you can tap for syrup or sap, though many don’t produce a flavorful, sweet treat. First, find a tree that is at least eighteen inches in diameter. Next, cut a v-shaped incision into the tree at the base of which you should drill a 2-inch-deep hole with a peg or knife. The sap will start oozing out once the peg is removed. If you have one, place a spile into the hole (it is just a hollow tube with spout). If not, use a hollow twig or piece of bamboo. Collect the sap into a vessel. Expect to get around 2 gallons of sap per tree per year. Once collected, boil the sap with water (ratio of 35:1; water:sap), and simmer, sifting off the scum the rises to the top. Boil-off the water and strain the syrup.

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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