Using plants as food in the wild – how to find, identify, test, and prepare plants for eating.
After having solved the problems of finding water, shelter, and animal food, you will have to consider the use of plants you can eat. In a survival situation you should always be on the lookout for familiar wild foods and live off the land whenever possible.
You must not count on being able to go for days without food as some sources would suggest. Even in the most static survival situation, maintaining health through a complete and nutritious diet is essential to maintaining strength and peace of mind.
Nature can provide you with food that will let you survive almost any ordeal, if you don’t eat the wrong plant (i.e. poisonous plants). You must therefore learn as much as possible beforehand about the flora of the region where you will be operating. Plants can provide you with medicines in a survival situation. Plants can supply you with weapons and raw materials to construct shelters and build fires. Plants can even provide you with chemicals for poisoning fish, preserving animal hides, and for camouflaging yourself and your equipment.
Plants are valuable sources of food because they are widely available, easily procured, and, in the proper combinations, can meet all your nutritional needs.
WARNING – The critical factor in using plants for food is to avoid accidental poisoning. Eat only those plants you can positively identify and you know are safe to eat.
Absolutely identify plants before using them as food. Poison hemlock has killed people who mistook it for its relatives, wild carrots and wild parsnips.
You may find yourself in a situation where you have had the chance to learn the plant life of the region in which you must survive. In this case you can use the Universal Edibility Test to determine which plants you can eat and which to avoid.
Considerations when looking for plant food
It is important to be able to recognize both cultivated and wild edible plants in a survival situation.
Consider the following when collecting wild plants for food:
- Plants growing near homes and occupied buildings or along roadsides may have been sprayed with pesticides. Wash these plants thoroughly. In more highly developed countries with many automobiles, avoid roadside plants, if possible, due to contamination from exhaust emissions.
- Plants growing in contaminated water or in water containing Giardia lamblia and other parasites are contaminated themselves. Boil or disinfect them before consuming.
- Some plants develop extremely dangerous fungal toxins. To lessen the chance of accidental poisoning, do not eat any fruit that is starting to spoil or is showing signs of mildew or fungus.
- Plants of the same species may differ in their toxic or subtoxic compounds content because of genetic or environmental factors. One example of this is the foliage of the common chokecherry. Some chokecherry plants have high concentrations of deadly cyanide compounds but others have low concentrations or none. Horses have died from eating wilted wild cherry leaves. Avoid any weed, leaves, or seeds with an almond-like scent, a characteristic of the cyanide compounds.
- Some people are more susceptible to gastric distress (from plants) than others. If you are sensitive in this way, avoid unknown wild plants. If you are extremely sensitive to poison ivy, avoid products from this family, including any parts from sumacs, mangoes, and cashews.
- Some edible wild plants, such as acorns and water lily rhizomes, are bitter. These bitter substances, usually tannin compounds, make them unpalatable. Boiling them in several changes of water will usually remove these bitter properties.
- Many valuable wild plants have high concentrations of oxalate compounds, also known as oxalic acid. Oxalates produce a sharp burning sensation in your mouth and throat and may damage the kidneys, particularly when high doses are consumed. Baking, roasting, or drying usually destroys these oxalate crystals. The corm (bulb) of the jack-in-the-pulpit is known as the “Indian turnip,” but you can eat it only after removing these crystals by slow baking or by drying.
WARNING – Do not eat mushrooms in a survival situation! The only way to tell if a mushroom is edible is by positive identification. There is no room for experimentation. Symptoms caused by the most dangerous mushrooms affecting the central nervous system may not show up until several days after ingestion. By that time, it is too late to reverse their effects.
How to identify plants
You identify plants, other than by memorizing particular varieties through familiarity, by using such factors as leaf shape and margin, leaf arrangements, and root structure. The following diagrams illustrate the various plant structures.
Plant leaf margins
However, there are many other margin descriptions besides toothed, toothless, and lobed. Here’s a chart that lists the 16 defined leaf margin characteristics.
Plant leaf shapes
As illustrated in the picture below, leaves may be lance-shaped, elliptical, egg-shaped, oblong, wedge-shaped, triangular, long-pointed, or top-shaped.
Here’s a nice chart that illustrates the various leaf shapes and arrangements (click for larger view).
Plant leaf arrangements
The basic types of leaf arrangements are opposite, alternate, compound, simple, and basal rosette.
Plant root structures
The basic types of root structures are the taproot, tuber, bulb, rhizome, clove, corm, and crown. Bulbs are familiar to us as onions and, when sliced in half, will show concentric rings. Cloves are those bulblike structures that remind us of garlic and will separate into small pieces when broken apart. This characteristic separates wild onions from wild garlic. Taproots resemble carrots and may be single-rooted or branched, but usually only one plant stalk arises from each root. Tubers are like potatoes and daylilies. You will find these structures either on strings or in clusters underneath the parent plants. Rhizomes are large creeping rootstock or underground stems. Many plants arise from the “eyes” of these roots. Corms are similar to bulbs but are solid when cut rather than possessing rings. A crown is the type of root structure found on plants such as asparagus. Crowns look much like a mophead under the soil’s surface.
Learn as much as possible about the unique characteristics of plants you intend to use for food. Some plants have both edible and poisonous parts. Many are edible only at certain times of the year. Others may have poisonous relatives that look very similar to the varieties you can eat or use for medicine.
Universal Edibility Test
There are many plants throughout the world. Tasting or swallowing even a small portion of some can cause severe discomfort, extreme internal disorders, and even death. Therefore, if you have the slightest doubt about a plant’s edibility, apply the Universal Edibility Test before eating any portion of it.
- Test only one part of a potential food plant at a time.
- Separate the plant into its basic components—leaves, stems, roots, buds, and flowers.
- Smell the food for strong or acid odors. Remember, smell alone does not indicate a plant is edible or inedible.
- Do not eat for 8 hours before starting the test.
- During the 8 hours you abstain from eating, test for contact poisoning by placing a piece of the plant part you are testing on the inside of your elbow or wrist. Usually 15 minutes is enough time to allow for a reaction.
- During the test period, take nothing by mouth except purified water and the plant part you are testing.
- Select a small portion of a single part and prepare it the way you plan to eat it.
- Before placing the prepared plant part in your mouth, touch a small portion (a pinch) to the outer surface of your lip to test for burning or itching.
- If after 3 minutes there is no reaction on your lip, place the plant part on your tongue, holding it there for 15 minutes.
- If there is no reaction, thoroughly chew a pinch and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. Do not swallow.
- If no burning, itching, numbing, stinging, or other irritation occurs during the 15 minutes, swallow the food.
- Wait 8 hours. If any ill effects occur during this period, induce vomiting and drink a lot of water.
- If no ill effects occur, eat 0.25 cup of the same plant part prepared the same way. Wait another 8 hours. If no ill effects occur, the plant part as prepared is safe for eating.
CAUTION: Test all parts of the plant for edibility, as some plants have both edible and inedible parts. Do not assume that a part that proved edible when cooked is also edible when raw. Test the part raw to ensure edibility before eating raw. The same part or plant may produce varying reactions in different individuals.
Before testing a plant for edibility, make sure there are enough plants to make the testing worth your time and effort. Each part of a plant (roots, leaves, flowers, and so on) requires more than 24 hours to test. Do not waste time testing a plant that is not relatively abundant in the area.
Remember, eating large portions of plant food on an empty stomach may cause diarrhea, nausea, or cramps. Two good examples of this are such familiar foods as green apples and wild onions. Even after testing plant food and finding it safe, eat it in moderation.
You can see from the steps and time involved in testing for edibility just how important it is to be able to identify edible plants.
To avoid potentially poisonous plants, stay away from any wild or unknown plants that have:
- Milky or discolored sap.
- Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods.
- A bitter or soapy taste.
- Spines, fine hairs, or thorns.
- Foliage that resembles dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley.
- An almond scent in woody parts and leaves.
- Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs.
- A three-leafed growth pattern.
Using the above criteria as eliminators when choosing plants for the Universal Edibility Test will cause you to avoid some edible plants. More important, these criteria will often help you avoid plants that are potentially toxic to eat or touch.
Preparation of Plant Food
Although some plants or plant parts are edible raw, you must cook others for them to be edible or palatable. Edible means that a plant or food will provide you with necessary nutrients; palatable means that it is pleasing to eat. Many wild plants are edible but barely palatable. It is a good idea to learn to identify, prepare, and eat wild foods.
Methods used to improve the taste of plant food include soaking, boiling, cooking, or leaching. Leaching is done by crushing the food (for example, acorns), placing it in a strainer, and pouring boiling water through it or immersing it in running water.
Boil leaves, stems, and buds until tender, changing the water, if necessary, to remove any bitterness.
Boil, bake, or roast tubers and roots. Drying helps to remove caustic oxalates from some roots like those in the Arum family.
Leach acorns in water, if necessary, to remove the bitterness. Some nuts, such as chestnuts, are good raw, but taste better roasted.
You can eat many grains and seeds raw until they mature. When they are hard or dry, you may have to boil or grind them into meal or flour.
The sap from many trees, such as maples, birches, walnuts, and sycamores, contains sugar. You may boil these saps down to a syrup for sweetening. It takes about 35 liters of maple sap to make 1 liter of maple syrup!