Wilderness Survival Skills: Foraging Edible Plants
Foraging is a rewarding and enjoyable activity, as well as an emergency technique. Plus, it allows you to add variety to your meals while lowering your grocery bills! But writing a survival article on wild foods that will be relevant to readers in a broad range of areas and terrains is difficult. Therefore, I’ve tried to include a variety of widely distributed plants that can be easily identified and are, for the most part, available throughout the year.
When you set out to gather wild edibles, you must do so with a great deal of caution. Some people might have allergic reactions to otherwise “safe” plants, and a number of factors — including the time of collection and method of preparation — can make a big difference in both the safety and the palatability of many free foods. Never pick plants close to roadways, polluted waterways, croplands, or any other place where chemical sprays or fumes could’ve contaminated them.
Furthermore, a forager should never eat a plant that looks unhealthy, or one they can’t identify beyond a shadow of a doubt. Whenever my survival school students collect wild edibles, I ask them whether they’d stake their lives on their ability to identify the species at hand. That, in fact, is just what they’ll be doing when they eat it. So, use a good manual on the subject — preferably one that contains both sketches and photographs showing leaf, root, flower, and stalk structure — and, when possible, get some training from an expert in your area, because the common names and, surprisingly, the appearance of some plants will change from one locale to another.
Tips for Harvesting Edible Plants
Someone in a survival situation will likely find that roots and tubers are most easily gathered with a “digging stick,” a sturdy branch that’s pointed at one end. When working in rocky soil, you can fire-harden the point by heating — but not burning — it over glowing coals. Then, push the stick into the ground next to the plant, and lever out the root.
To collect seeds, place the seed heads in a sack and shake the kernels loose. Or, you can make a willow hoop out of a flexible sapling and place a shirt over it to form a shallow tray into which seeds can be knocked off.
Finally, keep in mind that plants are living entities and, many people believe, have their own spirits. Whenever I pick one, I thank it for giving its life to keep me alive. And, of course, we must all be careful not to wipe out a species in any one area.
4 Abundant, Edible Plants
The following food sources are likely familiar to many folks, and they’re abundant across much of North America.
Oaks. All acorns (Quercus spp.) are edible, though some are a good bit sweeter than others. However, if you simply shell one of the seeds and take a bite, you’ll likely be immediately turned off by the astringent, burning quality typical of most oak nuts. Fortunately, you can leach out the tannic acid that makes them bitter and toxic. The easiest way to do so is to shell the acorns, smash them (you’ll want to break them up, but not pulverize them), wrap the pieces in cloth, and place them in a stream for about half a day (or longer if they haven’t lost their unpleasant taste by that time). Another method is to boil the nuts, changing the water frequently, until the water boils clear and the flavor appeals to you.
Once they’re leached, acorns can be eaten raw, toasted, added to stews, or pounded fine and mixed with wild-grain flours to make bread. They’re a valuable source of proteins and carbohydrates, and they’re available from early fall until spring. Acorn sprouts can be prepared in the same ways as the nuts themselves, or — in the case of most white oak species — can be eaten right off the ground.
Of the many grasses in North America, all but a few are edible, with their seeds being the most palatable part. Select grasses with large seed heads or clusters, since trying to collect small ones would likely be a waste of vital energy. Dry and parch the seeds, and then winnow them to remove the chaff. You can then toast the kernels and eat them plain, add them to stews, or grind them into flour for bread. Some of the best, safest, and most widely available grasses are crabgrass, goosegrass, foxtail, bluegrass, ryegrass, and orchardgrass, plus wild oats and millet.
Pines. Not all evergreens are edible, but pine (Pinus spp.) is. These trees offer a wide assortment of edibles that are all easy to collect and prepare. You can, for instance, add the pollen to stew as a thickener and to bread for flavor. If you heat the cones gently by a fire until they open, you can then easily extract the seeds, which you can eat raw; parched and winnowed; shelled and baked (depending on the species); or in soup or bread. Use pine needles to make a nourishing tea. You can also dry the inner bark of pine, spruce (Picea spp.), and hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and add it to stew and bread.
Cattails. The cattail (either Typha latifolia or T. angustifolia) can be used at almost any time of year, because at each stage of its life cycle, it has a number of edible parts. For example, you can mash up the root in cold water to separate the soluble starches and, once they’ve settled and the fibers and water have been removed, add the starches to stew or mix them with other wild flours to make bread. The new shoots can be eaten raw, and those up to a foot tall can be prepared like asparagus. The head, before it emerges, can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. Finally, it’s possible to collect cattail pollen for use in soup or as a flour.
More Edible Plants
Clover. Many clovers (Trifolium spp.) are edible, the best being the red, sweet, yellow, white, white sweet, buffalo, alsike, and crimson varieties. Boil or steam the flowers and new green leaves, and eat them as you would spinach. Tea made from the dried flowers is also relatively high in nutrients.
Violets. The new green leaves of the Viola species can be cooked as a green, added to soup as a thickener, or eaten raw in a salad. The dried leaves, on the other hand, make excellent tea that’s high in vitamin A. The violet’s taste is bland, however, so the leaves will be most appealing when mixed with other greens.
Chicory. When dried, roasted, and ground, chicory (Cichorium intybus) roots will brew into a coffee-like hot drink, and the new green leaves can be cooked as a potherb or added to stew. Also, the blanched white part of the new leaves at the plant’s base are tasty when eaten raw, either alone or in a salad.
Stinging nettles. The stinging nettle (Urtica spp.) is a good survival plant, since it can be found in many areas of the country. Steam or boil the young shoots or leaves to produce a great cooked green. Or, to make a tea, boil the older leaves for 10 minutes, and then strain out the fibers. Be careful, however, when handling this plant. Its “bite” is painful, but fortunately, its stinging capability is destroyed by cooking. (The plant’s stem fibers, by the way, make good cordage.)
Roses. Steep the fresh petals of the Rosa species in hot water to make a tasty tea. Also, rose hips can be eaten dried or pitted and raw, and they make an excellent survival food, because they can often be found throughout winter, and they’re packed with vitamin C.
Waterlilies. Almost all waterlilies (Nymphaea spp. and Nuphar spp.) are edible and can be gathered most of the year. During summer months, when the rootstocks become mushy and tasteless, they’re still an excellent source of survival food. Additionally, the young, unfurling leaves and unopened buds can be prepared as a potherb. The seeds can be parched, winnowed, and ground into a nutritious flour, and the potato-shaped tubers of the tuberous waterlily (N. odorata var. tuberosa) can be dug from the mud and prepared like potatoes. Two of the more common edible varieties are the yellow pond lily and the fragrant pond lily. (Be careful to collect any such plants from pollution-free waters!)
Arrowhead. Use a forked stick to push the tubers of this marsh plant (Sagittaria spp.) free of the mud, after which they’ll float to the surface. Though they can be cooked like potatoes, many people prefer to eat them raw, as a snack. The arrowhead is an excellent survival edible, because it’s available throughout the year, but the roots do get bitter and soft in midsummer, and are especially so when the plant is in flower.
Chickweeds. Chickweeds of the Stellaria and Cerastium species make good cooked greens, and all but the mouse-eared type (C. fontanum), because of its hairy texture, can be eaten raw, although some people don’t care much for the taste.
Common plantains. When steamed or boiled, the tender young leaves of the Plantago species can be eaten as a cooked vegetable or added to soups and stews. The young, unfurling leaves are sometimes eaten raw. I also like to grind the parched and winnowed seeds into wild flour that has a distinctive taste and a healthful dose of protein.
Wintercress. You can eat the winter rosettes of Barbarea vulgaris raw or add them to salads, but the leaves of the spring plants must be prepared as a potherb to rid them of their bitter taste. If cooked before they bloom, the flower heads resemble broccoli, but might require a couple of changes of water.
The plants described here represent just a small sampling of the many valuable and often delicious vegetables that can be found growing wild. Visit www.MotherEarthNews.com/Foraging-Edible-Plants for a longer list of common wild edibles, and then get yourself a good field guide and go on walks to sharpen your identification skills.
Tom Brown Jr. was brought up in the ways of the woods by a displaced Apache man named Stalking Wolf. Brown is the author of The Tracker and The Search, and he’s the head of the largest tracking and wilderness survival school in the United States, Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School.
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