Wild edible plants can supplement your supply of food, but you need to know exactly what you’re eating before you put it in your mouth.
- Only a small fraction of the plants on Earth are edible, so don’t graze indiscriminately.
- Some mushrooms are deadly, so unless you know which ones are which, leave them out of your survival diet.
- Plant toxins range from merely irritating to downright deadly. There are no quick and easy general rules regarding how to identify toxic plants, such as “it’s safe to eat whatever you see the animals eat.” Some animals and birds can safely eat things that will do serious damage to humans. It is absolutely necessary to make positive identification of a plant before using it as food.
- The sap of some trees (maple, birch, walnut, sycamore) contains sugar. If you boil the sap down (35:1), you can make a sweet syrup. But not all tree sap is good for food, and some sap has volatile ingredients.
So what can you safely eat? The quick answer — don't eat anything you can't identify for certain. You can make a lifelong study of plants and their uses. Learn one plant at a time. To get you started, let’s take a look at a few easy to identify plants that are safe to use.
- Dandelion — Everybody recognizes this lawn pest, but did you know that it also grows in the wild? All parts of the dandelion can be used for food; root, leaf, bud, flower. Early in the season is best, because the plant becomes bitter with age. I like the young flower buds before they blossom. They remind me of Brussel Sprouts. The leaves can be used raw for salad or cooked for greens. The flower can be eaten raw or cooked.
- Rose — In the wild, rose flowers tend to be small, but the leaves and thorns are otherwise similar to domesticated varieties. The edible part is the “hip,” the globe left behind after the flower has fallen. As the hips ripen, the outer layer (a pithy covering over the seeds) becomes a tasty and nutritious treat that is exceptionally high in vitamin C. Related to apples, the hips sometimes have a hint of flavor similar to that familiar fruit.
- Cattail — Found in moist ground near lakes, streams and swamps, cattails are easily recognized. The edible parts are the roots and the young shoots. The part I like best is the young shoot before the familiar brown seedhead emerges. These can be pulled from the center at the base of the leaf cluster, peeled and eaten like celery. Later, when the seed head emerges, and is still covered by flowers, you can collect the head and prepare it like a skinny ear of corn. Use the flower clusters as a flour supplement for your pancakes.
- Stinging nettle (urtica dioica) is easy to identify — just brush the back of your hand against it and you’ll have instant positive identification. Tiny hollow hairs act as hypodermic needles to inject the irritating formic acid that can cause a rash or blisters (depending upon individual sensitivity). The big surprise for most folks is that stinging nettle is edible. Cooking destroys the stinging property. Use the young tender tops, steaming or boiling only briefly, so the greens don’t turn to mush. Excellent!
- Bull thistle (cirsium vulgare) is a native of Europe, but now can be found all across the USA along roadsides, in deserts, pastures and forests. It’s easy to identify because of its very rough appearance, pain-inducing spines and purple flower head. The part you eat is the young stalk. Use your knife to scrape away the outer skin and spines, then eat the inner core as you would celery. Late in the season, the stalks become too woody to eat.
Some excellent books to help with your study are: Wild Edible Plants of the Western United States by Donald R. Kirk; Eating from the Wild by Dr. Anne Marie Stewart and Leon Kronoff; and all of the books by Euell Gibbons. Another excellent book is Poisonous Plants of the United States by Walter Conrad Muenscher.