Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Truth About Wild Edibles

Cattails.jpeIt drives me crazy when I hear accounts of someone who is rescued after being lost in the wilderness for a few days and the story says the person kept himself alive by eating berries or pine nuts or cattails or some such thing.

The addition of a few berries, nuts or weeds to the diet is not going to make the difference between life and death in a 3-day survival incident. The greatest value of those food items is psychological — it makes the individual feel like he’s doing something positive to survive and gives him hope.

Granted, any food you can intake does help boost the energy level a little. But keep you from dying during a short survival incident? No. To actually die from lack of food would take much longer — weeks, not days.

That said, there is tremendous value in knowing how to find and use wild edible plants. If a survival incident goes long-term, food gathering and preparation will be critically important. Over time, lack of caloric and nutritional intake results in loss of physical, mental and emotional strength, leaving the victim weak and apathetic, and unable to take care of basic needs. Supplementing the diet by every available source can help stave off those debilitating effects.

But how do you find the right things to eat and avoid the wrong things? The truth is that if you indiscriminately “graze” your chance of ingesting toxic wild plants is huge. There are several hundred thousand plant varieties in the world, but only a small fraction of them are edible. Get into the wrong ones, and you might kill yourself.

Imagine walking into a grocery store and all the labels are written in a foreign language. That’s what you’re facing in the wilds. The plants are all labeled, but unless you know how to read the language, it would be like opening a can of unidentified stuff and chucking it down your throat, not realizing that it's poisonous drain cleaner, not food.

If you want to take advantage of wild edible plants, you must learn to read the labels. There is a false notion that you can rely on animals to show you which plants can be eaten. That is not true. The fact is that some plants that are perfectly safe for some animals to eat can kill humans. Examples: squirrels can eat deadly (to humans) varieties of the Amanita mushroom, and some birds can eat the berries of poison ivy.

Unlike some survival instructors, I don't subscribe to the “edibility tests” that would lead you to test edibility by sampling a small amount and waiting to see what happens. My advice — if you don't know what it is, don't put it in your mouth. The consequences of making a mistake can be lethal. An example is the Water Hemlock with roots that smell and taste like parsnips. It is reportedly the most deadly plant in the U.S. and eating a piece the size of a peanut will kill a man.

The good news is that you can easily learn to use wild plants safely. All that is necessary is to learn to make positive identification. It’s no more difficult than telling the difference between Romaine and Iceberg lettuce, or differentiating yams from sweet potatoes. Except that with wild plants, the edible parts are sometimes hidden underground or inside a shell or leaf cluster, so you need to know what all parts of the plant look like and the stages of the plant in all seasons. Begin with the plants in your region, and spread out from there. There are books about plant identification for all parts of the world, so start hitting the library.

It can become a very enjoyable lifetime study, and might even save your life someday, if you're caught in a long-term survival situation.

1 comment:

  1. I have a book on edible plants in this area but I still suck at sorting things out, guess I'd just shoot a deer to keep going if need be.

    The good things on a lot of plants are seasonal so be careful when you get in deep shit, but thanks for telling me what to feed others if I want to kill them.