In any survival situation, food will eventually become a priority. The dilemma you face is how to consume the most possible calories and nutrients with the least amount of effort. If you burn more calories than you consume, you create a caloric deficit that will start to affect your body. When hunting, trapping, or fishing you run the risk of coming back empty handed after hours of effort. However, in most areas you will always score calories if you look for wild edibles.
In almost any environment, even in snow or in the desert, wild edibles can be found to sustain you without hunting, trapping or fishing. However, you have to be confident in your identification for this food source to be an option. Misidentifying plants or mushrooms can lead to severe illness and death. In addition, there are many “look-alike” poisonous plants out there that appear very similar to edible plants. If you are unsure, DO NOT EAT IT. I cannot stress this enough. I will cover several options that can be found in most of the world, are easy to identify, and are easy to prepare and eat.
First, you need to test your reaction to the plant if you have never eaten it before. This is why I suggest trying out wild edibles before you are in a survival situation. Many of these plants can be found in your back yard, and can easily be incorporated into your regular diet. They are loaded with nutrients and healing properties, and some taste pretty darn good.
When gathering wild edibles, use some common sense. Never gather in areas near road ways, industrial buildings, golf courses, or any other areas where chemicals could contaminate the food. If you use chemicals on your lawn, do not eat plants from it.
When you find a plant that you know is edible, I suggest trying it out in stages. You want to use all of your senses to check the plant. Often times, these plants will have a particular smell. In most cases, a foul smell is an indication that it is not edible. Also, you want to avoid plants that are especially waxy or have thorns. Keep in mind that some edible plants only have certain parts of the plant that you can eat.
Crush the plant so it releases some fluid and rub it on the inside of your wrist. Give it 15 to 20 minutes to see if you have a reaction. If there is no reaction, rub a little on your lips and wait another 15 to 20 minutes. If you are still good, eat a very small amount. One leaf is plenty. If it has a foul taste, it may not be edible. Wait another 15 to 20 minutes and pay attention to how you feel.
If you still have no symptoms, you should be okay to eat more. Do not over-do it. Eating too much of any one plant can make you sick. Variety is always a better bet, but do not mix your plants until you have tested each one separately. As you start to spend more time learning about these plants, you will start noticing them everywhere. The world becomes your own personal garden!
Types of Wild Edibles
There are several types of wild edibles to consider. I will start with leafy plants and then discuss other options.
Clover – This plant is a low growing legume that is very common. It has three circular leaves and sometimes has a white flower. There are no poisonous look-alikes and it can be eaten raw or it can be cooked.
Dandelion – This plant has a yellow flower in the spring transitioning to a white seed head in the summer. The leaves have a jagged edge. The whole plant is edible raw or cooked. The stem tastes bitter, but has a sap that is good for cleaning out your system. Dandelions have lots of good nutrients, and have a peppery flavor similar to arugula. It has no look-alikes.
Oxalis – This plant has heart shaped leaves that are almost white on the underside. They typically have a small flower that is yellow or white. The leaves, stems, and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked and have a delicious lemon flavor. It is one of my favorites.
Violets – This plant grows low to the ground in shady areas. It has large heart shaped leaves and purple flowers present for a few weeks in the spring. The leaves and flowers are edible raw or cooked.
Broadleaf Plantain – This grows in sunny areas and has large round leaves that look similar to spinach. It actually tastes a bit like spinach as well. Do not confuse this with buckhorn plantain that has more narrow leaves. It is not poisonous, but tastes lousy and can upset your stomach.
Watercress – This plant grows in patches in the water along creeks and lakes. It has large round leaves and has a peppery flavor like dandelions. It is very tasty.
Wild Carrot – Most people know what the top of a carrot looks like. Both the greens and root are edible, but make sure you smell it first. If it does not smell like a carrot, it could be hemlock which is a poisonous look alike.
Wild Onions/Garlic – These look very similar and are easy to identify. Both are stronger than the onions and garlic you buy at the store, so watch out. Just look for a tall green hollow shoot sticking up above the rest of the plants, and then check the smell.
Chickweed – This plant grows in thick patches and has small, mouse-eared leaves. Sometimes it has tiny white flowers. The stem and leaves are edible and can be eaten cooked or raw. It is a winter annual so you can even find this under the snow in the wintertime. It is quite tasty.
Henbit – This plant sticks up higher than most others. It is only out for a few months in the spring and has a distinctive small purple flower. When you see fields that are purple in the springtime, it is from the henbit growing in them. The leaves, flowers, and stems are edible. It is also a winter edible and can be found under snow.
Fiddlehead Ferns – This is a newly sprouted fern that is still delicate and tasty. It is normally found in shady wooded areas and has a distinctive curl to the stem that resembles the head of a violin.
Miners Lettuce – This has round to spade shaped leaves with small white flowers. It grows in shady areas low to the ground.
Burdock – This plant has huge leaves that end up being spade shaped when full grown. The leaves are NOT edible. You can peel the skin off the stalks and cook it, or you can dig up the root and boil it as well.
Milkweed – This plant fascinated me as a child. When you break off a leaf, a white milky sap oozes out. The leaves are large and oval. It is a tall plant and easy to identify. It needs to be cooked before eating, ideally boiling and straining twice.
Now that we have covered the leafy green plants, let us discuss some other options. I want to start with mushrooms because I feel it is a very important topic. I do not do mushrooms with the exception being Morels. Mushrooms can be very hard to identify, and they can kill you. Morels are the only mushrooms that are distinctive enough for me to feel comfortable.
Morel Mushroom – This mushroom grows in the springtime in many climates and sticks up above surrounding plants. They sometimes grow in patches around dead or rotting trees. They have a very distinctive texture and are easy to identify.
Berries are another risky venture. Blackberries and Mulberries are distinctive enough for me to eat them, but most others are too risky. You can sometimes find wild fruit trees, and that can be a safe bet. Nuts are a good options, but do not eat too many. If you are able to take dried beans with you, you can grow sprouts and eat them on a daily basis.
Blackberries/Mulberries – These berries are both red at first and turn black when ripe. Blackberries grow on thorny bushes along fence rows and have white flowers in the spring. Mulberries grow on trees but look almost identical.
Autumn Olive berries – The autumn olive is a short brushy tree that has a silvery green leaf. In the summer and fall it develops small red berries with white specks on them. If you try some and they are bitter, try another tree and you likely will find some that are sweeter.
Acorns – These nuts come from the Oak tree, which can be found all over the world. However, acorns should not be eaten raw. They should be boiled and strained twice to leach out acid that could upset your stomach.
Hickory Nuts – The Hickory tree is very common and drops thickly shelled nuts. If you can get past the hull, these nuts can be eaten raw or roasted.
There are some spiny plants that you can eat if you take the time to remove the barbs. In the early spring, you can tap certain trees and drink the sap for electrolytes and sugar. You can even eat the inner bark of some trees. There are also non-leafy plants that grow in water that make a good food source. As a last resort, you can even pick undigested nuts and berries out of animal scat. I will cover some of these options in more detail to help you to better identify them.
Sea Asparagus – This crispy plant grows in shallow salt water in areas to the north. It has a narrow stalk and gives a satisfying crunch when you bite into it.
Bull Kelp – This funny looking plant grows underwater in salt water. There are several parts to the plant, and any part that is tender enough to eat can be eaten. It is typically yellow in color.
Cattail – This plant commonly grows along the edges of lakes or streams. At the base of the plant is a white, tender shoot that can be eaten raw. It can easily be identified by the brown seed pod filled with fluffy white seeds.
Bean Sprouts – This is not a wild edible, but can be quickly grown in the wild. Simply take a handful of dried beans and put them in a pillow case, shirt, or burlap sack. Soak it for eight to twelve hours. Then dip them in water and let them drain three times a day. In two to five days you will have sprouts ready to eat. Because you are in a non-sterile environment, you need to boil them to kill bacteria before eating them. One cup of beans can produce two pounds of sprouts. This is something you can even do on the go. If you are walking along a water source, just tie your sprouts to your belt and stop to douse them periodically.
Prickly Pear Cactus – This flat cactus can have the skin and spines removed and can be eaten raw or cooked. However, eating too much can upset the stomach.
Bull Thistle – This spiny plant has a bright pink/purple flower and barbs all over it. All parts of the plant can be eaten once spines are removed and it is cooked. In many cases, it is not worth the time it takes to prepare it for consumption.
Maple – These trees can feed you in several ways. You can eat the tender new leaves, you can tap the tree for syrup in the spring, you can eat the seeds in the helicopter type seed pods, and you can eat the white inner bark once you strip away the outer bark. The bark can be eaten raw, dried, or boiled. The leaf is the same leaf you may have seen on the Canadian flag.
Pine Tree – Pine trees are found in most parts of the world. You can eat the inner bark, munch on the pine nuts that it grows, and make a tea out of the needles that are packed with vitamin C. Most pines have long three to four inch needles and are easy to identify.
Spruce Tree – These trees are also evergreens but have shorter needles. You can also make a tea out of the needles and eat the inner bark.
Other Trees – Birch, Willow, and Sycamore can all be tapped for syrup, and you can eat the inner bark on all three.
Scat – Many animals allow food to pass through their system without it being fully digested. The most common example are nuts and berries. I suggest you wash them thoroughly and then cook them to kill any bacteria.
There are literally hundreds of other edible options that are more regional. My suggestion is to figure out what wild edibles can be found in your region and start learning to identify them. Try them out one at a time and determine what you like and what you do not. Half of the benefit of food in a survival situation is the morale boost it gives you, so taste is important. To start out, you may want to boil and strain these plants once or twice to tone down the flavor a bit. Then you can ease into eating them raw.
As you eat these new foods, your definition of what food is and what tastes “good” will change and evolve. I typically write about skills to help you in survival situations, but this is also something that you can use to save money and introduce more nutrients into your diet. If you replace just a portion of the food you eat with wild edibles, imagine how much money that could save your family in any given year. The key to the whole process is practicing your identification. Every time you are outside, pay attention to your surroundings. Test yourself and see what food you can find. It will amaze you how much food you walk right past every day.