Wilderness Survival Skills: Foraging Edible Plants

By Tom Brown and Jr.
article image
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/GREENWOOD1963
Dandelions are one of many edible plants.

Tom Brown, Jr. was brought up in the ways of the woods by a
displaced Apache named Stalking Wolf. Today, he is one of our country’s
leading outdoor authorities, author of The Tracker and The Search,
and head of the largest tracking and wilderness survival school in the
U.S. Tom has also agreed to do a series of special features for MOTHER
EARTH NEWS, articles that will help all of us learn how to survive — in
comfort! — in the wilds.


It’s very difficult to write a survival article on wild
foods that will be relevant to readers in a broad range of
areas and terrains. Therefore, I’ve tried to include a
variety of widely distributed plants that can be easily
identified and are — for the most part — to be
found throughout the year.

Remember, though, that when a person sets out to gather
wild edibles, he or she must do so with a great deal of
caution. Some people, for example, 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. You should
never, of course, pick plants close to roadways, polluted
waterways, croplands or any other place where chemical
sprays or fumes could have contaminated them.
Furthermore, the forager should never eat a plant that
looks unhealthy, or one that he or she can’t identify
beyond the 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 held 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 a wild-plants expert in your area (both the common
names of and, surprisingly, the appearance of some
plants will change from one locale to another).

General Tips For Identifying Edible Plants

A person in a survival situation will likely find that
roots and tubers are most easily gathered with a “digging
stick” (a sturdy branch pointed at one end). When working
in rocky soil, it’s a good idea to fire-harden the point by
heating — but not burning — it over glowing coals.
The digger is then pushed into the ground next to the
plant, and the root is levered out.

To collect seeds, tie a shirt in the form of a bag
(wrapping the sleeves around the neck hole to close it), place the seed heads in the sack and shake the
kernels loose. Or, you might want to make a willow hoop out
of a flexible sapling and place the 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 very careful not
to wipe out a species in any one area.

Four Abundant, Edible Plants

These food sources are both familiar to most folks
and — across much of North America — abundant!

  • Oaks. All acorns (Quercus
    species) are edible, though some are a good bit sweeter
    than others. However, if you simply shell one of the seeds
    and take a bite, it’s likely that you’ll immediately be
    turned off by the very astringent, burning quality typical
    of most oak nuts. Fortunately, you can leach out the tannic
    acid that makes them bitter, and 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 a 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 flavor appeals to you. Once they’re leached, the 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 that’s available from early fall until
    well into the next spring. And 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.
  • Grasses. Of the many grasses found in
    North America, all but a few are edible, with their seeds
    being the most palatable part. However, it’s best to select
    grasses with large seed heads or clusters, since trying to
    collect small ones would likely be a waste of vital energy. The seeds should be dried and parched, then winnowed to
    remove the chaff. The kernels can then be toasted and eaten
    plain, added to stews, or ground into flour for bread. Some
    of the best, safest, and most widely available grasses are
    crab, goose, foxtail, blue, rye, and orchard, plus wild
    oats and millet. 
  • Pines. Not all evergreens are edible, but
    the Pinus (pine) species are. These trees offer a
    wide assortment of munchables that are all easily collected
    and prepared. You can, for instance, add the pollen to stew
    as a thickener and to bread for flavor. And if you heat the
    cones gently by a fire until they open, the seeds can be
    easily extracted. These can then be eaten raw, parched and
    winnowed, or shelled and baked — depending on the
    species — and added to soup and bread. Use pine needles
    (along with those from spruce and hemlock . . . but be sure
    you’re not gathering the needles from the red-berried,
    poisonous American yew, Taxus canadensis
    ) to make a nourishing tea. You can also dry the inner bark
    of pine, spruce (Picea species), and hemlock (Tsuga
    canadensis
    ) and add it to stew and bread.
  • Cattails. The cattail (either Typha
    latifolia
    or T. angustifolia) can be
    utilized at almost any time of the year, because at each
    stage of its life cycle it has a number of edible parts.
    For example, you can mash the root up in cold water to
    separate the soluble starches, and — once these have
    settled, and the fibers and water have been
    removed — add the material to stew or mix it with other
    wild flours to make bread. The new shoots can be eaten raw,
    and those up to a foot tall may 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 species) 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 food value.
  • Mint. Most members of the mint family (Mentha species) can be used as tea or provide
    flavoring for other foods and drinks. For example, you can
    steep the green (or dried) leaves for a short time in hot
    water and add the liquid directly to a stew.
  • Spicebush. The spicebush (Lindera
    benzoin
    ) is the forerunner of our modern allspice,
    and the pioneers dried and powdered its berries to make a
    versatile flavoring. For a zesty tea, steep its bark, young
    twigs, and young leaves in warm water for about 10
    minutes. (This beverage is flavorful, but its food value is
    quite low.)
  • Miner’s Lettuce. The Montia
    species (which belong to the same
    family — Portulacaceae — as purslane, another
    popular edible green) are available during much of the
    year, and these typically small, low-growing residents of
    damp places make a good cooked vegetable. It’s also
    possible to eat them raw or add them to soup and stew. (The
    new, small leaves have the best flavor.)
  • Sumac. All of the Rhus species
    are edible, with the exception of poison sumac, which can
    be distinguished from the others by its loose clusters of
    white berries and the absence of teeth on the leaves. To
    make a good tea or cold drink from the bright red
    stag-horn, smooth, and winged sumac berries, just bruise
    the clusters in cold water, let the brew sit for 10
    minutes, strain it and drink the beverage hot or
    cold. You can also make a fine soup with a fruity flavor by
    heating the berry clusters and then straining them out
    before eating the broth.
  • 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, however, is very bland,
    and the leaves will be most appealing when mixed with other
    greens.
  • Dandelions. You can eat the tender leaves
    of Taraxacum officinale raw or cook them like a
    potherb if they’re gathered before the plants bloom.
    The mature flower itself is tasty when dipped in a batter
    made from wild-grain flour and fried like a fritter, while
    ground dried roots make an excellent hot drink.
  • Chicory. When dried, roasted and ground,
    chicory (Cichorium intybus) roots will brew up
    into a coffee-like hot drink, and the new green leaves can
    be cooked as a potherb or simply 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.
  • Greenbriars. The new green leaves,
    sprouts or shoots — as well as the young
    tendrils — of the Smilax species can be eaten
    raw or cooked. In many parts of the country, greenbriars
    have edible parts from spring through the middle of autumn.
  • Stinging Nettles. The stinging nettle (Urtica species) is a very 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 boil the older leaves for 10 minutes,
    then strain out the fibers, to make a tea. Be careful,
    however, when handling this plant: Its “bite” is very
    painful, but fortunately, the stinging capability is
    destroyed by cooking. (The plant’s stem fibers, by the way,
    make good cordage.)
  • Roses. It’s possible to steep the fresh
    petals of the Rosa species in hot water to make a very
    tasty tea. Also, the dried and pitted rose hips can be
    eaten raw and make an excellent survival food, because they
    can often be found throughout the winter and are packed
    with vitamin C.
  • Great Burdock. The young green leaves of
    Arctium lappa can be eaten raw or prepared as a
    potherb for a quick survival food. The roots of first-year
    plants must be peeled of their inedible rind, and can then
    be boiled — in two changes of water — for 30 to 40
    minutes and eaten like potatoes.
  • Amaranth. You can roast and grind the
    seeds of the mature plants of Amaranthus species
    into a rich flour. The young leaves can be eaten raw, added
    to other cooked vegetables, or put directly in stew. (This
    food source is available, in many areas, from spring
    through fall.)
  • Waterlilies. Almost all waterlilies (Nymphaea and Nuphar species) are edible
    and can be gathered most of the year. During the summer
    months, when the rootstocks become mushy and rather
    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.
    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 species)
    free of the mud, after which they’ll float to the surface.
    Though these can be cooked like potatoes, many people
    prefer to eat them raw, as a nibble food. 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 very
    good cooked greens, and all but the mouse-eared type 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 soup and
    stew. The very young, unfurling leaves are sometimes eaten
    raw. Then, too, I like to grind the parched and winnowed
    seeds into wild flour that has a distinctive taste and a
    healthful dose of protein.
  • Prickly Pear. This fruit’s fleshy pulp
    makes an excellent trail-side food. The seeds of the
    Opuntia species can also be parched and ground
    into Hour, and the young pads — peeled — can be
    eaten raw or fried.
  • Winter Cress. 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 two changes of water.

Local Foraging

The plants described here represent just a small sampling
of the many valuable and often delicious vegetables that
can be found growing wild. Get yourself a good field guide
and take advantage of summer walks to sharpen your
identification skills.

Foraging is a rewarding and enjoyable family activity, as
well as an emergency technique . . . and it will allow you
to add variety to your meals while lowering your grocery
bills!