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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
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