Survival Foods: Edible Wild Plants
Photo by Filip Tkaczyk

Survival Foods: Edible Wild Plants

How Do I Know What Plants Are Safe to Eat?

The ground is not frozen and it’s only a matter of a few short weeks before all the baby spring greens will be available for edible wild plant salad. But how do I know what to put in my mouth as either a trail snack or one of many great survival foods?

In addition to my empirical research of survival foods, over the years I have added several important reference books to my library, most of which are featured in my Introduction to Wild Food Recipes.

Day hikes are a good time to explore and learn, since you are close to help if you have a reaction. I’ve spent years roaming the woods and over time I have learned what to do to minimize risk.

I am prone to allergic reactions, so I do not take this subject lightly.

There are a few steps you can take when exploring the plant world for survival foods that will guide you in this discovery process.

Understand the basic parts of an edible wild plant – root, stem, leaves, buds, flowers, fruit and seed.

Study the plant. Does it have a strong smell? What kind of smell?

Do you have a reaction to the plant when you touch it? What happens when you put it on your wrist? If you don’t have a skin reaction in 15-20 minutes, you’re likely OK, but I’ve had skin reactions after one hour.

Decide which part of the edible wild plant you want to try, prepare it the way you intend to eat it, and place a tiny bit to your outer lip.

If you have no burning or itching after 5-15 minutes, place a tiny bit of it on your tongue. I cannot keep something in my mouth for 15 minutes, so if you want to be cautious, hold it in your mouth for a short time and spit it out. Wait to see if you have a reaction.

Once the food is on my tongue for a few seconds, I go ahead and chew. I will spit it out right away if I don’t intend to swallow.

By the time I’ve explored the food this far I know if I want to ingest it and include it on my list of viable survival foods.

One important cautionary note. Even with cultivated plants, some parts of the same plant are edible, while others are not. Ever wonder why tomato leaves are not sold?

It is very important to repeat the above process with each and every part of the edible wild plant. Don’t assume anything.

Finally, many wild foods are turning up in stores. Fiddlehead ferns are an example of a perfectly edible wild plant that causes an allergic reaction in some people.

If you know someone who is an expert in survival foods, that’s a bonus. Nothing beats a wild gathering trek with a knowledgeable guide.

However, even if you’re exploring solo, you will soon develop a sense of what you do and do not want to put in your mouth.