Plants as a Survival Food Source

Those that aren't familiar with wilderness survival may think that finding food is a top priority. They are, of course, wrong. Regardless, even accepting that that people can survive without food for weeks, it doesn't mean that food, if it is available, shouldn't be consumed especially when it requires little effort to obtain. One thing to note though is that food, especially plants, shouldn't be consumed unless water is also available.

Many plants are a viable food source, but they must be positively identified first to ensure they are safe to eat. In America, there are four types of easily recognized, abundant, and edible plants: grasses, cattails, pine trees, and common green seaweed (aka sea lettuce). In addition, there are some general rules about berries worth remembering as well as several guidelines for plants to avoid.

Four Types of Edible Plants

Grasses can be easily located in meadows, drainages, and dry riverbeds. The stems, roots, and leaves may be eaten raw or cooked. In addition, a good broth or tea can be made by boiling grass in water. Black or purple grass seeds should be avoided as these colors indicate a fungal contamination, which when ingested can cause severe illness or death.

Cattails can be easily located in swamps, marshes, and wet low-lying areas. The cattail has a stout stem from 6 to 9 feet tall, with leaves that are light green, lean, sword shaped, and frequently higher than the flower. The flower heads are dense, brown, and cylindrical. In spring, the young shoots and flower heads are the most edible portions and are best when peeled and eaten raw or dried and pounded into flour for later use. In late summer, the peeled roots are another source of flour when dried and pounded into a powder.

Pine trees are prominent in many North American forests, easily identified as tall, multiple-branched trees with scaly bark and sharp evergreen needles arrange in bundles of two, three, or five. In addition, many have large, egg-shaped cones. Pine needles may be eaten raw or cooked, or they can be boiled in water to make a broth or tea. Pine tree needles also offer the additional benefit of being available year round. The cambium layer, between the bark and inner wood, may be eaten raw or cooked or can be dried and pounded into flour for later use. The seeds, located under the scales of the cones, may also be eaten raw or cooked although their small size means collecting a lot of pine cones.

Common green seaweed can be easily located on both sides of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Be warned that seaweed found on the beach tends to contain mold so it is best to choose plants that are attached to rocks or floating free. Seaweed may be eaten raw or dried until crisp and used in soup or broth.

The Berry Rule

In general, the edibility of berries can be classified according to their color and composition. The following are guidelines to help you determine whether a berry is poisonous. These rules do guarantee edibility -- only positive identification can do that.

  • Green, yellow, and white berries are 10 percent edible.
  • Red berries are 50 percent edible.
  • Purple, blue, and black berries are 90 percent edible.
  • Aggregate berries, such as thimbleberries, raspberries, and blackberries are 99 percent edible.

Plant Types to Avoid Eating

Many plants have distinguishing characteristics that once identified can be used as signals for what not to eat. The six basic features of plants that are likely to be detrimental to your health are:

  1. Mushroom or mushroom like appearance.
  2. Umbrella-shaped flower clusters.
  3. Bulbs resembling onion or garlic.
  4. Carrot-like leaves, roots, or tubers.
  5. Bean and pea-like appearance.
  6. Plants with shiny leaves or fine hairs.

Obviously many safe plants have characteristics that match those described above. The key to remember is that a similar appearance to a known safe plant doesn't make that plant safe to eat.

References:
Wilderness Survival by Gregory J. Davenport

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