Introduction: Three Essential Groups of Wild Edible Plants
There is no one right answer as to the order of necessities in a survival situation, in one environment water is first on your list of needs and in another environment shelter or fire would be your first on your list of needs. The only constant survival need is food as last on your list. A person can die in as little as 5 minutes from exposure, and they can die in as little as 4 hours or survive for 3 days without water. However the average person can live for 21 days without food making it last on almost every list.
To look at this picture many survivalist would say I am standing in a sea of food and not just the High Bush Cranberry in the center of the field. Standing in a sea of food is no different than sitting in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean, water is everywhere, how do I drink it? High Bush Cranberry fruit stays on a tree well into the winter and are good to eat as long as you cook them first. They are easy to identify and find from late summer until spring when they finally fall from the tree.
I know people do it but you should never eat raw wild food. Some are toxic raw others can carry parasites or harmful bacteria if consumed raw. This includes your water supply, so fire is important to make your food and water safe to consume and sometimes easy to gather.
If there were any three categories of plants you can eat that I would recommend all people get to know how to use and identify it would be these three; Grass, Trees, and Cattail. For the knowledgeable survivor, knowing just these three groups of plants can make the difference between life and death if stranded in the wilds.
Although this Instructable has a North American twist to it; it is about finding food and the skills apply to finding food in many environments around the world.
Step 1: Where to Find Food
I always say water is life when it comes to survival; without potable water you can die in short order. But that is not the only reason water is life, water is food also. In almost every environment potable water attracts animals and provides a source of nourishment for plant growth, water is where almost everything we need to survive gathers.
Standing in the middle of a conifer forest and looking at the forest floor you would not think there is much to eat, but just a short distance away and looking the complete opposite this river and this pond is covered in plant growth, fish, turtles, and potable water.
Whether you are in a badlands, desert, or under the canopy of a dense forest, find water and you find food.
Step 2: Cattail and Bulrushes
The easiest and best food source in the Northern Hemisphere, is Cattails and bulrushes, there are about 30 varieties of Cattail and Bulrush found mainly in wetlands. This wild edible is often referred to as the wilderness ‘supermarket’ because of its many edible parts, but it has some great medicinal and utilitarian purposes as well.
Like this Muskrat den a warm shelter can be made from its stalk and leaves.
The mature flower heads make good tinder for starting fires.
Cattail provides something to eat year round. And the amount that you can gather is quite substantial. The rhizomes can be eaten like potatoes, in the early spring the young shoots and stalks can be eaten raw or cooked. The flower heads in late spring can be husked like corn and boiled, in summer, the pollen heads can be eaten raw or dried into flour. In the fall you can gather the corms (the sprouting’s of next years’ plants) which are eaten raw or roasted. And in winter, the root stalk is full of starch which can be broken up into water, dissolved, strained and dried into flour as good as wheat flour.
Step 3: Grass
Surprising to many is the fact that you can eat grass; cows, deer, horses and sheep do it. In fact wheat, oats, and many other grains that we eat today are a grass. Despite there being hundreds of varieties of bladed grass found around the world, almost all of them can be eaten. This ranges from wild wheat, oats, rye, and bamboo, to the wild meadow varieties.
The young shoots up to 6 inches tall can be eaten raw and the starchy base (usually white and at the bottom when you pluck it) can be eaten as a trail nibble. Even the roots are edible. The more mature the grass plant gets, the more fibrous the plant becomes. For older plants the base can be chewed and spit out, extracting the beneficial juices in the process. Or a tea can be made from the fresh or dried leaves.
The best part of the grass plant to eat is the seed heads, which can be gathered to make millet for breads or filler for soups & stews. About 99% of grasses can be eaten raw and of the 1% that bare toxic seeds require that you roast or cook the seeds first. As a word of caution, stay away from blackish or purple colored grass seeds. This is a good indication of toxic fungus called Ergot. Ergot has pharmaceutical uses and is used in making a number of medicines, but it is also known to poison entire communities before it was identified as the culprit.
The seed of couch grass is roasted then served as a substitute for coffee and the young roots, shoots, and rhizomes, can be cooked and eaten like potatoes year round.
Step 4: Trees
Yes trees are edible; like palm tree hearts the edible parts of a tree are the growing buds that have not turned fibrous yet such as the inner bark, buds, and other new growth. One good indicator of an edible tree is do the animals eat them? If you go for a walk in a mixed bush in the spring you will find trees and fallen branches that have had the bark chewed off. This is the critters of the forest eating trees.
Some of the animals to watch what they eat are dear; squirrels, chipmunk, porcupine, beaver, rabbits, and mice, just a note for non-vegans porcupines are slow docile and the easiest animal to hunt, they are protected in Canada just for survival reasons.
Many of these animals can eat tree spices that are a little bitter tasting, these trees can be loaded with tannic acid and tannic acid can cause intestinal distress. One way to make them more palatable is to leach out the tannic acid. This is done by boiling the parts of the tree in water and changing the water until the bitter taste is gone.
Step 5: Sugar Maple Sap
One of the things I loved growing up was taking a walk in the bush, early on a spring morning, picking sap sickles off the sugar maple trees, and eating them. Sugar Maple sap is loaded with sugar and water making it a source of food and water. In North America and other places around the world finding potable water is not always easy. But from early spring to fall it can be as easy as walking up to a maple tree nipping off the tip of a branch and collecting the sap in a plastic bottle.
Some trees like the Sugar Maple are not just a good source of potable water; they are also a source of food year round. If you peel a strip of young bark from the side of a tree, on the inside of the bark is the growth ring. This is edible and nutritional in fact the inner bark of many trees are good for you, the bark from a Willow tree contains Acetylsalicylic acid or Aspirin. Just make a tea from willow bark and you have your ASA. And in Japan they eat fried maple leaves, called “momiji tempura”.
Step 6: Chaga Mushroom
Whether you call it Chaga Mushroom, True Tinder Fungus, or Inonotus obliquus, chaga is a parasitic fungus found on Birch and hardwood trees like this Black Birch. Chaga grows in birch forests of Russia, Korea, Eastern and Northern Europe, northern areas of the United States and Canada. The chaga mushroom is considered a medicinal mushroom in many parts of the world.
The desirable part of a chaga mushroom is the light brown insides and is used three ways in survival.
Dried chaga is used to start fires as the smallest spark can ignite it.
The smoke from burning caga is a mosquito repellent.
And a medicinal tea is made from chaga.
Step 7: Tree Seeds and Nuts
Oak Acorns and other nuts are a great source of food in the fall and early winter, like most nuts, acorns contain a good amount of protein and fat which is beneficial in keeping you alive. White Oak species of acorns can be eaten right after shelling but the remaining oak varieties and other wild nuts require processing first in order to remove the tannic acid. The down side after gathering it can be two to four weeks before you can eat them.
It took me only 15 minutes to gather 2 pounds of acorns, green acorns are unripe and are unsuitable for eating but mature green acorns can ripen in a clean, dry place. Place them in a bag and keep them in a cool dry place checking every once in a while until the nuts turn brown. These acorns took two weeks to ripen for this Instructable.
Untreated raw acorns contain high concentrations of tannic acid, so their taste is bitter, and they can be toxic to humans, if eaten in large quantities so you will need to leach the tannic acid out of them.
Step 8: Leaching Out Tannic Acid
In the wilderness you might want to use the method used by Native Americans. The native peoples of North America had an efficient technique for preparing acorns. They started by mass breakage, simply set out 20-30 acorns on a hard flat surface and smash them all at once with a wide heavy object. Next, they would separate out all the shell fragments and place the nuts in a basket. Then they would leach the acorns in a stream of clean moving water for up to a week.
Alternatively you can shell the acorns once shelled the 2 pounds I gathered was reduced to 1 ½ pounds. After shelling boil the kernels in water for about 15 minutes. Throw off the water and add fresh water and boil again for a few minutes. Repeat the process until the water in the pan no longer turns brown. This is called leaching, which can take as long as two hours.
Another method for leaching out the tannic acid is place one tablespoon of baking soda into one liter of water. Leave the acorns to soak in the baking soda infused water for a day.
Once the acorns are properly leached, they can be dried to grind into flour, or used while the chunks are still damp in stews and soups.
Step 9: Roasted Acorns
One of the easiest ways to cook acorns is to roast them over a campfire in a dry frying pan or in an oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Rinse and place the damp nut chunks on a baking sheet and sprinkle with fine salt, then spread them on a cookie sheet and place the cookie sheet into the oven.
Roast them for about one hour, you can tell they’re done when the color has changed a little, and the nut pieces smell like roasted nuts. Remove them from the heat and you can eat them out of your hand just like peanuts, or you can use them in recipes or just chop them up and eat them. You can even grind them and make porridge. However, taste the acorns to make sure that there is no bitterness before using it in any recipes. You can dip the acorns in honey to offset any lingering bitterness. Roasted Acorns can be added to stews as one might add beans or potatoes. Their nutty, slightly sweet taste adds a lovely depth to stews.
Step 10: Grinding Nuts and Seeds
Although a stone mortar and pestle is best for grinding nuts and seeds, I doubt most people will have one with them in the wilderness. You can make a mortar and pestle out of almost anything, chert rock, granite, and hardwood. Even river stones in a bag, (Although river stones in a bag is more a hammer mill.) can be use to grind nuts and seeds.
To make your own mortar and pestle all you need is a hard flat or bowl shaped rock for a mortar, avoid shale or other soft sedimentary rock as they tend to breakup or grind up like the nuts and seeds. For the pestle a rounded hard stone that fits in your hand will do.
When you grind up seeds like acorns place them in your mortar and cover to prevent chunks from flying out. Then pound and grind until your nuts are the consistency you like.
Step 11: Pine Trees or Conifers
When you look at your average pine tree, rarely does one think that it has the ability to nourish you in a survival situation if the need ever arose. It’s sharp needles and gnarly bark give off the impression that it’s a less than friendly flora. On the contrary, pine provides some of the most readily available food sources in nature, if you know how to harvest it.
However you cant just walk up to a pine tree and eat. After a winter die off of deer in a national park the MNR preformed a necropsy on some of the dead deer finding the deer starved to death with there bellies full of pine needles. Just because you can eat it does not mean it will nourish you. Take celery as an example, celery costs more calories to digest then you gain from eating it. At 80 calories a pound you would need to eat 25 pounds of celery a day for a normal daily caloric intake. Our stomachs are just not that big and pine needles have less caloric value.
Pine trees, evergreens, and cedars are conifers, and you can eat at least part of them. Every species of pine produces seed or nuts that can be eaten. In the late fall and early winter, the cones can be gathered, opened, and the seeds extracted. The only issue is that most pine don’t produce large seeds like for example the pinion pine does. In most other species the seeds are quite small and it takes quite a few to make a decent meal. However, if you’re just sitting in the bush waiting to be rescued now you have something to keep you busy.
I have never done it, but I have read survival articles of people gathering the male pollen anthers and the inner bark of the pine, even making tea from pine needles.
Step 12: Yew
Taxus canadensis some times called Canadian Yew, American Yew, or just Yew is an evergreen shrub quite often found in wetlands and mixed bush. Yew is easily identified by its long flat needles running along opposing sides of its branches. Almost every part of the Yew is toxic including its seed, but the red meat of its ripe fruit is good to eat and makes a great jam. I find them quit tasty.
I have no experience with the Pacific yew or Western Yew that grows on the west coast of North America.
It's toxicity, poisonous chemicals known as taxanes, have been a focus for cancer research.
Step 13: Cedar Tree Tea
When the first Europeans came to North America the aboriginal peoples of North America taught them to drink Cedar leaf tea to stave off scurvy caused by a lack of vitamin C in their diet.
Start by finding a cedar and plucking the green buds and placing them in water bring the water to a boil and let simmer for a couple minutes. Then pour the tea into a cup and enjoy, I wouldn't give up my Earl Grey for it but it was OK.
Step 14: Jack Pine Nuts
Other than rain forests, many conifers have a symbiotic relationship with fire and the Jack pine is one of these conifers. Jack pine needs a forest fire to spread their seeds most of the time and this makes them ideal as a year round food source.
They start to produce cones when they are just a few feet tall, the cone starts off small and green in the spring and grow during the summer turning brown in the fall. The mature cones look much like small Pineapples and are the hardest wood you will find in a forest. The cones protect the seeds from birds and squirrels. They stay on the tree for a couple years until they open and fall off the tree or a forest fire opens them. This makes them ideal for a year round food source.
In a forest fire the heat from the fire causes the cone to open and after the fire passes the seeds fall to the ground replanting the forest to grow until the next forest fire. I am going to use the same process to harvest my seeds.
Step 15: Gather the Jack Pine Cones
The cones you want are on the tree, brown, and haven’t opened yet. Open cones are usually empty of seeds from falling out or birds eating them.
You can place the cones in a dish and roast them over an open fire or bake them in the oven at 350⁰.
This will open the cones so you can just tap the cones on a hard surface and the seeds fall out.
Step 16: Cleaning the Seeds
In this part a pie plate works well, gather the seeds in your hand rub them together to break up the chaff. Drop the seeds and chaff in the pie plate and gently bounce them in a light breeze. The chaff will blow away leaving just the seeds.
It may seem like a lot of work for a hand full of tiny seeds, collect, roast, tap out seeds, and de-chaff, but if you are just sitting by a fire waiting for rescue it is food and something to do while you wait.
Step 17: Other White Pine
Other White Pines can take many years and be over twenty feet tall before they start to produce cones, this can make the cones hard to harvest for food. Unlike Jack Pines, these pines have soft scales squirrels and other rodents can chew through to get at the seeds and eat them. Squirrels will knock hundreds of cones off the tree while eating the seeds so in a way they help you collect the cones.
Step 18: Processing Soft Scale Cones
You process soft cones the same way as Jack pine cones, collect, roast, tap out seeds, and de-chaff, with one difference, if you just tap the cone on a hard surface not all the seeds come out of the cone. Breaking up the soft cones helps you get more of the seeds out.
Step 19: Tea Time
A cup of cedar tea and a quarter cup of pine seeds an hour may not sound like much but it can make the difference between life and death.