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Edible Plants, Part 5: Allergic Reactions from Plants and Mushroom Identification

Sometimes a wilderness scenario it isn’t always about “survival” but rather about testing your survivability, or training your skills. This article is more about not being ridiculous.  Sure, test yourself, build your skills and use them to their maximum levels if you are ever in a real survival situation, but forget the idea that you can reverse the effects of an allergic reaction or survive on mushrooms in the wild when you don’t really know what the differences are.

Firstly, an allergic reaction is a real life situation that does not take into account that you are tough or smart or lucky.  Well, maybe if you’re lucky.  When an allergic reaction occurs, there is a high likelihood you will have extended concerns, if not potential death. You cannot expect to last a day with an extreme allergic reaction.  There are few (if any) natural remedies for allergic reactions that are easily available and effective enough to standalone against anything more than the mildest reactions.

The second issue of this article is mushroom identification. Mushrooms don’t have hardly any caloric value, fat, sodium, or really much of anything except risk.  Don’t get it wrong: mushrooms taste great, and they taste even better when they don’t kill you or cause you chronic diarrhea and explosive vomiting with a long-term kidney concern.  Sadly, for many mushroom lovers, unless you actually know what you are doing when in a survival situation AND remember how to identify mushrooms to the spore pattern, you could die for those twelve calories you are about to eat.

So let’s explain the point of this article. It’s the fifth article in a series that most hardcore survivalists wouldn’t condone as extreme survival articles.  It’s an article that will touch on the importance of being prepared without really talking overtly about really being prepared.  It’s an article that ends a series of articles that while they may not be appropriate for every survival situation, probably have enough information contained within them to help spur on the research and development of skills which could one day save your life.  And before we get too deep into the article, don’t forget that the best preparation is to avoid getting into a survival scenario and help yourself out of the situation if you do get into it. There, we said it.

Allergic reactions can be deadly, but most importantly, they are completely draining.  Even a mild reaction to a bug bite or a scratch from a tree, not to mention a spider bite, scorpion sting, or poisonous ingestion, can lay out a survivor and swiftly turn them into something less than a survivor.  Anything less than a survivor is a dangerous character to play.

There is one rule regarding allergic reactions when traveling on a trip, whether it is on the subway, in an airplane, to the lunchroom, or up Mount Everest.  That rule is to know your body, and bring the things which could save you in a bad situation.  If you are allergic to something and have medication to avoid death, it should be on you at all times.  If you are in an area that has bugs and spiders and scorpions, carry antihistamines, allergies or not.  The amount of help a couple of doses of Benadryl can lend in an allergic reaction is priceless if you are in a survival situation.

Allergic reactions in the outdoors are likely to cause big concerns, should be addressed immediately, and preferably should be avoided entirely.  What that means is that you will not be going after the honeycomb in a bee’s nest, breathing in a large amount of unknown substances, or chewing on unidentified leaves while in the field.  It’s all a bit elementary, sure, but sometimes it’s the obvious that people forget.

Pre-doping naturally may have some positive effect on the situation.  For example, foods and supplements high in quercetin, a compound found in wine, onions, citrus fruits, and green tea, can be allergen stopping to a decent level.  Over 1000 mg a day for eight weeks before a trip should give a good base for avoidance of basic allergens but may not be able to prevent harsher triggers (like an insect bite or a violent fish allergy).  As briefly covered in a previous article in this series, stinging nettle is also considered a “natural remedy” for allergies and allergic reactions, though, again, you will have to act quickly or have some already in order to see the results necessary. Even then, it is not a guarantee.  It is imperative that if you have an extreme reaction to something you might encounter while in the wild, you should be carrying your medicine and an epipen or other brand epinephrine kit.  Benadryl (diphenhydramine) should be carried at all times with you so you have access to the effects of its medicine just in case. Over-the-counter steroids can also help (though don’t overuse them as it can be risky). One example is Primatene Mist, an inhaler filled with epinephrine compounds, which is being pulled from most of its distribution chain because of misuse by consumers (so you may want to look into it soon if it seems a good choice for you). The drugs listed above are chemically synthesized steroids, and generally cannot be found in nature at the same strength as available commercially.

Zambia has outlawed Benadryl, so be careful to remember this on your next trip to southern Africa. Other than the obvious, it’s useful to have such a drug with you at all times in some form or another.  The doses can be bought as tiny pills and stored in your wallet or put into a pill case that is watertight and kept on your keychain.

As for the mushroom part of this article, it’s easiest to say that no matter how much you like fungi or how hungry you are, the chance of identifying an edible mushroom has risks that far outweigh its caloric value in a stressful survival situation.  Mushrooms are simply not survival food.

If you are hell bent on knowing how to identify these things, bear in mind it can take many years and a lot of research, as well as being a laborious task to identify mushrooms even in the best settings and certainly in the field, where anything can go wrong.  More often than not, mushrooms require a spore test or a cross-section test to accurately identify them, and even then, an inexperienced mycophile (mushroom enthusiast) would still have some risk with access to pictures and books in some cases.  Sight and smell and surrounding area make up only a precursory and small part to the overall identification of mushrooms. It’s just too dangerous when some of them can cause death, especially without an available treatment for the symptoms or chance of reversal of the imminent outcome.

Knowing which to avoid is like a game of Russian roulette, because for every mushroom available, there are probably two that aren’t identified yet, have poisonous compounds within them, or can cause concerns.

There are some general rules of thumb (all of which will usually only come in handy if you first know which fungi you will come in contact with in your area) that may be able to help you identify things in the field.  But if you have planned a trip that well, you will likely not ever run into an extended survival situation.  Still, you are likely intrigued if you have made it past the numerous disclaimers in this article to get this point, so here it goes. Some anatomy for those who really wish to try to identify mushrooms:

The cap is the top of the mushroom.

Gills (on gilled mushrooms) are the straight features that come outwardly from the underside of the mushroom cap to form a structure to connect (or not connect, as the case may be) the stem to the cap.

A universal or partial veil is the covering that encloses the mushroom at its early stages and is still remaining as the mushroom matures, but is placed around the stem, instead of the button mushroom cap and stem as it once was.

The volva is a key identifier as it is at the base of the mushroom and can be the singular linking feature readily available by the naked eye instantaneously. It is the covering that has been opened by the natural growth of the mushroom and remains intact at the base of the stem; it will generally replicate a sac or thin soft shell (shell meaning covering, not hard).

Mushrooms are of particular interest to me, and I personally find them fascinating, but I am not nearly educated enough nor experienced enough to trust my several years of mushroom love to make a determination in the field, especially when I can guarantee food from other sources.  It simply is not worth the risk. Remember that mushroom identification can only really be done with a complex series of tests and key identifiers, and without the access to the spore tests and resource lists, it is a dangerous game to try and identify wild mushrooms. Yes, this is the thirtieth time we have said it—it must be important.

As a series of articles, these wilderness edibles pieces should serve as a jumping off point for those who see this type of skill and knowledge as essential in their arsenal of tactics, not as an all encompassing or even a basic premise.  The information contained within these articles may come in handy to a few of us in acute situations, but the variables introduced by geography, skill levels, and situation-specific concerns make this type of knowledge rudimentary at best.  It is my suggestion that you take what is here to determine which areas pique your interest and go from there, which may lead you to some truly useful personal information rather than the generic items we have covered here.  Experiment in safe environments and try out your skills with resources ready to help you identify your gathered species, and determine your individual ability to utilize what nature has to offer.

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