Plenty of people believe that when things fall apart, they can just go into the wild, living off the land. While such a life has a lot of appeal to it, I’m also enough of a realist to understand how hard that will be. While many people did live off the land in the early days of this country, things have changed. There isn’t as much wilderness available today as there was back then, and as a people we aren’t accustomed to such a lifestyle.
The two biggest problems with trying to live off of what nature provides are too many people and a lack of knowledge. Back when people did live off the land, there weren’t a 10th of the people in the country that there are today. They also had a lot more knowledge about the flora and fauna around them. There are few people today who can hunt without baiting the animals in and even fewer who can identify edible plants.
Of course, that gives a distinct advantage to those who know how to hunt and can identify edible plants. In fact, being able to identify edible plants might just be what keeps some people alive. Considering that few people can identify them, there is little risk that there will be much competition for those plants.
Watch Out for Poisonous Plants
In addition to edible plants, there are many plants you can find in the wild which are dangerous to eat, even poisonous. Unless it is a dire emergency, survival isn’t the time to go around trying new things. You don’t know what you might find that would hurt you.
Since there is no sure way of identifying which plants are safe and which are poisonous, the best way of protecting yourself is to stick to eating only plants that you know and can identify as being safe to eat. When looking at other plants, you probably want to stay away from any plants that have:
- Milky or colored sap.
- Any sort of spines, thorns or fine hairs.
- Seeds inside pods, as well as beans and bulbs.
- Any plant with a bitter or soapy taste.
- Plants whose stems have an almond scent.
- Any plants with three-leaved growth patterns.
- Grain heads with spurs that are pink, purple or black.
Of course, there are edible plants which display some of those same characteristics. That just proves that not all poisonous or healthy plants have distinguishable characteristics. These characteristics only apply to plants that you cannot identify.
Here are 20 of the most common wild plants that you can find, providing you with a starting place for identifying what you can eat in the wild. Learn them, and then go on to learn what else is available for eating in the area where you live.
Amaranth is a prolific weed which is native to North America. All parts of the plant are edible, although you do need to be somewhat careful. The grain from the amaranth plant has become more popular in recent years. There are spines on some leaves which should be avoided. The leaves contain oxalic acid, especially if the plant has grown in nitrate rich soil. To protect yourself against that, boil the plant in water and then throw away the water. If worse comes to worse, it can be eaten raw.
Asparagus grows wild in parts of North America, especially the northeastern part of the United States. Wild asparagus has a much thinner stalk than the commercial varieties. To harvest, bend it until it snaps off. It will snap at the right point to prevent killing the plant, while providing you with the most edible part.
If anyone around you has decided to grow bamboo in their backyard, it’s probably gotten out of hand. This prolific grass spreads rapidly, taking over everything in its path. While the mature plants are like chewing on wood, the shoots can be eaten. Shoots should be harvested before they are two weeks old and one foot tall. Peel off the outer leaves and boil them to soften. Bamboo shoots are often added to salads, put on sandwiches or used in stir-fries.
Found near the edges of wetlands, cattails were a staple in the diet of many American Indian tribes. Most of the plant is edible. You can boil the roots and lower stalk for eating. The leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach. The flower spike at the top can be broken off and eaten like corn on the cob. Surprisingly, it tastes much like corn.
Chicory is most easily identified by its flowers. It is a bushy plant with small blue, lavender and white flowers. Leaves can be eaten raw or boiled. The flowers are a quick, tasty snack. The roots can be eaten as well, but require boiling to make them edible. Toasted chicory root has been used in the past as a substitute for coffee when coffee wasn’t available.
This low-growing plant has bright green, pointed oval leaves. It is highly nutritious, containing vitamins, minerals and omega-6 fatty acid. Young leaves can be used effectively in salads. However, if too much chickweed is eaten, it can cause diarrhea.
Clover is very common throughout the country. Anywhere you find a grassy area, you are likely to encounter clover as well. They are easy to identify for the three leaves. The plant can be eaten raw, but will taste better cooked.
8. Curled Dock
These are some of the hardiest, most widespread and most persistent weeds found anywhere. You can find them nearly everywhere. Like dandelions, it is almost impossible to pull one out of the ground. If you do, it will probably be replaced by two more. The leaves are tasty and can grow as large as two-feet long. There are also other types of docks in this family, but the curled dock is considered the tastiest.
This common “weed” is actually edible; in fact, the entire plant is edible: roots, leaves and flowers. It’s also rather healthy, being a “cure-all” in herbal medicine. You’ll want to eat the leaves while the plant is still young, as mature leaves have a bitter taste to them. Boil the roots before eating, and then use the water from boiling the roots as a tea. The dandelion flower makes an excellent garnish for a salad.
This is another plant that was eaten by many American Indians. It is easy to identify by the vein pattern in the leaves. Rather than terminate at the edge of the leaves, the veins create a circular pattern.
These plants are best eaten when young and tender. As they age, the leaves become tough and bitter tasting. Both the leaves and the stalk can be eaten. The flowers have a slightly peppery taste.
11. Garlic Grass
This is a wild strain of garlic which is often found in fields, pastures and forests. It resembles cultivated garlic or spring onions. The shoots are often very thin. Nevertheless, it can be used in sandwiches, salads, pesto or chopped like scallions to add to cooked dishes.
12. Green Seaweed
This particular variety of seaweed is found in all the oceans of the world. You can even find it close to shore and on beaches. Once harvested, it needs to be rinsed with clean water and allowed to dry. It can be used in soups or eaten raw. Add some fish and rice and you’ve got some sushi.
Kelp is another common form of seaweed, and can be found growing in most parts of the world. The kelp plant grows very long, anchored on the bottom of the sea and reaching to the surface. Internal air bladders keep it afloat. This seaweed is used in many different oriental dishes. Like the green seaweed, it should be rinsed once harvested and can be cooked in soup or eaten raw.
This is known as the “weed that ate the South” for its prolific way of covering trees and other plants. Kudzu is a fast-growing vine, which could provide a literally unending source of nutrition if you have it in your area. The leaves make an excellent tea for treating colds, fevers and indigestion. The roots of this plant can be boiled until tender and eaten with a sauce, such as soy sauce. Jams and jellies can be made from of it.
15. Lamb’s Quarters
This plant is a relative of wild spinach. It grows from two to six feet high and is easily identified by the shape of the leaves, which are a jagged-edged and diamond shaped. This plant has a high amount of protein, making it one of the few non-beans that does. It is also rich in iron and vitamin B2. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.
This weed will grow just about anywhere and is often found on the edges of gardens or driveways. Pick the rippled leaves, leaving behind the stems and flower stems. Like kale and other tough greens, plantain is best eaten after cooking. Blanching it with some butter and garlic makes it come out quite well.
17. Prickly Pear Cactus
Called “nopal” in Mexico, the prickly pear is not only edible, but extremely good for your health. Not all the leaves are eaten, but only the newest ones where the spines have not been fully formed. The spines are cut off and the leaf cut up for cooking. It can be boiled, but is most often fried, along with tomatoes and spices. The fruit of the prickly pear, which looks like a red or purplish pear, is also edible, although hard to encounter.
18. Sheep Sorrel
Although not native to North America, sheep sorrel has found a home here. It is a prolific weed, especially in highly acidic soil. That means it will grow in places where many other plants won’t grow. It has a tall, reddish stem that can reach 18 inches tall. You really shouldn’t eat large quantities of it, but the leaves can be eaten raw. They taste almost like lemon.
Watercress, which comes in a number of varieties, such as garden cress, rock cress and pepper cress, is common in Northern Europe. It has been migrated to the United States, where it is more commonly found in northern climates with a lot of moisture. It has a spicy tank, making it great for salads, soups and sandwiches.
20. Wood Sorrel
Wood sorrel grows in all parts of the world and in all climates. There are many varieties of this plant, and the flowers vary in color. The Kiowa Indians ate it, and chewed on it to alleviate thirst. The Cherokees ate it to cure mouth sores. The leaves of the plant are a great source of vitamin C. If the roots of the wood sorrel are boiled, they can be eaten. It has a flavor similar to potatoes.
For further information on this and other plants, it would be advisable to buy a book that deals with the edible plants in your area, as it varies from region to region around the country.
What survival plants do you prefer to eat? Share your tips in the section below: