Top Ten Survival Plants
In most survival situations you will be back at home before finding food becomes a life-threatening issue. Although you may be uncomfortable and hungry, you can survive for as long as three weeks without food.
Having said that, let me add that survival is as much psychological as it is physical. Having a good meal can go a long way toward giving you the mental boost you might need to keep fighting for your survival.
Finding and preparing food should be secondary to finding water and shelter. Still, finding food is often an opportunistic event that will occur while you are working on the other survival basics. Knowing what to look for as you work and travel can make your experience more pleasant.
Finding something to eat in the wild can be like walking through the produce department at a grocery store. There are thousands of edible plants, so many it isn't practical for most people to make the effort to learn them all. We'll concentrate on what we call the "Top Ten Survival Plants." These plants are readily available, easy to prepare, easy to identify and can serve multiple uses in a survival situation. Not all of these plants are great sources of food, but they are edible and can provide what you need to survive a wilderness emergency.
Please remember that if you don't have a ready supply of water, eating could speed up dehydration because you will use body moisture to digest the food. Always consider water a much higher priority than food.
(all photos in this article are from commons.wikimedia.com)
The Survival Rule of Threes
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General Rules To Remember Before You Eat Any Wild Plant
If you can’t clearly identify a plant, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Remember, having a full stomach will most likely not be crucial to your survival, but eating something that could make you sick could make you miserable or cause life threatening health issues. Steer clear from a plant if it has:
- Milky or discolored sap
- Spines, fine hairs, or thorns
- Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods
- Bitter or soapy taste
- Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley-like foliage
- “Almond” scent in the woody parts and leaves
- Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs
- Three-leaved growth pattern
Many toxic plants will exhibit one or more of these characteristics. As is usually the case in nature, there are no absolutes. Some of the plants in our Top Ten have some of these attributes, yet they’re still edible. The characteristics listed above are guidelines for when you’re not confident about what you’re dealing with. If in doubt, spit it out (or don't put it in your mouth to begin with).
Before You Eat Any Wild Plant Be Positive You Can Identify It
Sometimes described as the "Supermarket of the swamps," cattails are usually found near the edges of freshwater wetlands. Cattails were a staple in the diet of many Native American tribes. Most of a cattail is edible. You can boil, roast, or eat the roots raw. They can also be roasted and ground into meal or flower. Be sure to wash off all the mud. The best part of the stem is the young shoot near the bottom where the plant is mainly white. Either boil or eat the stem raw. Older leaves can be boiled. The corn dog-looking female flower spike can be broken off and eaten like corn on the cob in the early summer when the plant is first developing.
The down from mature seed heads makes a perfect tinder and can be used for insulation. The older leaves can be woven to make baskets, mats or crude blankets.
As a side benefit, if you find cattails you will be able to find water. the swampy soil where cattails grow is usually home to frogs, fish, small mammals and insects that can also be used for emergency food.
Some native Americans used the juice from young cattail shoots to help reduce tooth aches.
Balsam root (sometimes called arrow leaf because of the arrowhead shape of the leaves) has large leaves around the base that are triangular and this plant has a single sunflower-like disk flower.
Every part of balsam root is edible and can be used year round. The root is quite tasty and can be eaten raw or cooked in any way imaginable.
The young shoots can be eaten raw or boiled. Older leaves become more fibrous, but can still be boiled and eaten. the seeds can be roasted or ground into flour.
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Burdock is a medium to large-sized plant with big leaves and purplish thistle-like flower heads. You can eat the leaves and the peeled stalks of the plant either raw or boiled. The leaves can have a bitter taste, so boiling them, changing the water, and boiling them again before eating is recommended to remove the bitterness. The root of the plant can also be peeled, boiled, and eaten.
Thistles come in many different shapes and sizes, but it's hard to mistake them because of their prickly leaves and spiny stems. Despite their formidable defenses, thistles are a good source of survival food.
The roots can be eaten raw or roasted. They are quite bland, but some develop a sugary flavor when roasted.
The inner stem is good eaten raw and tastes like a cross between celery and raw peas. To get to the inner stem carefully cut the plant off at the base, turn the plant upside down and use a knife to peel the outer layer and leaves downward from the plants base to the top.
Immature flower heads can be eaten raw or steamed and are similar to artichoke hearts.
Considered an obnoxious weed by most gardeners and homeowners, dandelions are still a great source of survival food. The entire plant is edible- roots, leaves, and flower. Eat the leaves while they’re still young. They are best before the flowers appear. Older leaves taste bitter.
Dandelions growing in deep shade are naturally blanched and are more tender and better tasting. Mature leaves should be boiled to make them less bitter. Repeated boilings with a water change in between will improve the flavor even more. The extra effort could be worth it because these leaves are high in vitamins.
The roots can be sliced and boiled like carrots and are a good addition to wilderness stews. They can also be roasted. You can drink the water you boiled the roots in as a tea. Young flower buds can be eaten raw. It is said that the white sap of dandelions can cure warts.
Pine trees can be found in all but the most severe desert areas. These trees are on our list because of their multiple uses. Pines can be distinguished from other evergreen trees by the characteristic bundles of needles. All pine tree needles will grow in groups of two or more from a single leaf base.
Young needles can be eaten or chewed and then spit out. They are rich in vitamins C and A. Older needles can be boiled to make a tea.
Pine gum can be used as a wilderness bandaid to help stop bleeding and prevent infection.
Pine needles are great fire starters and the lower dead branches can be broken off by hand and will stay drier than wood found on the ground in wet situations. Larger branches can be used to build shelters. Pine seeds are also edible with some species producing large and tasty seeds like the popular pine nuts from pinion trees.
Juniper trees are usually located in drier foothill type environments. Although not known as a great source of food, the berries from these short bushy trees can be eaten. They will be green the first year and are very bitter, but second year berries turn blue. They taste best the fall of the second year or spring of the third when they can be sweet. They can be used to flavor stew or meat.
Historically juniper berries were used as an antiseptic to prevent infection. In fact, a strong tea of juniper berries was used to disinfect surgical instruments and bandages.
As with pine trees, junipers are a great source of firewood and the bark is one of the best tinder materials available.
The outer bark of juniper trees can be easily peeled from the trunk. This outer layer will help keep the finer inner bark dry. This inner bark can be pulled free and rubbed between the palms of your hands to create a very fine, extremely flammable fire starting tinder.
The smaller branches can be broken by hand to build a nice emergency fire.
All grasses are edible, but the cellulose can be difficult to digest. The nutrients and vitamins can be obtained by chewing younger leaves and stems, swallowing the juices and then spitting out the coarse fibers. Eating the rougher fibers could cause intestinal problems. Making a grass tea is another good way to get the nutrients without the cellulose.
Most grass seeds can be eaten raw, roasted or ground into flower. Seeds with black, purple or pinkish coloration should not be eaten.
Grasses can be used as fire starting tinder, insulation and bedding. Longer grasses can be woven to make baskets, mats or even rope.
WIllows come in all shapes and sizes, from large trees to bushy shrubs. They have characteristic narrow leaves. As with cattails, willows are usually found near water which is an added bonus in a survival situation.
The young shoots and leaves of willows can be eaten raw but usually are better dried and ground into flower.
Although not a rich source of food, the inner bark of willows contain a chemical called salicin which is similar to aspirin and can be used as a substitute. Chewing on the inner bark has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation, but herbologists advise starting out slowly with small amounts of bark, allowing the chemicals some time to work and then chewing on more if needed.
River willow branches tend to grow straight and are flexible. This makes them good for making arrows, fishing poles, and shelters. Smaller branches can be woven to make baskets, mats and roofs.
Wild berries can be a good source of food or extremely poisonous. A good rule to follow is if you don't know its safe, don't eat it.
The Boy Scout handbook has long taught that white or yellow berries should not be eaten. Red berries should only be eaten if you know they are safe and blue, purple or blackberries are safe to eat.
As we said earlier, there are no absolutes in nature. although the scout rules are usually true, there are exceptions.
It's a good idea to avoid yellow or white berries. More than 90% of them are poisonous.
The rule to eat only red berries that you know are safe is also a good one to follow. Raspberries and strawberries are good examples of edible red berries. About 50% of red berries are edible.
Although 90% of blue berries and 99% of black berries are edible, there are some that should not be eaten. For example, the berry of common ivy is both purple and poisonous. Other blueish berries that should not be eaten are those from pokeweed and virginia creeper.
Even if you can identify that berries you have found are safe to eat, overdoing it can cause stomach distress and life threatening diarrhea.
When gathering berries be bear aware. Bears love berries and you could find yourself in competition with a bruin over the berries you're gathering.
Wild mint can be placed around your shelter to repel rodents. Mint can also be boiled to make a refreshing tea. Identifying mint is quite easy. First, if it smells minty it's probably mint. Mint plants also have square stems, a characteristic that is uncommon in nature.
Placing sage brush leaves in a fire will create a smoke or smudge that helps repel mosquitoes and other biting insects. Rubbing the leaves on exposed skin will also repel insects, but it needs to be re-applied every couple of hours to remain effective.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Mel on July 30, 2019:
The inner bark or cambium layer of the pine tree is edible raw, in small thin strips, or baked then eaten, or baked & ground into flour.
Federal Government on October 10, 2013: