I’ve taught wilderness survival classes for 30 years. One of the subjects we cover is the ability to find edible wild plants. Any conversation usually starts with a conversation about what “not to eat.” Some plants are poisonous or can make you very sick. You want to avoid those. As a result, I only focus on plants that most people can easily identify and always show multiple pictures of the plants before we head out into the field. As a result, all of the plants that I identify in this article link to numerous photos of each plant so you can not only get familiar with them, but you can access this the photos in this article on your Smartphone for the same reference in the field.
There are a few basics to think about. For one, it’s not just about the leaves of plants. Quite often the roots, fruit, bark and seeds or nuts are edible. You should also remember that just because the fruit is edible, the leaves and roots may not be. Tomatoes are a good example. Red tomatoes are good to eat. The leaves, roots and stem are not and are toxic as well as raw, green tomatoes. Green tomatoes have to be cooked before eating. Fortunately or unfortunately, you’re unlikely to encounter any wild tomatoes.
Another thing to keep in mind if you’re in a survival situation is that cooking is a good idea whenever possible. It will not only make many wild plants taste better, but you metabolize more nutrients from cooked food. That’s important given that nutritional value varies as do calories. Most leafy greens offer few calories compared to nuts or fruit. That’s another good reason to consider cooking in a survival situation. The question is whether or not you have a fire, water or the cooking tools or equipment to cook vegetables. No worries. You can eat many of these wild foods raw. If you’re in your own kitchen and simply enjoying a wild harvest, you should be fine. Eat them raw or cooked depending on your mood and your taste.
Yup. Good old dandelions. You can eat the leaves raw, and the crowns where the leaves emerge from the roots are good too although they usually need to be boiled or sautéed. Don’t eat the flower stems or the roots. You’ll find them Spring through Fall.
As a name, the Plantain causes some confusion. It’s not the variation on the banana you sometimes see in the grocery store, and it’s not the Hosta plants that thrive in the shade. It’s commonly thought of as an urban weed with its round, green leaves and thin, green seed stalk. The leaves are great in a salad. The seedy stalks can be blanched in boiling water for about 30 seconds and shocked in ice water. Look for them in late Spring through Fall although insects will chew them up pretty well as summer goes on.
It’s another weed, but a botanist would tell you it an indigenous plant. That means it’s native to an area. It’s a succulent and seems to grow everywhere. Ounce for ounce, they are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. The stems and leaves are eaten, but not the roots. Best eaten raw. When cooked the succulent leaves and stems turn to mush. Appear late Spring through Fall and can often be found as large beds.
Mulberries grow on trees and are usually the first tree to bear fruit. The berries are purple and look somewhat like a black raspberry. They usually ripen in mid-June and bear fruit well into July. A good calorie source and high in Vitamin C.
5. Black Raspberries
Black Raspberries usually grow in large, bushy outcrops. The fruit is a deep purple color, and the stems of the plant are a light, chalky white. They’re thorn bushes so any harvest comes with caution. They’re flavorful and sweet and a great source of calories in the wild and also high in vitamin C. Try them on cereal, ice-cream or by the handful. They also make a good pie if you can stand the mosquitoes and the thorns and can pick enough for a pie. They begin to ripen in late June and peak around the 4th of July while tapering off by mid-July.
6. Red Raspberries
As you would suspect, the fruit is bright red. The stems are a yellowish green in contrast to the deep green of the leaves. They also have thorns and grow in clusters although not as large or robust as Black Raspberries. They also ripen a bit later with their peak around mid-July. They provide a relatively good dose of Vitamin C and the calories you would need in a survival situation. At home eat them the same you would Black Raspberries.
7. Wild Strawberries
The leaves and fruit of Wild Strawberries look very much like the strawberries you would find in the grocery store, only smaller. The fruit is bright red and they are relatively rare. They ripen about the same time as their larger cousins in early August and continue to bear fruit through the month. Given their smaller size they’re usually eaten on cereal or on ice-cream but if you happen to come across a good outcrop, you could enjoy them as a fruit salad on their own or mixed with other fruits. They’re a bit tart and also high in Vitamin C and provide more calories than a leafy green.
8. Wild Grapes
In the same way that Wild Strawberries resemble the larger, domestic fruits – a wild grapevine looks exactly like a grapevine you would see in a vineyard. The only difference is the small size of the fruit -about the size of a pea. The color is usually a bluish purple and they’re actually quite sour. They also have fairly large seeds given the size of each grape. Unless you’re starving, you probably won’t be eating these by the handful. However, when crushed or simmered they render their juice easily and the addition of some sugar makes for a great, homemade grape juice. They’re also good for jellies and jams. They ripen in mid-July and often bear fruit thru August.
Cattails are sometimes referred to as the outdoor grocery store by wilderness survival experts. At various times during its growth cycle, all parts of the plant are edible. They tend to grow in wet, swampy areas. In the spring, their seed stalks at the top of the plant are green and can be eaten raw. Pulling on the stem will reveal a tender shoot that can also be eaten raw. The roots can be peeled and chewed but it’s fibrous. You’ll want to spit out the fibers, they can cause stomach upset. The roots can also be boiled or roasted and chewed, but once again – spit out the fiber. If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound like something for the kitchen you might want to stick with the greens seed cones and shoots. They first come up in early spring and can be found into early winter. The seed tops in late summer and Fall are brown and inedible, but you can still find tender shoots as long as the stalks are green, and the roots are always edible until the ice prevents any harvest in the swamp.
Pound for pound, nuts from trees are the most nutritious, high-calorie plant-based food you can find in the wild. This includes Black walnut, Butternut walnut, pecan, hickory, beechnut, hazelnut and even Pine nuts. Acorns tend to be the easiest to find given how common their parent tree is: Oaks. Make sure you have an acorn in your hand though. Buckeye and Horse Chestnut look similar and are poisonous. You can eat them raw but you’ll need to soak them in warm water for a day or two. Change the water whenever you can until it’s clear. After soaking you can either eat them raw, or roast them at 350 F. for an hour. Soaking to get rid of the bitterness is the most critical step.
There are numerous other plants, fruits and nuts you can discover in the wild and eat. What’s most important is that you are certain of what you are about to eat. If in doubt, don’t eat it. That’s especially true if you are in an outdoor survival situation. If you get sick when you’re stranded in a remote area you have few options. However, even if you’re just experimenting in the kitchen it’s important to know for sure which plant is edible and which is not. Especially if you’re sharing it with children or the elderly. That’s why it’s best to stick with common plants like Black Raspberries and dandelion leaves. They might not be a part of your regular diet, but it’s interesting to know that menu variety can be as close as your backyard.