Survival trees offer many options in any survival situation, whether someone is lost in the wilderness or trapped in a city after a disaster. Some have obvious benefits like low hanging fruit or natural shelter, and all trees make decent firewood to varying degrees.
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But beyond these obvious benefits are trees with characteristics that are unique:
- As a food source, they provide proteins and/or vitamins in ways sometimes unseen.
- As natural medicine, they are proven to be effective, and some actually produce chemicals used in commercial medications.
- Some have been consistently used for the manufacture of tools for centuries or are prized for cordage.
- Others are highly prized for primitive hunting weapons, from bows to fish traps.
- Others have a shape or form that makes them ideal for instant, natural, or constructed shelters.
But Wait, There’s More
Survival situations are rarely seasonal. Disasters can happen at any time of year, which affects anything that grows.
- Some plants produce fruit and nuts…for a while. Others bear fruit and nuts for weeks and months.
- Some trees have edible parts beyond fruit and nuts including their leaves, bark, and even their sap.
- Others have various parts that are safe to eat at one time of year and toxic at other times.
It goes to show that like many things, there’s always a catch. And this isn’t about apple trees and pear trees and other common fruit-bearing trees. Most of those trees occur intermittently in nature and, when they do show up in urban or suburban environments, are either on private property or promptly picked in public.
This is about trees buried deep in the woods or commonly ignored in the city as nothing more than a way to create shade. We didn’t include any trees that can be toxic like Wild Cherry or trees that are mostly domesticated in orchards and private yards like common fruit trees.
The Short List
Many trees could contend for the title of best survival tree including Birch, Black Walnut, and even Pines, but the idea was to find multiple benefits beyond the ease of making tools from Birch bark, eating Black Walnuts, or pounding flour out of dried Pine bark.
With that being said, here are the trees you may have neglected or never really thought about that can provide some surprising solutions to desperate times and situations. All offer multiple survival benefits across seasons to varying degrees.
Mulberry trees are prolific fruit producers. The mulberries typically occur in two varieties: purple and white. Both are edible, flavorful, and contain significant amounts of vitamin C, calories from carbohydrates, and other trace vitamins and minerals.
Mulberry trees also produce fruit over a period of weeks stretching into months. Many berries that occur in nature last only a week or two like raspberries, gooseberries, and blackberries.
Mulberry trees keep on giving, and the ground beneath them is often littered with mulberries. An easy way to harvest is to spread a poncho, tarp, or blanket under a branch and give it a shake. No need to climb into the tree to harvest.
The branches have high tensile strength and can be used to fashion an archer’s bow, handles for tools, and the young shoots on any branch can be boiled and eaten.
The trees can also be tapped for their sap you can drink or use to make syrup, assuming you have the tools, time, and inclination to do that.
Acorns aren’t just for squirrels anymore. They’re excellent raw, lightly roasted, and can be ground into an exceptional flour. White Oak acorns are best because they have the least amount of tannins or tannic acid, which makes the acorns of red and black Oaks bitter.
Soaking shelled acorns in a few changes of water over a few hours leaches out the tannins. (For more information on eating acorns, check out Acorns: The Ultimate Survival Food.)
Acorns are high in protein and amino acids, and they’re an excellent source of calories from fat. Those are the calories most needed to produce internal body heat in winter.
Speaking of winter, Oak trees produce acorns over a period of months starting in August through Autumn, and you can still find acorns on the ground under the snow in winter. They’re another multi-season producer.
Baby Oak leaves are considered a delicacy in salads and can be found during Spring through summer on emerging Oak weed trees growing around any mature Oak.
Green lichens are edible raw but best boiled, and be sure to avoid any orange or yellow lichens which are toxic. Mushrooms are another matter and, given that 96% of the 10,000 species of wild mushrooms in North America are toxic, you should avoid them unless you are a qualified expert.
Oak’s natural strength as wood makes it an excellent source for any shelter or repair and has also been used for tools.
It’s hard to think of a tree that doesn’t bear fruit or nuts as a survival resource, but the Willow has more than a few surprises.
The medicinal benefits of Willow bark are the most surprising benefit, especially the White Willow. Its inner bark or the Cambrium layer has a compound known as salicin. Salicin is the active ingredient in aspirin and was first extracted by a man named Augustus Bayer in the 1800’s. His product is still known today as Bayer Aspirin.
Native tribes were no strangers to the pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory benefits of Willow bark, but they took it a step further, fashioning fish and shellfish traps from the long, wispy willow branches.
Those same branches can be easily woven into baskets for foraging or packs for carrying supplies. They’ve been used for centuries to weave fencing, enclosures, and to trap animals.
The natural spring and tensile strength of Willow branches make them another excellent source for an archer’s bow. The wispy branches can be easily braided into stout cordage, and the hanging branches make for a quick shelter from sudden rain.
Because Willow trees prefer to grow in damp, swampy soil, their sap can also be tapped for drinking. And because of the salicin, they provide a natural, pain-relieving benefit.
The Basswood tree, also known as the American Linden, is another surprising survival resource. The tender leaves can be enjoyed raw or cooked in spring, summer, and fall, and the seeds are edible but few and far between. The inner bark is also edible and the bark is easily removed in long strips from both young and mature trees.
The Basswood can also be tapped for drinking water but doesn’t have enough natural sugar for syrup. The hollow tubes of basswood shoots can be used to tap the tree once you’ve drilled a hole into the sapwood of a mature tree. The hollow tubes of the saplings and shoots can also be used as a straw for drinking from cold, clear water springs.
One of the greatest benefits of the basswood is its use for braiding cordage. The fibers of young basswood trees are surprisingly strong, and it comes off the small trunks and branches in long strips and has been used for centuries to make rope. The young saplings are also easy to cut with a knife for shelter building.
Wild Fruit Trees Like Wild Plum And Crab Apple
Their spring blossoms betray them, but they are often ignored in the city once the blooms have fallen and rarely revisited in the forest. People often assume that crab apples are inedible and never think to try a small, wild plum.
In actual fact, the mature fruit of large Crab Apple tree is quite sweet and their size (about the circumference of a quarter) makes them easy to eat.
Wild plums are about the same size and just as sweet when mature. Both are excellent sources of vitamins and trace minerals, plus calories from carbohydrates.
The wood is often used for cooking and smoking fish and game and burns long and hot. Their relatively small size makes it easy to harvest fruit from the tree and the short trunks and low branches can make for quick support for a shelter built around the base of the tree.
And the Best Tree Is…
This came as a surprise. It seemed like it would be a tossup between Mulberry trees and Oaks due to the fruit and nut benefit but the Willow wins. To some degree, that’s due to its significant place in natural medicines as a pain reliever, but mostly it’s due to the surprising number of tools and items you can make from the wispy branches.
It’s easy to argue that many natural materials can make those tools and equipment, but you would need to find multiple resources to do that when one Willow tree can do it all. There’s also the question of needs relative to other resources a survivor might have that would make acorns or mulberries preferable, but we had to draw a line somewhere.
Willow also has the benefit of copious amounts of sap due to the high saturation of the wet type of ground it prefers. As far as providing you with something to eat from the tree, let’s give it credit for allowing you to construct a fish or crayfish trap, wild foraging basket, and maybe a trap to catch rodents and rabbits. And by the way, the bark and branches of the Willow will be there all year round.
And as the title suggests, Willow trees are fairly common so it’s likely you’ve seen one before and didn’t realize what it was. Take another look around next time you go for a walk or drive. Knowing where to find willow trees could be lifesaving.
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