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Survival in an emergency largely depends on preparedness and knowledge. One way to make sure your family has enough to eat in an emergency is by building a survival food pantry. Another way is to learn how to forage for food.
Did you know that the wilderness—even the wilds of your own backyard—can provide an abundant supply of food and nutrition? By becoming familiar with the edible plants in your area, you will increase your chances of survival if disaster strikes.
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Let’s begin with a few dos and don’ts. Do carry a field guide or handbook with clear photos in your backpack to help you identify plants. There are also are some apps, including Wild Edibles Forage and The Master Foraging App that focus on edible plants.
A good rule of thumb is: when in doubt, don’t eat it. Foraging experts recommend that if you cannot clearly identify a plant, it is best to leave it alone. General characteristics of inedible—and potentially toxic—plants include:
- Fine hairs, thorns or spines
- Glossy or brightly colored leaves
- Almond scent
- Three-leafed pattern
- Bitter taste
- Parsley-like foliage
- Grain heads that are pink, purple or black
- Yellow or white berries
- Umbrella-shaped leaves
Now let’s discover some of the many plants that are safe to eat – and offer taste and nutrition as well.
Wild asparagus, which has a thinner stalk than what we usually find in the produce section, is abundant in many North American locations in early spring. It thrives in moist areas that get full sun exposure.
You can boil wild asparagus or eat it raw to obtain the highest amount of its vitamin C, vitamin B6, thiamine and potassium content.
Bittercress is in the mustard family, and it has that characteristic mustard taste. All parts of the plant are edible. The young, tender leaves are useful in a salad or as an herb. Larger, older leaves can be cooked.
You can eat the seed pods raw and even use the small white flowers to make an edible garnish.
Many Asian recipes include burdock roots, and some markets sell them. However, this plant grows abundantly in North America. Look for the plant’s distinctive leaves in the early spring and then use a shovel to dig up the tasty roots.
You can use the spring roots for stir-fries. Later in the season, you can harvest burdock leaves and stalks, which are also edible.
Native Americans often ate cattails, which grow abundantly near freshwater ponds and wetlands. Although you can eat the entire plant – including the stem and roots — the tastiest part is the white section of the stem.
If you want to learn more, read our other article, Cattails – The Little Known Survival Food
Chickweed prefers soil that is rich in nitrogen, so you might find it growing near your compost pile and garden beds. Unlike many wild greens, chickweed has a mild flavor.
You can eat it as you would spinach – either raw or cooked.
A bushy plant with small blue lavender and white flowers, the chicory plant is entirely edible.
In the spring, you can enjoy the young leaves raw, and then eat the flowers that emerge. At other times of the year, you can boil the leaves and the roots.
Plentiful in most open grassy fields, clover is an exception to the “leaves of three, let them be” rule.
It is safe to eat clover raw, but the flavor improves considerably if you boil or sauté the plant. The young pink or white flowers also have good flavor.
8. Curly Dock
Curly dock (also known as Yellow dock) grows prolifically in many backyards, which makes it a good choice as a survival food.
The plant’s smaller, younger leaves have the best taste and are a good addition to salads, soups, and stews. As spring turns into summer, however, the leaves tend to become bitter.
The dandelion entire plant – including the roots – is edible and nutritious. Generally speaking, the younger the plant, the better the taste. However, boiling older plants makes them more palatable.
An added bonus is that you can drink the nutritious tea that results from the boiling process. Dandelion roots can be used to make a coffee substitute and dandelion wine is a fermented beverage you can create from the yellow flowers.
To learn more, read 8 Things To Do With All Those Dandelions.
Fiddleheads are the furled fronds of young ferns, which grow in moist, shady areas. Left unharvested, a fiddlehead unrolls into a new frond.
Fiddleheads have a pleasant grassy flavor with a bit of nuttiness that some people compare to a cross between asparagus and spinach.
11. Green Seaweed
Green seaweed is plentiful in most seawater areas. You can pull it from the water, rinse it with fresh water and then let it dry in the sun.
Eat seaweed raw or toss it into a soup or salad.
12. Ground Elder
Most gardeners fear the ground elder plant because it can be so pervasive. One way to control it is to eat it.
The plant tastes similar to celery and parsley and is tasty and nutritious in salads.
13. Ground Ivy
Ground ivy (also called gill-over-the-ground) is a quick-spreading low ground cover. This plant is in the mint family, but it does not have a minty taste.
Instead, use young shoots and leaves raw in a salad or cooled as you would spinach. Ground ivy does have a strong taste, so use sparingly.
Found on beaches throughout the world, kelp contains folate and vitamin K. You can eat it raw or boiled in a soup or stew.
15. Lemon Balm
You may eat the leaves and flowers of the lemon balm plant either raw or cooked. Or use them to make an herb tea that is good for calming the nerves.
Lichens are a common wild edible that usually grow on trees and rocks. They have a distinctive appearance similar to a flat, leafy plant. Even though they grow on land, they’re technically a type of algae. However, you don’t want to just pick them up and eat them. They need to be prepared first.
Learn more by reading Lichens: A Survival Food That’s Probably Growing in Your Backyard.
Although every part of the linden plant is edible, the best part is the attractive curled leaf bud that emerges in early spring.
They taste almost like sweet peas. Linden leaves also are tasty in salads.
Not to be confused with the banana-like plant of the same name, the plantain plant grows in many grassy areas and is often considered a nuisance. However, the plant has been used as an herbal remedy for centuries.
You can eat plantain’s green, rippled leaves raw or cooked. As with most wild edibles, the best flavor comes from young, tender plants.
19. Prickly Pear Cactus
Another exception to the characteristics of plants to avoid is the prickly pear cactus. Although it has a spiky spine, this plant, which thrives in the deserts of North America, is tasty and nutritious.
You can eat both its red or purplish fruit and its stem. Take care to remove the spines first.
Considered a noxious weed throughout most of the United States, purslane is edible and can offer important nutrients in a survival situation. The small plant grows summer to early fall and has smooth, flat leaves.
Some people like the sour taste of the raw leaves, but if you don’t, you can lighten the flavor by boiling them.
21. Tree Sap
Although most people know they can eat the sap from a maple tree, other trees offer the same opportunity. Nut trees, such as the black walnut tree, can be tapped for syrup in early spring.
Other trees that provide delicious syrup include ash, shagbark hickory, and elm trees.
Violets are easy to spot in early spring because of their vibrant color. You can eat the young blossoms and leaves as is or in salads.
23. White Mustard
White mustard, which blooms in late winter or early spring, contains edible seeds, flowers, and leaves.
Eat the young leaves as you would spinach – raw or cooked — or you can add them to a stew or soup.
24. Wild Onion
Wild onions, wild garlic, or wild chives grow plentifully in North American fields and forests. However, there are some imposters.
As a general rule, if the plant smells oniony or garlicky, it is safe to eat raw or cooked. If the plant does not have that distinctive garlic or onion smell, do not eat it.
25. Wood Sorrel
Wood sorrel grows all over the U.S. in grassy fields and woodlands. The plant has a tall, red-colored stem with leaves that have a lemony taste when eaten raw.
Some Native American tribes, including the Cherokee and the Kiowa, chewed on wood sorrel to alleviate thirst and to treat mouth sores.
If you’d like to learn more about wild edibles, here is some recommended reading:
- Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods
- Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
- The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
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