Tom Brown, Jr.
It's very difficult
to write a survival article on wild foods that will be
relevant to readers in a broad range of areas and terrains.
Therefore, I've tried to include a variety of widely
distributed plants that can be easily identified and are—for
the most part—to be found throughout the year.
though, that when a person sets out to gather wild edibles, he
or she must do so with a great deal of caution. Some people,
for example, might have allergic reactions to otherwise "safe"
plants, and a number of factors—including the time of
collection and method of preparation—can make a big difference
in both the safety and the palatability of many free foods.
You should never, of course, pick plants close to roadways,
polluted waterways, croplands, or any other place where
chemical sprays or fumes could have contaminated
Furthermore, the forager should never eat a plant
that looks unhealthy, or one that he or she can't identify
beyond the shadow of a doubt. Whenever my survival school
students collect wild edibles, I ask them whether they'd stake
their lives on their ability to identify the species at hand .
. . because that, in fact, is just what they'll be doing when
they eat it. So use a good Held manual on the subject . . .
preferably one that contains both sketches and photographs
showing leaf, root, flower, and stalk structure, and—when
possible—get some training from a wild-plants expert in your
area (both the common names of and, surprisingly, the
appearance of some plants will change from one locale
A person in a survival
situation will likely find that roots and tubers are most
easily gathered with a "digging stick" (a sturdy branch
pointed at one end). When working in rocky soil, it's a good
idea to fire-harden the point by heating—but not burning—it
over glowing coals. The digger is then pushed into the ground
next to the plant, and the root is levered out.
seeds, tie a shirt in the form of a bag (wrapping the sleeves
around the neck hole to close it) ... place the seed heads in
the sack . . . and shake the kernels loose. Or, you might want
to make a willow hoop out of a flexible sapling and place the
shirt over it to form a shallow tray into which seeds can be
keep in mind that plants are living entities and—many people
believe—have their own spirits. Whenever I pick one, I thank
it for giving its life to keep me alive. And, of course, we
must all be very careful not to wipe out a species in any one
THE BIG FOUR . . .
sources are both familiar to most folks and—across much of
Oaks. All acorns (Quercus
species) are edible, though some are a good bit sweeter than
others. However, if you simply shell one of the seeds and take
a bite, it's likely that you'll immediately be turned off by
the very astringent, burning quality typical of most oak nuts.
Fortunately, you can leach out the tannic acid that makes them
bitter, and the easiest way to do so is to shell the acorns,
smash them (you'll want to break them up but not
pulverize them), wrap the pieces in a cloth, and place them in
a stream for about half a day (longer, if they haven't lost
their unpleasant taste by that time). Another method is to
boil the nuts, changing the water frequently, until the flavor
appeals to you.
they're leached, the acorns can be eaten raw, toasted, added
to stews, or pounded fine and mixed with wild-grain flours to
make bread. They're a valuable source of proteins and
carbohydrates that's available from early fall until well into
the next spring. And acorn sprouts can be prepared in
the same ways as the nuts themselves, or—in the case of most
white oak species—can be eaten right off the
Grasses. Of the many grasses found in
North America, all but a few are edible, with their seeds
being the most palatable part. However, it's best to select
grasses with large seed heads or clusters, since trying to
collect small ones would likely be a waste of vital
should be dried and parched, then winnowed to remove the
chaff. The kernels can then be toasted and eaten plain, added
to stews, or ground into flour for bread. Some of the best,
safest, and most widely available grasses are crab, goose,
foxtail, blue, rye, and orchard, plus wild oats and millet.
Eat the Weeds by Ben Harris (Keats, 1973, $1.50)
and Handbook of Edible Wild Plants by Euell Gibbons
and Gordon Tucker (Donning Company, 1979, $4.95) are both good
sources of information on edible grasses.
Pines. Not all evergreens are edible,
but the Pinus (pine) species are. These trees offer a
wide assortment of munchables that are all easily collected
and prepared. You can, for instance, add the pollen to stew as
a thickener and to bread for flavor. And if you heat the cones
gently by a fire until they open, the seeds can be easily
extracted. These can then be eaten raw, parched and winnowed,
or shelled and baked—depending on the species—and added to
soup and bread. Use pine needles (along with those from spruce
and hemlock . . . but be sure you're not gathering the needles
from the red-berried, poisonous American yew,
Taxus canadensis) to make a nourishing tea. You can
also dry the inner bark of pine, spruce (Picea species), and
hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and add it to stew and
Cattails. The cattail (either
Typha latifolia or T. angustifolia) can be
utilized at almost any time of the year, because at each stage
of its life cycle it has a number of edible parts. For
example, you can mash the root up in cold water to separate
the soluble starches, and—once these have settled, and the
fibers and water have been removed—add the material to stew or
mix it with other wild flours to make bread. The new shoots
can be eaten raw, and those up to a foot tall may be prepared
like asparagus. The head, before it emerges, can be cooked and
eaten like corn on the cob. Finally, it's possible to collect
cattail pollen for use in soup or as a flour.
. . AND MANY MORE
Clover. Many clovers
(Trifolium species) are edible, the best being the
red, sweet, yellow, white, white sweet, buffalo, alsike, and
crimson varieties. Boil or steam the flowers and new green
leaves and eat them as you would spinach. Tea made from the
dried flowers is also relatively high in food
Mint. Most members of the mint family
(Mentha species) can be used as tea or provide
flavoring for other foods and drinks. For example, you can
steep the green (or dried) leaves for a short time in hot
water and add the liquid directly to a stew.
Spicebush. The spicebush (Lindera
benzoin) is the forerunner of our modern allspice, and
the pioneers dried and powdered its berries to make a
versatile flavoring. For a zesty tea, steep its bark, young
twigs, and young leaves in warm water for about ten minutes.
(This beverage is flavorful, but its food value is quite
Miner's Lettuce. The Montia
species (which belong to the same family—Portulacaceae—as
purslane, another popular edible green) are available during
much of the year, and these typically small, low-growing
residents of damp places make a good cooked vegetable. It's
also possible to eat them raw or add them to soup and stew.
(The new, small leaves have the best flavor.)
Sumac. All of the Rhus
species are edible, with the exception of poison sumac, which
can be distinguished from the others by its loose clusters of
white berries and the absence of teeth on the leaves. To make
a good tea or cold drink from the bright red stag-horn,
smooth, and winged sumac berries, just bruise the clusters in
cold water ... let the brew sit for ten minutes . . . strain
it ... and drink the beverage hot or cold. You can also make a
fine soup with a fruity flavor by heating the berry clusters
and then straining them out before eating the
Violets. The new, green leaves of the
Viola species can be cooked as a green, added to soup
as a thickener, or eaten raw in a salad. The dried leaves, on
the other hand, make excellent tea that's high in vitamin A.
The violet's taste, however, is very bland, and the leaves
will be most appealing when mixed with other
Dandelions. You can eat the tender
leaves of Taraxacum officinale raw or cook them like
a potherb . . . if they're gathered before the plants bloom.
The mature flower itself is tasty when dipped in a batter made
from wild-grain flour and fried like a fritter, while ground
dried roots make an excellent hot drink.
Chicory. When dried, roasted, and
ground, chicory (Cichorium intybus) roots will brew
up into a coffeelike hot drink, and the new green leaves can
be cooked as a potherb or simply added to stew. Also, the
blanched white part of the new leaves at the plant's base are
tasty when eaten raw . . . alone or in a salad.
Greenbriers. The new green leaves,
sprouts, or shoots—as well as the young tendrils—of the
Smilax species can be eaten raw or cooked. In many
parts of the country, greenbriers have edible parts from
spring through the middle of autumn.
Stinging Nettles. The stinging nettle
(Urtica species) is a very good survival plant, since
it can be found in many areas of the country. Steam or boil
the young shoots or leaves to produce a great cooked green. Or
boil the older leaves for ten minutes, then strain out the
fibers, to make a tea. Be careful, however, when handling this
plant: Its "bite" is very painful, but fortunately, the
stinging capability is destroyed by cooking. (The plant's stem
fibers, by the way, make good cordage.)
Roses. It's possible to steep the
fresh petals of the Rosa species in hot water to make a very
tasty tea. Also, the dried and pitted rose hips can be eaten
raw and make an excellent survival food, because they can
often be found throughout the winter and are packed with
Great Burdock. The young green leaves
of Arctium lappa can be eaten raw or prepared as a
potherb for a quick survival food. The roots of first-year
plants must be peeled of their inedible rind, and can then be
boiled—in two changes of water—for 30 to 40 minutes and eaten
Amaranth. You can roast and grind the
seeds of the mature plants of Amaranthus species into
a rich flour. The young leaves can be eaten raw, added to
other cooked vegetables, or put directly in stew. (This food
source is available, in many areas, from spring through
Waterlilies. Almost all waterlilies
(Nymphaea and Nuphar species) are edible and
can be gathered most of the year. During the summer months,
when the rootstocks become mushy and rather tasteless, they're
still an excellent source of survival food. Additionally, the
young, unfurling leaves and unopened buds can be prepared as a
potherb. The seeds can be parched, winnowed, and ground into a
nutritious flour, and the potato-shaped tubers of the tuberous
waterlily (N. tuberosa) can be dug from the mud and prepared
like—what else?—potatoes. Two of the more common edible
varieties are the yellow pond lily and the fragrant pond lily.
(Be careful, though, to collect any such plants from
Arrowhead. Use a forked stick to push
the tubers of this marsh plant (Sagittaria species)
free of the mud, after which they'll float to the surface.
Though these can be cooked like potatoes, many people prefer
to eat them raw, as a nibble food. The arrowhead is an
excellent survival edible because it's available throughout
the year, but the roots do get bitter and soft in midsummer
and are especially so when the plant is in flower.
Chickweeds. Chickweeds of the
Stellaria and Cerastium species make very
good cooked greens, and all but the mouse-eared type can be
eaten raw (although some people don't care much for the
Common Plantains. When steamed or
boiled, the tender young leaves of the Plantago
species can be eaten as a cooked vegetable or added to soup
and stew. The very young, unfurling leaves are sometimes eaten
raw. Then, too, I like to grind the parched and winnowed seeds
into wild flour that has a distinctive taste and a healthful
dose of protein.
Prickly Pear. This fruit's fleshy pulp
makes an excellent trail-side food. The seeds of the
Opuntia species can also be parched and ground into Hour,
and the young pads—peeled—can be eaten raw or
Winter Cress. You can eat the winter
rosettes of Barbarea vulgaris raw or add them to
salads, but the leaves of the spring plants must be prepared
as a potherb to rid them of their bitter taste. If cooked
before they bloom, the flower heads resemble broccoli, but
might require two changes of water.
TAKE A SHOPPING TRIP!
described here represent just a small sampling of the many
valuable and often delicious vegetables that can be found
growing wild. Get yourself a good field guide and take
advantage of summer walks to sharpen your identification
is a rewarding and enjoyable family activity, as well as an
emergency technique . . . and it will allow you to add variety
to your meals while lowering your grocery bills!
For more material by and about Tom Brown Jr. and the Tracker School
visit the Tracker Trail