As I observe the current concerns about our food supply and our “health” care choices, I think back to the days in the 1970s when my husband, child and I took off to the wilderness of the Adirondacks. Even though there’s so much turbulence going on now, I know that being in the middle of essentially nowhere with just your three-member family can be scary no matter how, when, or why you do it. I was fortunate in that I was trained as a nurse in my younger days, and that experience did come in handy in being able to stay calm in the face of emergency. But we didn’t have much in the way of dependable food sources or actual medicines and so, with some trial and error, I learned to use the plants around me for nutritious food and for relief and aid for the body.
As regards the medicinal aspect, I knew that prior to modern medicine and its drugs, there were individuals who passed down, from generation to generation, the secrets of natural healing, often using herbs and various compounds to assist the body to heal itself. Throughout the history of man, such people have provided whatever medicinal healing that was to be had, and most of the populace was grateful for them. We are lucky to have the wisdom of herbal know-how passed down through the generations.
In this article I will tell you about some edible and medicinal uses for wild plants that I personally learned about to help my family survive on our wilderness homestead. This will give you an idea of how possible it is to be off the grid and to still be able to deal with feeding yourselves well, and learning effective and free ways to handle health issues that could arise. These wild plants grow pretty much everywhere and you are very likely to find them not only in your urban backyard, but also in wilderness areas that you might inhabit. The fascinating thing is that while I was getting a handle on feeding us for free in the wild, I was also discovering that many of those same plants also have medicinal properties, so it’s a “two-for-one” kind of deal, and the best part is that it’s all free! Nature herself has provided us with the most amazing deal in health and nutrition, and yet there’s all that noise about the expense of food and of health care. What a waste of time and energy, in my opinion.
I must remind you that the key to successful use of any wild plant, whether edible or medicinal, depends, as always, on proper identification. I have said this many times in my books, in my 3-hour DVD, in my Wild Card playing deck, on my radio shows, in my newsletter, and in my classes years ago, etc. It is the very first action that everyone needs to take in helping themselves to Nature’s free food store and pharmacy. I always say that you should have at least 3 good field guides to help with identification, and color photos, and then go out and practice until you know you know your plants! However, and this is a caution that I also state continually, there are some harmful plants that resemble really wonderful wild plants. I’m going to go into a bit of detail here to give you an idea of what I mean, and so you will understand why I emphasize certainty with your identification.
One of my favorite wild plants is Queen Anne’s Lace. When you see the blooming flower head, you will know why it is called that. Queen Anne’s Lace is a great wild edible because you see it in many places (once you know how to identify it), and it has a long harvesting season. I would pick the flowers and saute them for a tasty treat. I discovered that the stems can be cut and used for flavoring in soups and stews, the leaves can be included in salads, the dried seeds from the brown fall flowers can be used as a salt substitute (but not to excess). Once I found out how delicious the lace flowers taste fried in hot oil and then cooled on rocks at my homestead outdoor “kitchen”, I didn’t miss potato chips anymore! The roots can be gathered for a carrot substitute in the spring and fall, and you can even dig during the winter months to collect the roots. You can see how useful this plant is for free food and to use as a very healthy salt substitute.
The thing is, unless you are careful, it is possible to mistake this wonderful plant with poison hemlock, just like it is possible to mistake mushrooms that aren’t good for you with ones that are. The answer is not to stop looking for mushrooms, it is to learn the good ones from the bad ones. In the case of Queen Anne’s Lace, the most obvious difference between it and hemlock is that the stems of Queen Anne’s Lace are fuzzy, and the stems of hemlock are smooth. So just by feeling along the stem you will be able to tell which is the good, edible plant. Another detectable difference is that Queen Anne’s Lace has a very distinctive “carrot” smell to the stem, leaves, seeds, and roots. This information, along with other specifics on a few more poisonous look-alikes, are in my book The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide. An additional safety guideline that I have provided in all of my wild food publications are my “Rules of Foraging”, which I developed and refined over my many years in working with and teaching wild food. That list of rules is included at the end of this article.
My procedure after any wild food foraging adventure (and they always were an adventure, like the time I ran, almost literally, into a bear—but that’s another story!) was to set aside a certain amount to eat while the food was still fresh from the fields. With the rest I would use my dependable drying and storing methods to keep quantities available to me throughout the winter, and often for years at a time. I would also properly prepare those plants that I had learned would be valuable for helping with body issues. I can tell you that I was never as grateful for my knowledge of medicinal plants and my dependable identification of them as I was when there was an emergency and I saw the blood gushing out from the tip of my husband’s finger from a chainsaw accident.
One of my most reliable plants for such injuries is shepherd’s purse, and I can’t recommend highly enough what a good idea it is to have it in powder form readily available for emergencies. The powder of that plant is what I put on my husband’s fingertip to stem the bleeding, and I kept using it on that finger until the bleeding stopped and it was healing. Shepherd’s purse is what I used during another injury episode, when I cut off the very tip of my finger with a hatchet one time. It grew back with no problem. My use of that plant in both of those instances taught me the incredible medicinal value of a single plant. The native Americans kept a little bag of shepherd’s purse seeds around their necks in case of emergency.
Shepherd’s purse is not only very valuable for blood clotting, even for serious cuts like those I mentioned, but it also is a nutritious food source. The leaves can be eaten in salads, sandwiches, soups, and as a side vegetable. The stems and seeds can be stir fried, and the buds and flowers can be eaten raw. Seeds can also be used as a pepper substitute, and roots can be used fresh, or dried and used as a substitute for ginger. And this very important plant is growing freely all around!
Another wild plant that may be even more valuable medicinally as well as nutritionally is mullein. This plant is probably more well-known than shepherd’s purse because of its amazing antihistamine properties. I have friends who buy mullein tea, tinctures and capsules to help with bronchial relief and sinus problems. I was very, very grateful to know about mullein when my son developed a serious cough during a 20 degree below zero wilderness winter day. The usual pine tea and honey was not having any effect. I could see the tips of the brown mullein spikes nearby so I went outside in the freezing cold and frozen ground and was able to dig out a foot-long mullein root. I used it to brew a concentrated tea for my son. He drank 2 tablespoons every hour and his cough was calmed and he proceeded to get well from that point. You should know that mullein root tea is an effective expectorant and thus can help a person discharge the mucus from the throat and bronchial tubes. I was so grateful that those mullein plants were “standing sentinel” outside my door and that they were available even in several feet of snow and in below zero temperature, to help me help my son.
One summer when I was teaching a Girl Scout troop and we were on horseback, a horse kicked out and clipped the ankle of one of my scouts. It was a bad injury. I removed her shoe and then shouted for the other scouts to get some mullein leaves quickly, which they did. We crushed the leaves with rocks and then made poultices and applied them onto the swollen ankle. We used the mullein stalks as splints and the leaves became bandages until we could get the scout to the hospital. The doctor who treated her was amazed that the girl had a chip fracture but no swelling or pain, and he wanted to know what plant was on her ankle! Think of the savings to everyone, in terms of time, money and pain, if this valuable information where more widely known.
Here’s what I learned to do when anyone in my wilderness family felt a cold coming on: I would scrub a mullein root, simmer it in water for 10 to 15 minutes, and then whoever needed it would drink the medicinal tea. That one root could be used several times to make tea.
When there is a burn or wound that needs healing and you have mullein leaves and a heat source, gently break up a bunch of leaves (or one large leaf), put that in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, steep for 10 to 15 minutes and cool. Take the leaves out, drain them a bit, and then place them directly over the bruised or hurt area. Make a poultice with the cooled juice and add that to the area too. A constant poultice will greatly aid in the healing process. I knew that the Native Americans used mullein leaves to heal elbows and shoulders, so I figured out that placing mullein leaves in my sneakers when I knew I would be walking long distances would probably soothe my tired feet and prevent blisters, and I was right! I put those leaves in my sneakers ever after when I went on my foraging trips. I also liked to use mullein to help relieve the irritation from bug bites. A different but very helpful use of mullein was for lamp wicks when we were snowed in. A small piece of the leaf cut to size, dried, and soaked in oil will burn for quite a while.
Another wild plant that is both edible and medicinal is plantain. Plantain is so common that you are likely to find it growing in your lawn, in fields, and around construction sites. It’s very plentiful and useful. There are two types of plantain: long leaf plantain, and common plantain. The entire plant is edible. Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, the stalks can be dried for vegetable chewies, the seeds used as sprouts in salads and other dishes. But I can tell you from my own personal experience, and for anyone I know who tried it, the first thing I did for bee stings was to make a “band aid” out of the leaves of the common plantain and apply it to the sting. Here’s how I taught children to do this: First I would show them exactly how to identify that plant. I would then have them pick three leaves, inserting one of the leaves in between the other two, and then roll that into a cigar-shaped, cylindrical form. I would find a rock they could hold and then I would have them pound on their leaves to make them a little bit juicy. That inner leaf, when unwrapped and moist, becomes a poultice for the sting, to help draw out the poison. Water could be added if needed so that the poultice is moist when applied to the sting area.
Of course this would all need to be done quickly, but before I took children out into an area where they could be stung, I always made sure that we would scope out where there were common plantain plants. Then we would practice making the poultices so the children knew what to do. They just loved the idea of doing something themselves that was effective against bee stings. My work with teaching children about wild plants, both as food sources and as freely available aids for their bodies, is one of the most rewarding aspects of everything I did in wild food. My recently released Wild Food Homeschool Package was compiled from my wild food materials specifically so that the activities I did with children would be available to parents to teach to their children. May these children pass it on through the generations and help us get back to our roots, literally.
While the current political outlook may seem very bleak, never forget that in every wilderness area where you go to seek survival, there will be wild plants growing freely all around you. Be sure that you have with you materials that teach you how to become certain with identification, and which also include specifics on harvesting, drying, storing and preparing wild food and wild medicine. I have done exactly that during my life, and now I have compiled all the information I could, to help you all do the same. I hope it will be enough to see you, and everybody you know and love, through the tough times ahead.
The Rules of Foraging
These rules are for your own protection when investigating plants that are new to you. If followed closely, they will protect you in the field.
1.) DO NOT collect plants closer than 200 feet from a car path or contaminated area.
2.) NEVER collect from areas sprayed with herbicides, pesticides, or other chemicals.
3.) DO NOT collect plants with RED STEMS, or red striations or stripes.
4.) ALWAYS BE FAMILIAR with all dangerous plants in YOUR area of collection.
5.) POSITIVELY IDENTIFY all plants you intend to use for food.
6.) Take a piece off the plant and roll between your fingers. SNIFF CAREFULLY. Does it smell like something you would eat? If it doesn’t, DISCARD IMMEDIATELY. If it does, go to rule 7.
7.) Take another piece off the plant and roll until juicy. RUB the tiny piece on your gum above your teeth.
8.) WAIT 20 minutes.
9.) DOES YOUR GUM ITCH, BURN, TINGLE, SWELL OR STING? If no reaction occurs, go on to rule 10.
10.) Take another piece of the plant and put in a teacup. Add boiling water and steep for 5 minutes. SIP SLOWLY for 20 more minutes. WATCH FOR NAUSEA, BURNING, DISCOMFORT. If no reaction occurs, you may ingest a small amount.
11.) WAIT ANOTHER 20 MINUTES and watch for any reaction.
12.) Keep all samples AWAY from children or pets.
13.) Store all seeds and bulbs AWAY from children and pets.
14.) Teach children to keep all plants AWAY from their mouths and DO NOT ALLOW children chew or suck nectar from any unknown plants.
15.) AVOID smoke from burning plants. Smoke may irritate the eyes or cause allergic reactions QUICKLY.
16.) BE AWARE of your neighbor’s habits with chemicals, pesticides and herbicides.
17.) BEWARE: heating or boiling doesn’t always destroy toxicity.
This is information about wild food. The editors of SurvivalBlog nor the author make no claims as to the correctness, safety or usability of the data.
The information contained herein is intended to be an educational tool for gathering and using wild plants. The information presented is for use as a supplement to a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle. The nutritional requirements of individuals may vary greatly, therefore the author and publisher take no responsibility for an individual using and ingesting wild plants.
All data is to be used at your own risk. Using the Rules of Foraging greatly helps to reduce that risk, but even they are not foolproof.
About The Author: Linda Runyon is a widely recognized expert on wild food foraging. Her web site is: OfTheField.com.