From the time I was a young boy I have been fascinated with wild foods. The idea that there was food out there just for the taking made a connection with something deep inside of me. That something was mainly my stomach, which at that age always seemed to be a bit on the empty side. Since then I’ve spent years practicing the art of foraging along with studying a veritable mountain of books. The reason is simple: you never know when you’ll be out in the woods and find out your hiking buddy ate the last granola bar.
I generally make a habit of eating whatever wild food I happen to find when I am out and about. It turns out that most people don’t think this is normal behavior. Some of my city friends are genuinely appalled. Take for example my friend “Bill”. I convinced Bill that a stroll in the local wildlife preserve would be a good way to burn up some extra time we had on a business trip. When we began our walk, Bill immediately set about finding a long, stout branch. When I asked why, he replied that it was to beat off the packs of wild dogs which roamed the forest. There’s a lesson here about the importance of becoming familiar with the real outdoors rather than the outdoors in a book or on television, but that could be a whole article by itself. As we wandered along a walking trail those familiar hunger pangs prompted me to look about for some sustenance. I quickly spied a hickory tree, and this being fall I was rewarded by the sight of many nuts scattered about under the tree. I casually gathered a handful, shucked off the green husks, and started to crack them with a couple of rocks I found laying nearby. When I offered some of that perfectly delicious nutmeat to Bill he looked horrified. In a shocked voice he told me he wasn’t going to eat something that I found laying on the ground. From this seemingly minor example you can pull a surprising number of helpful hints on foraging for wild food:
Tip #1: Don’t let modern prejudices and misconceptions get in the way of your foraging. It’s funny how our experiences can form a sort of filter that limits our thoughts. Unfortunately this same filter can limit your chances of survival in a TEOTWAWKI scenario. My friend Bill had no doubt been told many times as a child that things on the ground were dirty and that he mustn’t eat them. Never mind that potatoes, carrots, and the like at the gleaming local supermarket all come from the ground. Another example (or incident as my friends would say) is when I encountered some ornamental cabbage thoughtfully planted by the local shopping mall to spruce up their fall flower beds. I saw a tasty snack where my friends only saw a decorative plant.
Tip #2: Look for the “high grade” wild foods first. When I went on my stroll I passed numerous opportunities to pick various edible wild plants. Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot), burdock, dandelion, and plantain to name a few. [JWR Adds: Don’t mistake Hemlock or Snakeroot–both deadly if eaten, for Queen Anne’s Lace. All three look similar.] Having spent years sampling and eating wild plants I can only politely say that most are an acquired taste. If you are going to expend energy seeking out wild foods, seek those first that are going to give you the highest caloric return for your energy investment. A couple dozen blackberries are going to go further toward keeping you going than a bowl of mixed greens. This becomes doubly important in a situation where you are forced to travel on foot with scant provisions. Luckily for us, what I call high grade foods are also those that taste the best. In the high grade group I lump together a few of the more palatable plants such as purslane, lamb’s quarters, wild onions, and cattails, plus all manner of edible fruits, berries, and nuts.
Tip #3: Be aware of the season and your geographical area and modify your search accordingly. Only in the modern supermarket is everything always available regardless of the season. In the wild each plant, root, fruit, nut, berry, and mushroom has a season. In a Northeast mixed hardwood forest in the fall you are likely to find hickory nuts, so that is what I looked for. You aren’t going to find good walnuts in the spring or wild strawberries in the fall. When you learn about a particular wild food make sure you understand its general range (the areas/states where it is found), its preferred habitat, and when you can expect to find its fruit, nut, etc. I’m focusing on wild edible plants for a several reasons. The first is that I’m lazy and it’s easy to catch things that don’t run away when you decide to eat them. The second is that there are hundreds of books on wild edible plants but not a lot of practical advice in them.
Hopefully my tips will help to give you some of that missing advice. Lastly, hunting and fishing have been discussed forever by everybody and there’s not much I can add to those subjects. However, the tips I’ve given are generally applicable to all aspects of foraging for wild food. For example, does the filter in your head rule out potential sources of protein such as worms, crickets, crayfish, and grasshoppers? In various cultures around the world today rat, cat, dog, or horse could be on the dinner menu and no one would even blink. At this point you’re probably asking yourself why you’ve bothered to read this far. Maybe it’s because you’re worried about the collapse of the current system of food production and distribution when TSHTF and we find ourselves facing TEOTWAWKI and are totally freaked out. You might be thinking that maybe when the grocery store shelves are empty you’ll be able to rely on the knowledge presented here to live off of nature’s bounty. Well, before we continue with more helpful tips let me offer a bit of advice about nature’s bounty. Studies say that it takes about 1000 acres to support one adult living as a hunter-gatherer. In my experience this is somewhat optimistic unless it’s summer, mid summer, late summer, summer again, or early fall. Yes, there are places where this will work, where the human population is sparse and fish and wild game are plentiful, or where you can take advantage of high food concentrations like salmon runs. However, I think that those of you who are planning to head to a National Park when TSHTF and live off the land are in for some slim pickings, not to mention having to deal with everyone else who had the same idea.
Tip #4: The best approach is to consider foraging for wild foods, and wild edible plants in particular, as a supplement to your main food supply. Famine during winter and other hard times is the whole reason mankind in general decided to practice animal husbandry and farming instead of sticking with the pure hunter-gatherer lifestyle. I’m not trying to discourage you from feeding off the land, I am just trying to make sure your expectations match reality. Being able to stretch stored food supplies with wild foods will help immensely when those extra friends and relatives show up in a survival scenario, but I wouldn’t recommend counting on wild foods as your only food supply. Getting back to our original story with Bill and packs of wild dogs in the nature preserve, I spotted the hickory tree from a ways off by the general shape and color of the tree and bark. This is what prompted me to take a closer look to see if nuts were available. Each fruit and nut tree, each berry bush or edible plant has a distinctive shape to it than can help you identify a potential food source from a distance. Close up examination of the leaf, stems, bark, etc., confirms the identification. This brings us to our next tip:
Tip #5: Plant identification skills matter, and it takes time and practice to get good at it. A book on edible wild plants with color pictures is a must and a perfect place to start for learning, but to successfully forage large amounts of edible wild food in minimal time requires that you get to know your plants in real life. Identification skills are also important because some poisonous plants look similar to edible plants to the untrained eye. I was on a walk once with a group of friends and saw some wild grapes. I picked some to eat and pointed them out to the others. Several people decided to try them which elicited many negative comments on how sour they were. One woman commented on how bitter they were. This caught my interest because a bitter taste is a common indicator of plant poisons. It turns out that some English ivy was growing in among the grape vines and it also had clusters of small dark round fruit. Fortunately she spit the ivy seeds out immediately and suffered no harm. This brings up our most important tip:
Tip #:6 Don’t eat what you can’t identify. Not all poisonous plants taste poisonous. This is particularly true with mushrooms on both counts. An expert on mushrooms here in my state accidentally poisoned his family with a misidentified mushroom. Last I heard they had all survived but were waiting for liver transplants. So yes, there are plants and particularly mushrooms out there that can kill you. Note that some plants will be listed in the guide books as edible after boiling with a change of water. You boil it to leach out some nasty tastes and toxins, throw out the contaminated water, and then boil it some more. Needless to say these types of plants are not on my high grade list. Consider this plant identification scenario: TEOTWAWKI has hit and for whatever reason you find yourself out in the woods and starving. You’re kicking yourself for not having studied up on your edible wild plants. You know that you shouldn’t eat what you can’t identify, and that some berries look good and taste okay but are poisonous. What are you going to do? Suddenly the idea hits you that you can just observe what the birds and other animals are eating because those berries will be edible. That brings us to our next tip:
Tip #7: Animals can eat some things that are poisonous to humans. See tip #6. Some people are not that interested in being able to identify various plants and trees. Take for example my friend “Steve” who is an avid hunter. When it came time to place his deer stand, he decided that the tree with the leafy vine on it would provide some additional natural camouflage. Unfortunately that leafy vine was poison ivy. Steve spent the next 10 days covered in pink calamine lotion, enduring jokes from his co-workers in addition to the terrible itching. Unfortunately poison ivy loves the same habitat as berries and fruit trees.
Tip #8: Learn to identify poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac so you can avoid them, as they are often located next to or even intertwined with your favorite wild edibles. If you do brush up against poison ivy you can avoid the rash by washing the area within 30 minutes or so before it is absorbed into your skin. You must use a soap specifically designed to remove grease and oil, like the hand cleaners used by car mechanics, or you risk just smearing the poison ivy oil (urushiol) around and making things worse.
My last tip is not exactly a foraging tip but it has to do with wild edible plants and thinking out of the box in an extended survival situation:
Tip #9: A wild edible plant garden can help you produce food until you can obtain seeds for standard garden fruits and vegetables. The whole point of a garden is to concentrate food plants in a convenient area and to increase their yields. You can use the same strategy with wild edible plants in a situation where you can put in a garden but have no standard seeds. Note that every common food plant we use today started out sometime in history as a wild plant. Careful selection of seeds from plants with desirable characteristics over many years produced the varieties that we have today.
The tips I’ve given here will complement the guide books for anyone who decides to forge ahead and learn to reap the wild bounty of the land. Foraging for wild edible plants has given me a lot of enjoyment over the years, and I would encourage you to explore this field of study. It is immensely satisfying to be able to reach out and pluck a tasty snack from a seemingly nondescript patch of wild plants, to confidently eat what your friends dare not eat. And like I said in the beginning, you never know when you’re going to be out in the woods and run out of granola bars.