Discovering the Bounty of Wild Foods
Some rules-of-thumb are not worth remembering
By Christopher Nyerges

 

 

Have you ever thought about what would happen if you were stranded in the mountains or the desert, far from any highways or flight patterns? Though food would be a lesser priority than water and shelter, knowledge of wild foods would make your stay in the wilderness more pleasant. In fact, knowledge of wild food foraging is an extremely practical skill for major urban areas that get cut off from the normal food distribution systems. It doesn’t make sense to learn about the plants growing far away, while overlooking those plants that are right underfoot.

Since 1974, I have taught thousands of city-dwellers how to identify and begin using the plants found in vacant lots and backyards and gardens and fields, as well as the deserts, mountains, streams, and ocean terrains. I include wild foods in my diet as part of my daily lifestyle — I don’t wait for occasional excursions to the mountains in order to utilize this freely-growing bounty of nature.

Beginners who are excited to learn about wild foods often forget that — like any other art — this requires regular study and practice. The “general rules of thumb” that have circulated for decades are often rooted in a kernel of truth, but are just as well-rooted in the desire for a shortcut, a way to avoid taking the time to study and practice. Please forget about such “rules of thumb” since they can be fatal.

For example, the Boy Scout manual tells us that all blue and black berries can be eaten, and that white berries are poisonous. This has a basis in fact. Most white berries are poisonous, and so you shouldn’t eat them without knowing the individual berry. And although your odds are good at getting an edible berry if it is blue or black, that color alone is not a guarantee of edibility. The berries of common ivy and the fruits of lantana — both purple — are both toxic.

One survival instructor in Northern California told his students that all berries that glisten are poisonous, and that if the berry didn’t glisten, it could be eaten. Silly advice! Even if this was a valid rule (which it isn’t), there are numerous environmental factors which affect whether or not berries have a glistening surface.

Since berry collecting is so universally appealing, people constantly look for identification shortcuts. In one “survival manual” which is still published, the following advice appears: “If uncertain about the edibility of berries, watch to see if the animals eat them. If the animals eat the berries, the berries are good for human consumption.” There are many serious problems with such advice. First, did you actually see the animal eat the berries, or are you just making assumptions based on fecal matter, or have you observed what appears to be signs of animal grazing?

Regardless if the animal ate the berries or not, you have to keep in mind that the digestive systems of animals are not the same as humans. Some animals can eat substances that would kill (or incapacitate) most humans. And whoever gives this poor advice neglects a very important fact: Animals die all the time from eating the wrong plants! They don’t somehow automatically know what is edible and what isn’t.

Another dubious, but often repeated, bit of “advice” is found in “Food in the Wilderness” by authors George Martin and Robert Scott. They tell their readers, “If you do not recognize a food as edible, chew a mouthful and keep it in the mouth. If it is very sharp, bitter, or distasteful, do not swallow it. If it tastes good, swallow only a little of the juice. Wait for about eight hours. If you have suffered no nausea, stomach or intestinal pains, repeat the same experiment swallowing a little more of the juice. Again, wait for eight hours. If there are no harmful results, it probably is safe for you to eat. (This test does not apply to mushrooms.)”

Though this has a ring of scientific testing to it, it is VERY dangerous. Martin and Scott obviously never tried this “test” with poison hemlock, extremely common along the Pacific Coast and in all the streams which empty into the coast. After consuming their small “test sample” of poison hemlock, both authors would be dead in about an hour. Yet, variations of this test continue to be published in “survival manuals.”

Sometimes campers have believed that plants which resemble known edible plants are also edible. While this is sometimes true, it can have deadly consequences. Though parsley, carrots, fennel, and many other edible plants are found in the Parsley Family, poison hemlock and water hemlock are also in that group.

Similarly, while potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and chiles are all found in the Nightshade Family, some very toxic members of this family include tobacco, Jimson weed, and angel’s trumpet, just to name a few. The mere fact that some members of a botanical family are edible does not mean that all members can be eaten.

Another group of erroneous “rules of thumb” pertain to plants which are bitter, which exude milky sap when cut, or cause stinging or irritation to the skin. I have in my possession “survival manuals” which say bitter plants are poisonous, plants with milky sap are poisonous, and plants which cause stinging or irritation are toxic. While each of these “rules” has a basis in fact, you would be depriving yourself of MANY edible foods if you strictly followed these.

Bitterness is never a good guide of edibility; the bitterness of dandelions, sow thistle, acorns, wild lettuce, and many others can be boiled out. The presence of milky sap doesn’t necessarily mean a plant is poisonous. Of course, all members of the spurge family are toxic and most of these have a milky sap. However, dandelion, milkweed, chicory, natal plums, figs, and many other edible plants and fruits have a milky sap. As for irritation on the skin, this single datum is insufficient to determine edibility. For example, prickly pear cactus, gooseberries, nettles, and many others have some parts which cause stinging or irritation to the skin, yet all are edible.

The key, as always, is not to rely on “rules of thumb,” but to learn how to identify specific plants and, in some cases, specific plant families.

MUSTARD FAMILY
For example, there are no poisonous members of the Mustard Family. Thus, if you can accurately identify Mustard Family members by the floral characteristics, you can safely consume the plant, assuming it is palatable.

All of the flowers in the Mustard Family contain four petals (the colorful part of a flower), four sepals (the usually green piece under each petal), six stamens, and one pistil.

Some of the more prominent members of this family include broccoli, kohlrabi, radish (wild and domestic), watercress, sweet alyssum, wall flower, winter cress, shepherd’s purse, and hundreds of other species around the world.

CACTUS FAMILY
Though cacti are nearly synonymous with the deserts of the Southwestern United States, you will find some cacti (such as prickly pear) as far east as the plains of Nebraska, and there is even one species found along the Atlantic seaboard.

There are thousands of cacti species and none will kill you. However, a few precautions are in order. Never consume anything that you think is a cactus if a thick milky sap comes out when you cut it. You have a close lookalike — the spurge family. DO NOT EAT any spurges!

Do not eat any cacti that are extremely bitter; these are likely to be narcotic varieties, such as desert rock and peyote. They won’t kill you, but you will vomit them up. Obviously, the cacti flesh or fruit must be palatable and non-woody. If you follow these guidelines, you will be able to safely consume any palatable cactus you encounter, whether of a barrel shape, column shape, a ball, or pad.

Though the prickly pears are the easiest to collect and make into a meal, any cacti which allows you access to its tender flesh can be eaten. But watch those thorns!

Make certain that you know what is a cactus, and what is not. The yuccas and century plants are commonly referred to as cacti, and yet they are members of the Lily Family. And many, many times I have heard it said that tequila comes from a cactus. Wrong! Tequila comes from the century plant which is a lily.

ACORNS
All acorns can be eaten, regardless of species. There are hundreds of oaks worldwide which drop their acorns in the fall. All can be collected, peeled of their waxy rind, boiled to leach out the tannic acid, and eaten. The leached acorns can be dried, ground, and used for making pancakes, bread, pudding, cake, soup, etc.

Acorns should not be overlooked when available, since they can easily provide you with a meal. Whole Indian nations subsisted on acorns, and there is no reason why we can’t do so today.

CATTAILS
Botanists tell us that there are only two species of cattail, and that they belong to their own family, the Cattail Family, a botanical cousin of the grasses. Cattails are found worldwide in wet and swampy places. They have so many uses that some Boy Scouts have referred to this plant as the “supermarket of the swamps.”

Cattails are most readily recognized in the fall by the familiar brown “hot-dog-on-a-stick,” which is the female flower spike. When this spike is green in the spring, it can be boiled and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. It’s delicious. The yellow male pollen on top of this spike, also collected in the spring, can be shaken into bags, sifted, and then used as flour for pastry products. It is sweet, and renders all pastry products yellow.

The small shoots protruding from the horizontal rhizome can be snapped off and eaten raw or cooked in stews. And the inner white shoots of the plant (before a flower spike has developed) can be pulled, the outer green layers peeled off, and the white insides used raw in salads or cooked. A source of starch can be obtained from the inner part of the rhizome.

There are numerous non-food uses as well. The leaves are a good weaving material. I’ve used them for making sandals, sleeping bags, mats, rope and cord, and small carrying devices. Ideally, the cattail leaves are cut green, allowed to dry for a few days, and then soaked to make pliable before weaving.

 The stalks of the flower spikes make good chop-sticks. And the dried brown flower spike makes an ideal stuffing for insulation once it’s broken up. This cattail fluff is also an ideal fire starter, by directing a spark into a pile of the fluff.

GRASS
Though there is certainly value in knowing the individual useful grasses, it is also valuable to know that there are no toxic grasses. Thus, the young leaves of any grass can be eaten. The older they get, the more fibrous they are, and the more you will need to chew (and chew and chew and chew). All mature seeds from any grasses (which are harvestable) can be eaten.

As for precautions, never eat grass leaves from areas (such as city lawns or golf courses) where they are likely to have been treated with herbicides and pesticides. Also, never eat any grass seeds that are not mature, and NEVER eat any if they have any mold or foreign growth on them. It will be very obvious if they do, since they will be colored green or black (or some other conspicuous color).

SEAWEEDS
Seaweeds can also be a major source of food if you live near the coast. What we call “seaweeds” are the macroscopic marine algae, which botanists classify as the brown algae, the green algae, the red algae, and some of the blue-green algae. All seaweeds can be collected and prepared in a variety of ways, depending of species. Some are better fresh, some better dried, and some are best cooked. In a survival situation, you will just have to experiment the best you’re able.

A few precautions are in order: Never collect any seaweeds that have been on the beach, rotting and collecting flies. These plants begin to decay quickly, and you could get sick eating old rotting seaweed. Never use any seaweed if there is any obvious foreign growth on it. Such foreign growth may or may not be unsafe, but unless you know for sure, don’t eat it. Also, never collect seaweed near the beaches where a city’s waste treatment plant dumps into the ocean (Santa Monica, California, is a good example).

Otherwise, seaweeds are an ideal survival food since they can be dried and carried in the pack. They liven up most other foods, and they enable you to make an “instant” cup of soup by adding hot water. They are also extremely nutritious.

ONIONS
All plants which have the appearance of a green onion and have the typical onion aroma can be safely eaten. This may come as a surprise to some people, but it is a fact. But never forget that you MUST be able to detect an OBVIOUS onion aroma. Onions are part of the lily family, and there are many bulbous lilies which are poisonous.

In the wild, look for a green onion that looks similar to the one you find in the produce store, but smaller, and perhaps more fibrous. If in flower, look for the six identical “petals” (technically, only three are petals, and the other three are sepals, but they are identical in appearance). Wild onions are good in salads, in omelettes, cooked (like spinach), or used as a condiment for most dishes.

Now you know of seven major groups of plants that have edible parts. While this does not preclude the need to learn individual plants and their uses, it does help provide for a grasp of the scope of what is available from nature’s bounty.

Christopher Nyerges has been conducting Wild Food Outings and Survival Skills Outings throughout Southern California since 1974. He is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Urban Wilderness,” and “Wild Greens and Salads.” For a free schedule of his classes and publications, write to Box 41834, Los Angeles, CA 90041, or check on-line at www.ChristopherNyerges.com  or selfreliance.net
 


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