Learning Foraging Skills: Find edible wild plants no matter where you live

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foraging for survival

The skill and art of foraging goes back to the days of Adam and Eve when, in the garden, they had every edible plant imaginable at their disposal. I imagine they tasted everything they saw and figured out which flavors they liked and which they didn’t.

Well, foraging really hasn’t changed all that much. There are nuts, medicinal herbs, mushrooms, berries, roots, and leafy plants that are all edible and nutritious. Foraging is a skill, however, that has been long forgotten by most of us. Our grandparents and great-grandparents may have known to harvest dandelions for dandelion wine and salads and might even have known to pick elderberries to make wine and cough syrup, but now with most Americans living in cities of all sizes, we’ve become distanced from both the knowledge and the plants themselves. Foraging skills have almost been lost to history.

Foraging safety first

Years ago I taught a survival class for kids at Cabela’s, and one day while we were talking about the dangers of eating wild plants, a parent spoke up and said, “When I was an Army Ranger, we had to pull more guys out of the field for getting sick from something they ate than for any other reason.”
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When we’re hungry enough and see plants all around us, it’s natural to think, “I could stay alive by eating that!” If it comes down to eating insects or a handful of a green plant, most of us would pick the plant! The problem with that thinking is that only 5-10% of all plants are edible! The rest are either poisonous or unpalatable.

Thus, knowing how to safely forage is a must.

Begin with a foraging guide that has clear photos and detailed descriptions of edible plants. The descriptions should also contain information about any deadly look-alike plants. Elderberries are wonderfully edible and medicinally useful. However, the berry and plant are easily confused with water hemlock and pokeberries, or pokeweed. A good guide book, website, or app will spend plenty of time listing warnings about dangerous look-alikes, as well as potential dangers of the edible plant itself.

A few recommended foraging guides and sites are:

There are many, many foraging and wild foods websites and blogs on the internet. As you browse through them, apply the same criteria to their information as you would that found in a book: very clear photos and illustrations, detailed descriptions, and plenty of time spent discussing and describing dangerous plant look-alikes.

Phone apps are a wonderful thing and I have several of survival and prepper related apps on my own phone. There are a number of apps related to foraging as well. However, just recently an Idaho family was poisoned when they ate poisonous mushrooms by mistaking them for edible ones based on information on an app.

TIP: Regarding foraging for mushrooms, expert Dr. Mart “Merriweather” Vorderbruggen of Foraging Texas recommends leaving those alone until you can take a class on identifying wild mushrooms and are an experienced forager.

The universal edibility test

If you can’t find the plant in a trusty book or on a reliable website and you’re in the wilderness or a foraging area wondering whether or not a plant is safe,  the Universal Edibility Test is an option. It’s laborious and, frankly, would be a pain in the neck if my life depended on it, but knowing the process gives you a good idea just how difficult it is to discern an edible plant from one that could kill you.

Step 1: Take the plant apart.

Separate the roots, leaves, stem, berries, flower/bud. Some parts may be edible, but unless you test each part separately, you may not realize that you’re holding an intensely nutritious root but poisonous leaves — or the other way around!

Make sure the plant is free of mold, fungus, or is infested with insects.

Step 2: Smell each part of the plant.

If any part gives off an unpleasant odor, assume it won’t be safe to ingest.

Step 3: Check to see if each part irritates your skin.

During this time, don’t eat anything else to avoid food/plant interaction or confusing a reaction to a food with a reaction to this new plant. If the plant irritates your skin, then it won’t be healthy to consume or use medicinally. Take one part of the plant and rub it on in the inside of your wrist or elbow. It may take several minutes or even a few hours before you see a reaction.

Possible reactions are:

  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Numbness
  • Rash or other obvious irritation

If your skin shows no reaction, then move on to Step 4.

Step 4: Prepare the plant as you would for cooking.

Some plants become safe to eat once cooked. Boiling is a good method for this step. If you can’t cook the plant part, then you’ll have to continue with it raw. Once boiled, or using a raw piece of the plant, rub or hold it to your lip for a few minutes. If there’s any burning or painful sensation, the plant part isn’t safe to eat.

Step 5: Take a small bite.

Hold a small bite of food in your mouth for a few minutes to see if there’s any unpleasant reaction, such as burning or tingling. If there is, spit it out and rinse your mouth out with water. By this point, you just wasted possibly several hours to learn that a single part of the plant isn’t safe to eat!

Step 6: Chew — but don’t swallow!

That’s right. It still isn’t safe to ingest that small bite of plant. Chew and then hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes, again to see if there’s any burning, tingling, or other weird sensation. If there isn’t, you can finally swallow that bite!

Only at this point can it be somewhat safe to assume that the plant part you just chewed and swallowed is edible and safe to eat. Survival experts recommend waiting another few hours after that first bite before eating any more of that particular plant part. After this entire process, it’s possible that you may have encountered a plant that isn’t safe to consume in large quantities, but you may not discover that until days or weeks later.

I’ve included the Universal Edibility Test as an illustration of just how hard it is to identify a safe plant on your own! Foraging is great and is becoming a bit trendy, but to head out and harvest plants without knowing exactly what it is you’ll be consuming is dangerous.

A note for parents

Teaching kids about foraging is great but it’s even more important for them to know how dangerous plants can be. Kids at about 7 or 8 can remember the basic steps for the Universal Edibility Test, as a precaution, but it’s even better for them to tag along as you look for safe, edible plants. Berries, in particular, look enticing and since kids are used to eating berries of all kinds, they might easily assume that all berries are going to be yummy. However, there are a number of very poisonous berries out there. Just to name a few:

  • Mistletoe
  • Holly berries
  • Pokeweed berries
  • Belladonna

Enjoy discovering edible plants in your area

While I envy folks up north who find wild asparagus and burdock, there’s still plenty of great plants in my part of Texas. I just have to learn what they are and then get out and look for them! The same is true of your area. No matter where you live, even in the hottest deserts of the U.S., there are edible plants everywhere.

The website Foraging.com has listings of classes and local experts. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something near you. Otherwise, search online for the name of your town/area and “wild plants” or “foraging” or “edible plants”. Those searches will result in websites and other resources to get you started.

Some of the most common and widespread plants that you may very well find are:

Foraging ethics

When we visit the homes of our friends, there are certain, unwritten rules that we follow, right? If you invite my family over for dinner, my kids know better than to rummage through your fridge and I promise not to check out the contents of your medicine cabinet!

When you’re out foraging, do the same thing. More and more folks are figuring out that foraging is an enjoyable and rewarding hobby, but as they begin filtering out into the deserts, forests, and other wild areas, it’s easy to forget that you are, in fact, a guest.

Rule 1: Forage only where you have permission to do so.

Check out your city, county, and state laws, but it’s illegal to forage in most of those areas. Federal lands as well. (The next time you hear that the federal government has “set aside” another few hundred thousand acres for “the greater good,” well, that land has just been stolen from the American people and you have no right to be there or utilize it in any way. Think about that.)

Rule 2: Don’t get greedy.

Just as you wouldn’t come to my house and eat half the lasagna, don’t take more of any particular plant than you can reasonably use within a short period of time. Harvest just a few leaves or sprigs, use a sharp knife for cutting, and then move on.

Rule 3: Be a good steward of nature.

We’re all adults here and no one should need a reminder, but don’t leave trash in your wake. Be respectful of the plants, the property, and any animals you might encounter. If you want a foraging area to continue to be available to you and to others, then treat it as carefully as you would your own.

So, let’s learn to forage!

Knowing, for sure, the safe, edible plants in your neck of the woods could become important in a survival scenario. Knowing the medicinal uses of these plants is just as important.

Get your guidebook ready, put on some walking shoes, grab a bottle of water and a few plastic bags to hold your harvest, and get out there!

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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

1 thought on “Learning Foraging Skills: Find edible wild plants no matter where you live”

  1. Heather Rasmussen

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    I’d appreciate any information you could offer, and I know you get tons of emails, but would love to see more information on this device and possibility of providing water in worsening droughts.

    Thanks so much!
    Heather

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