How to Determine Edible Plants



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Having a Wilderness Salad

© copyright 2004, by Gary Benton

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Have you ever looked around as you walked in the woods and wondered what you could eat if you were really hungry? Many wild plants are edible, but do you know which ones? If you are like most people, you didn’t identify much that you knew for sure you could eat. It is to the advantage of all hunters, fishermen, campers and others, to know what is good to eat and how to determine a plants edibility if you are unsure. Any of us who spend any time in the outdoors could one day find ourselves lost, or in a survival situation. Then, our knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of plant life could mean the difference between life and death. Many of the elements of a health diet are found in plant foods.


While many plants are good to eat, there are ways to identify those that you want to stay away from. Any plant with umbrella shaped flowers on it, beans, peas, bulbs, plants that have a milky sap, or plants that irritate your skin, should be avoided. Additionally, stay away from any fungi, unless you know beyond a doubt it is safe to eat. But, even then, fungi add very little in the way of nutrition to your diet. I suggest you spend you time procuring better, more nutritional, items for your outdoor menu. Fungi are not worth the risk you can take eating them.


Well, what do you do when you cannot identify a single safe plant to eat? I suppose that will happen more often than not. If you can avoid them, do not eat unknown plants. However, in a survival situation it is often a matter of eating or going hungry. If you decide to eat a plant you are unsure of, there is no better (and proven) method of determining the edibility of plants than using the US Army’s Taste Test (along with my comments).


Test only one part of the plant at a time. Comment: By eating more than one part you will not be able to determine (if you get ill) what part is safe to eat. Key in one only one part.


Break the plant down into base constituents: leaves, steams, roots, etc. Comment: Once again, it makes identification of safe and unsafe parts of the plant. Not all parts of a plant may be safe to eat.


Smell the plant for strong or acid odors. Comment: Avoid any plant with a strong or acid odor because the plant is considered unsafe to eat.


Do not eat for eight hours before starting the test. Comment: This is so you can be sure, if you get ill, it was the plant that caused it.


At first, put a small sample of the plant on the inside of your elbow or on your wrist. Wait 15 minutes and check to see if you had a reaction. Comment: A general rule is if the plant causes a reaction on your skin, it is not safe to eat.


During the test period, remember to take nothing orally except pure water and the tested plant. Comment: It you eat or drink anything besides pure water, the test is not valid. And, you will have to start over. It may have been another food that caused an ill effect.


Select a very small piece of the plant to be tested. Comment: Always use a very small piece of the test plant to start with. If the plant makes you ill, the less you test with the less the suffering may be.


Put the selected piece of the plant up against your lip and test for burning or itching. Comment: If the plant causes any burning, itching or numbness to your lips, DO NOT continue the test. Wash your lips to remove any residue from the plant.


After three minutes, if there is no reaction, place the selected piece of the plant and place it on your tongue. Hold it there for 15 minutes. DO NOT SWALLOW. Comment: While this step sounds easy, I know from experience, it is difficult to do when you are hungry. But, remember, at this point you do not want to swallow an untested plant yet.


If there is no reaction, chew the piece thoroughly and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. Once again, DO NOT SWALLOW. Comment: Once again, this is difficult step for someone when they are hungry. Pay close attention to any burning, itching or numbness while chewing the plant.


If there is not irritation at all during this time, swallow the piece of plant. Comment:Be honest about this step. If you have experienced any reaction or irritation during the test up to this step, DO NOT swallow the plant.


Wait eight hours. If you have any effects from the plant, induce vomiting and rink plenty of water. Comment: It is difficult to wait when you are very hungry. However, this is necessary to insure the plant is safe to eat. If you do become ill, flush the system by drinking plenty of water. You may experience diarrhea or stomach cramps from a bad plant.


If you do not experience any ill effects, eat one half of a cup of the same plant prepared the same way. Wait another eight hours; if no ill effects are suffered the plant, as prepared, is safe to eat. Comment: The key here is to always prepare the plant the way you tested it. If you decide to fix it another way, then start the test all over again. Some foods may be safe when eaten cooked but not safe if eaten raw. So, always prepare a plant in a way that you know is safe.


Survival is never easy. We often are forced to make decisions and take chances that can have terrible results if we are wrong. Just by picking up fungi or an unknown plant and eating it, you could die. Survival is no joke and it is extremely dangerous to attempt eating plants you are unsure of. However, hunger is often a constant companion to a survival, but it does not have to be. Many unknown plants are safe to eat and now you have a basic idea of which ones. Always use common sense and the US Army’s Taste Test. It could very well save your life.



Edible Plants

Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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