Plant identification and processing is key to surviving on foraged food. The list of edible
and non-edible plants, however, is too lengthy to memorize but fortunately you can find small
or pocket-sized plant books at many sporting good stores. Many can be found and purchased
online as well. Before you go on a backpacking, hunting or camping trip, plan carefully. Be
familiar with the native plants of the region and be sure to pack a plant booklet so you will
be able to identify and process edible plants properly. It could mean your survival.
Plants with edible leaves are the easiest to gather but for many plants, only the seeds or
roots are edible. Seeds can be harvested with little or no equipment. The only real requirement
is a container. Wild grass seeds need to be thrashed and then gathered in a container. A bundle
of cattail leaves makes a good thrashing tool.
Roots and bulbs are best gathered with a small shovel or a digging stick. A very strong sturdy
stick will do as a digging tool. To make one, choose a straight branch approximately two or three
inches in diameter and about three feet long. Strip off the bark and fashion a chisel point on
one end. Bevel one end to resemble something like a sharpened spoon. Heat the tip to harden it.
Heat and cool the tip several times to completely remove any sap and further harden the tool.
Ideally, you need a tool capable of spearing roots from under the dirt.
To grind your seeds and roots, find a large stone with one flat side to act as a base. Find
another stone, as rounded as possible. This stone will be your grinding stone. Place both of
these on a tarp to catch the spillage from your seeds as you grind them. Grasp your rounded
stone with both hands and roll over the seeds that you have placed on your flat base. This
takes quite a bit of patience but eventually you will have a powdery base to use as flour or
an edible paste. This may not sound very appetizing but such a floury paste, whether eaten raw
or cooked will provide much needed carbohydrates and energy.
Edible Plant Species
There are literally dozens and dozens of edible plants depending on any specific region. This
writing includes only a few of the most common species just to give you an idea of the variety
of plants and preparation techniques. As stated initially, a comprehensive plant identification
booklet is strongly recommended when packing for any hiking or camping trip. Some plants or
portions thereof, can be eaten raw but others require preparation.
Lambs lettuce: This plant can be cut above ground and all of it is consumable.
Miners lettuce: The leaves and stems of this plant can be eaten raw and are excellent when
combined with watercress. The greens can also be cooked but this is not recommended because
of valuable nutrient loss.
Watercress: Watercress can be found growing in fresh water streams and lakes. It is best eaten
raw and fresh. If the water supporting the cress is polluted, it can still be eaten but must be
boiled first, draining off all the liquid before eating.
Wild Strawberry: Wild strawberry can be easily identified because of the berries. They are
slightly smaller than a store-bought berry but equally tasty. The stems and foliage can also
Sagebrush: Sagebrush may provide food when other resources are scarce, for instance in desert
regions. It is not recommended for daily eating although it is great in a pinch. The seeds can
be boiled and eaten. The leaves are edible also but are very salty and have a pungent tarragon
taste. Use the leaves sparingly because of the salt content.
Wild Onion: The entire wild onion is edible. It can be roasted, boiled or eaten raw. This onion
(although not really an onion) is full of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C, and in
fact has more than what is contained in five lemons. You can also crush the onion and use the
juice for an insect repellant.
Pine: Pine trees are everywhere you look. The needles can be crushed or chopped and brewed
into tea at any time of the year. This tea contains many nutrients and will sustain you over
long periods of time in the wilderness.
Fallen pine cones can be roasted over a fire and the seeds inside the cones can then be opened
and eaten. These are very tasty and again rich in Vitamins and nutrients. You can also use the
cooked seeds to grind for meal for flours.
Oak: The leaves of the oak are edible raw, if pest free. The fruit of the oak is the acorn,
which has been in use even today by American Indians for soup and pudding. The nutmeat inside
should taste slightly bitter or even sweet. If the taste is unpleasantly bitter you can remove
the taste by roasting. If it is so bitter you cant stand it, you will have to leach out the
tannic acid. This is a somewhat time consuming process that involves soaking the acorns in
fresh water for at least overnight and then repeating several times. When food itself is an
issue, you will probably not take the time to leach acorns in the wilderness.
Maple: The seeds are edible raw or roasted and can be pounded into flour. The sap can be
obtained in early spring by drilling a hole in the tree. This thin sweet sap is filled with
nutrients and is hydrating.
Aspen: The thin inner bark found at the bottom of an aspen tree is mildly sweet and very
Here are two edible plants found specifically in desert environments.
Desert Lily: The edible part of this plant is the bulb. You'll have to dig down below the
desert surface to savor this edible delight.
Prickly Pear Cactus: The prickly pear cactus offers year-round food and hydration as well.
The plant, above ground is composed of fat fleshy arms and joints and the fruit is about the
size of a lemon and red to pink in color. The fruit can be eaten raw. The seeds can be eaten
raw or boiled. The pulp of the joints and arms can be peeled and eaten raw or boiled or sun
dried. Remember to remove the spikes first. This plant can sustain you for long periods of
time and is loaded with vitamin A, B, B12, and C.
Stranded On A Beach
We still havent figured out how Gilligan baked those coconut cream pies and how Tom Hanks caught
so many crabs... so until we do, seaweed is probably the most realistic food source. Seaweed is
all totally edible and an excellent source of nutrition although it is very bland. You can boil
it, then drain all the salt water before eating, or lay it out to dry into sheets that can be
broken apart and eaten later. Seaweed is also very useful to wrap and dry or boil other foods in.
To eat any type of insects, ideally you would want to gather then store them in very small
airtight container until dead. This serves two purposes: 1) you do not have to kill each bug
individually and 2) it allows the insects enough time to eliminate waste from their bodies
before you eat them. They can, however, be captured, and safely eaten immediately in a true
life or death situation. Here are four of the most common and easily identifiable edible
insects that can be found in most regions of North America.
Ants: Ants have long been eaten as a food source. You can eat them raw or cooked.
Grubs: Rich in fat, protein, and carbohydrates, this bug can be found in the roots of trees.
Just dig around the roots and you'll probably find some of these bugs, which can be eaten
raw or cooked.
Crickets: Roasted crickets can really hit the spot when you're trying to survive in the
wilderness. They can also be eaten raw. You do need to remove the legs and antennae.
June Beetle: Look for these beetles, also known as may or june bugs, during the months of
May through July. You must pull off the hard shell, legs, and head before eating. The larva
of the June beetle is also edible and is found in the soil year-round.