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Survival Use of Plants

(Adapted from the U.S. Army Survival Manual)

After having solved the problems of finding water, shelter, and animal food, you will have to consider the use of plants you can eat. In a survival situation you should always be on the lookout for familiar wild foods and live off the land whenever possible.

You must not count on being able to go for days without food as some sources would suggest. Even in the most static survival situation, maintaining health through a complete and nutritious diet is essential to maintaining strength and peace of mind.

Nature can provide you with food that will let you survive any ordeal, if you don’t eat the wrong plant. You must therefore learn as much as possible beforehand about the flora of the region where you will be operating. Plants can provide you with medicines in a survival situation. Plants can supply you with weapons and raw materials to construct shelters and build fires. Plants can even provide you with chemicals for poisoning fish, preserving animal hides, and for camouflaging yourself and your equipment.

EDIBILITY OF PLANTS

The critical factor when in a survival situation, and using plants for food, is to avoid accidental poisoning. Eat only those plants you can positively identify and you know are safe to eat.

Absolutely identify plants before using them as food. Poison hemlock has killed people who mistook it for its relatives, wild carrots and wild parsnips.

At times you may find yourself in a situation for which you could not plan. In this instance you may not have had the chance to learn the plant life of the region in which you must survive. In this case you can use the Universal Edibility Test to determine which plants you can eat and those to avoid.

It is important to be able to recognize both cultivated and wild edible plants in a survival situation. Most of the information in this chapter is directed towards identifying wild plants because information relating to cultivated plants is more readily available.

Remember the following when collecting wild plants for food:

Plants growing near homes and occupied buildings or along roadsides may have been sprayed with pesticides. Wash them thoroughly. In more highly developed countries with many automobiles, avoid roadside plants, if possible, due to contamination from exhaust emissions.

Plants growing in contaminated water or in water containing Giardia lamblia and other parasites are contaminated themselves. Boil or disinfect them.

Some plants develop extremely dangerous fungal toxins. To lessen the chance of accidental poisoning, do not eat any fruit that is starting to spoil or showing signs of mildew or fungus.

Plants of the same species may differ in their toxic or subtoxic compound content because of genetic or environmental factors. One example of this is the foliage of the common chokecherry. Some chokecherry plants have high concentrations of deadly cyanide compounds while others have low concentrations or none. Horses have died from eating wilted wild cherry leaves. Avoid any weed, leaves, or seeds with an almond like scent, a characteristic of the cyanide compounds.

Some people are more susceptible to gastric distress (from plants) than others. If you are sensitive in this way, avoid unknown wild plants. If you are extremely sensitive to poison ivy, avoid products from this family, including any parts from sumacs, mangoes, and cashews.

Some edible wild plants, such as acorns and water lily rhizomes, are bitter. These bitter substances, usually tannin compounds, make them unpalatable. Boiling them in several changes of water will usually remove these bitter properties.

Many valuable wild plants have high concentrations of oxalate compounds, also known as oxalic acid. Oxalates produce a sharp burning sensation in your mouth and throat and damage the kidneys. Baking, roasting, or drying usually destroys these oxalate crystals. The corm (bulb) of the jack-in-the-pulpit is known as the "Indian turnip," but you can eat it only after removing these crystals by slow baking or by drying.

WARNING

Do not eat mushrooms in a survival situation! The only way to tell if a mushroom is edible is by positive identification. There is no room for experimentation. Symptoms of the most dangerous mushrooms affecting the central nervous system may show up after several days have passed when it is too late to reverse their effects.

Plant Identification

You identify plants, other than by memorizing particular varieties through familiarity, by using such factors as leaf shape and margin, leaf arrangements, and root structure. Use a good guide before you are in a survival situation, to practice identifying plants.

Learn as much as possible about plants you intend to use for food and their unique characteristics. Some plants have both edible and poisonous parts. Many are edible only at certain times of the year. Others may have poisonous relatives that look very similar to the ones you can eat or use for medicine.

Universal Edibility Test

There are many plants throughout the world. Tasting or swallowing even a small portion of some can cause severe discomfort, extreme internal disorders, and even death. Therefore, if you have the slightest doubt about a plant’s edibility, apply the Universal Edibility Test (Figure 9-5) before eating any portion of it.

1. Test only one part of a potential food plant at a time.

2. Separate the plants into its basic components-leaves, stems, roots, buds, and flowers.

3. Smell the food for strong or acid odors. Remember, smell alone does not indicate a plant is edible or inedible.

4. Do not eat for 8 hours before starting the test.

5. During the 8 hours you abstain from eating, test for contact poisoning by placing a piece of the plant part you are testing on the inside of your elbow or wrist. Usually 15 minutes is enough time to allow for a reaction

6. During the test period, take nothing by mouth except purified water and the plant part you are testing.

7. Select a small portion of a single part and prepare it the way you plan to eat it.

8. Before placing the prepared plant part in your mouth, touch a small portion (a pinch) to the outer surface of your lip to test for burning or itching.

9. If after 3 minutes there is no reaction on your lip, place the plant part on your tongue, holding it there for 15 minutes.

10. If there is no reaction, thoroughly chew a pinch and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. Do not swallow.

11. If no burning, itching, numbing stinging, or other irritation occurs during the 15 minutes, swallow the food.

12. Wait 8 hours. If any ill effects occur during this period, induce vomiting and drink a lot of water.

13. If no ill effects occur, eat 0.25 cup of the same plant part prepared the same way. Wait another 8 hours. If no ill effects occur, the plant part as prepared is safe for eating.

CAUTION

Test all parts of the plant for edibility, as some plants have both edible and inedible parts. Do not assume that a part that proved edible when cooked is also edible when raw. Test the part raw to ensure edibility before eating raw. The same part or plant may produce varying reactions in different individuals

Before testing a plant for edibility, make sure there are enough plants to make the testing worth your time and effort. Each part of a plant (roots, leaves, flowers, and so on) requires more than 24 hours to test. Do not waste time testing a plant that is not relatively abundant in the area.

Remember, eating large portions of plant food on an empty stomach may cause diarrhea, nausea, or cramps. Two good examples of this are such familiar foods as green apples and wild onions. Even after testing plant food and finding it safe, eat it in moderation.

You can see from the steps and time involved in testing for edibility just how important it is to be able to identify edible plants.

To avoid potentially poisonous plants, stay away from any wild or unknown plants that have -

Milky or discolored sap.
Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods.
Bitter or soapy taste.
Spines, fine hairs, or thorns.
Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley like foliage.
"Almond" scent in woody parts and leaves.
Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs.
Three-leaved growth pattern.

Using the above criteria as eliminators when choosing plants for the Universal Edibility Test will cause you to avoid some edible plants. More important, these criteria will often help you avoid plants that are potentially toxic to eat or touch.

An entire encyclopedia of edible wild plants could be written, but space limits the number of plants presented here. Learn as much as possible about the plant life of the areas where you expect to be traveling or working.

 Steve's Notes: Of the hundreds of edible wild plants you can learn to identify, there are probably only a few dozen that are widespread and will yield a good return in calories for the time spent collecting them. Some of the best survival plants, in my experience: cattail, wild raspberries and blackberries, service berries, dandelions, wild blueberries, wild onions and leeks, and burdock.

It is worth learning to identify many others, but start with a few of these if you want to be ready quickly to make a meal of plants in a survival situation.

Continued here: Survival Use Of Plants - Part Two.

See also: Survival Cordage And Lashings.

Back to the Wilderness Survival Guide.



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