Do It Yourself
“Need To Know” Rules When Picking Edible & Medicinal Plants
Next to mastering fire, a knowledge of plants is considered one of the most difficult, complex and one of the truer signs of being a genuine expert in survival. There are other skills like hunting, fishing and trapping that are good marks of a woodsman and skills like navigation, orienteering and terrain association that are standard fair for an outdoor adventurer.
But mankind has always had an interest in the plant world as even now, we are constantly learning about seemingly miraculous properties of plants through science that still feel like some sort of magic to most. And indeed, plants can be magical, but they can also be deadly.
Perhaps that is why so many people have a fear of them when it comes to survival. We see plants all around us, every day, but most of us do not know what most of them are. We may know a few from our personal experience but most people could not name 100 different plants that surround them daily and they have grown up with all their lives. It makes sense as there are literally millions of plants, it becomes a daunting task to learn them all.
Likewise, for most of us, we simply do not have the need to know them. We get our food from cans, boxes and stores. A few folks may have a garden or even a farm, but most folks simply buy their food, including their fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices even their flowers and house plants. With this distance from the source and our roots (pun intended) it is even easier to understand why folks would be afraid about plants in a survival situation.
Face it, in a real survival situation, you are already, lost, cold, wet, tired, hungry, thirsty and scared. Now, are you going to start eating something you’re not sure about and never did before and you know this could kill you and that people do die every year from eating poisonous plants? So, the fear is real and reasonable. But like anything in survival and life, we have to break it down into small steps we can handle and before long, we’ll have it mastered and have the confidence that comes with skills acquired through training and familiarization.
I try to teach everything in the simplest terms I can as that helps me to remember not only what to teach when in a dynamic scenario, but it also helps me personally to remember when in a stressful situation. Likewise, I know from years of experience in combat, that when people start dying and death is happening or very possible if not likely or imminent, then we all tend to get scared and the higher thought processes begin to shut down and focus on survival instincts. The paradox here is that this is the very thing that can likely get you killed.
Fear in survival is a lot like an allergic reaction- it is a paradox. When for example, a bee stings us, we may have been stung before with no response, but for whatever reason, the body reacts to this sting. It in fact, scientifically, over reacts to the point of inflammation of the airways, resulting in airway obstruction and ending with fatal asphyxiation. This hyper-reaction as basic and as common as it is, is still a mystery to science. We can easily manage it, but we do not fully understand why the body responds in an attempt to help the body with a result of killing the body. The same is true of fear. It leads to panic, panic is stress which shuts down our higher thoughts and the result is, instead of thinking our way through and surviving, we stop thinking and end up not surviving.
So, first, one of the basic tenets of all survival, is vanquish fear. The best way to do that is with some knowledge. So how does one build up knowledge with such a vast, almost impossible task of learning all the plants that are around us for survival purposes?
This is an especially poignant question when we know that folks like Botanists spend their entire lives dedicated to the study of plants and never learn them all. So, how can we, as parents and regular working people, ever hope to know what we need, for that rare occasion when we might actually be surviving and need it? The key is stream lining, or simplifying.
The main thing you have to start out with is setting realistic goals and expectations. There is no way you can learn all the plants in the world. That’s a good start. The next thing is to realize that you don’t need to know them all. I use some simple figures to put it into perspective. These are not scientifically proven, yet, as I don’t think anyone has ever had need to do this type of study, but here are my guidelines for plant edibility versus animal edibility.
90% of all animals are edible for humans.
Only 10% of all plants are edible for humans.
Again, I know these are not the finite facts, but think about it, in the absence of a report on the global edibility of everything, does this not resonate? Anyone with common sense and a bit of world knowledge can come to the same deduction, I can eat almost every type of animal and even insect, bird or fish, or reptile with few exceptions. BUT, I know most plants I can not eat, such as trees or bushes, vines or roots, all for one reason or another, maybe too fibrous and hard, or too noxious or toxic. That is why the few plants we can consume as humans, are so highly cultivated, farmed and used by man kind.
I say all that to say this, you simply don’t need to master all the world’s plants, you only need master a few. Here are some guidelines I help use to help myself determine which plants to dedicate some time to learning, and even mastering.
1) Make sure any plant you decide to learn and master is IDENTIFIABLE. I always look to see if there are any poisonous plants that look like a potential plant I want to learn. For example, cow parsley has a poisonous look-alike called poison parsley that requires a refined eye to differentiate. It’s simple enough if you study but a mistake can be disastrous. I tend to steer away from any plants that have poisonous look-a-likes, unless they simply are so abundantly around me, I could not logically forego mastering the identification of them.
2) That is the next determining factor before I decide to dedicate time to studying a plant as potential for an emergency or survival food source- abundance. Is the plant PLENTIFUL? Meaning, are there lots of it about? It does little good to know the identity and edibility of some plant if it is so rare, you are likely never to encounter it, especially when needed most in desperate times. So make sure there are lots and lots of it about.
3) The other key to helping narrow down your choices of plants to master is DISPERSION. If the plant is only found in one region, or on one mountain or valley, chances are you won’t be in a hurt box in that specific location. And if you were, likely those plants would indicate where you are and you could then find your way out! The key here is how widely distributed are the plants? Are they found all over the world? Are they growing everywhere? These are crucial to the survivor as you want to make sure you have mastered a few plants and that the mastery will pay off in that when you need, you will find, because they are indeed, all over the place.
- So Remember: D.I.P. (Distribution, ID, Plentiful?).
Now that we have QUALIFIED the screening criteria let us take a D.I.P. into the world of QUANTIFYING our survival plant mastery stratagem.
I like simple numbers, so I use 12 here for plants. My recommendation for how many to learn is this:
MASTER 6 to 10 EDIBLE plants based on the criteria above and 2-6 MEDICINAL.
Choose these from which ever environment is most important and likely to you for need-
Home region, Work place, Travel Areas or anywhere you think you might need this knowledge. Most folks live and work in the same region but some people travel to remote areas for work and need that knowledge in case of emergencies while there.
Some great plants to learn come in many variations, sometimes in over a hundred different forms, but they all basically are from the same family, look alike enough to be easily and readily identified and eaten almost year round in some form or another.
ACORNS FROM OAK TREES
PINE NEEDLES FROM PINE TREES
These are just some examples of plants that are found all over the world, in many varieties with almost no toxic similarities that are DISPERSED, IDENTIFIABLE & PLENTIFUL.
BUT NOTE: Another significant factor often overlooked by most books and experts is one so simple but so important the lack of discussing and addressing can often lead to uncertainty and lost opportunity to thrive.
That SIGNIFICANT FACTOR is SEASON!
Everyone knows there are 4 seasons and that means a lot in the life cycle of plants, which subsequently means a lot to the survivor. It is easy to identify a plant in its full glory of blooming fruit and flower, but what about in the spring, when only a bud, or in the fall, when key leaves may have fallen off, but some nut is perhaps ripe for eating or in the dead of winter when all above ground looks dead to the world above, but below the surface lies a great tuberous root waiting for the forager who knows how to identify the stem when all other signs have long gone.
SO STUDY YOUR CHOSEN PLANTS FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF ALL FOUR SEASONS TO ENHANCE AND ENSURE YOUR ABILITY TO NOT ONLY SURVIVE, BUT THRIVE.
Next, I recommend learning at least 2-3 MEDICINAL PLANTS but balance your mental garden of 12 plants total, that you master for your start point.
Ideally, these can also be in the EDIBLE category, too, but simply prepared differently or using different parts like roots and leaves versus fruits or nuts from the same plant.
One of my biggest guidelines for learning medicinal plants is to study the PREPARATION that is needed to render them as a medicine. Anything that requires boiling means a fire and a pot and water, often not available to a survivor. So, I recommend things you can chew or crush and apply as a “chew poultice” or direct dressing.
The most common issues people have are fever, aches and pains. Anything like aspirin will help and it is the acetylsalicylic acid that makes aspirin work and similar properties like salicin can be found in many plants around you like willow and even oak tree barks.
Another major issue is tummy upset and diarrhea. There are many plants that can helps sooth and stop these such as dandelion and cat tails. Notice, these are also from the suggested food list so that you can now master 12 food plants and some double as your medicine plants.
The real trick to mastering plants is to simply narrow your focus to a dozen you can handle, then really learn them- all seasons, all parts, all ways to prepare and all uses.
The secret to vanquishing fear in survival is by reducing the stress of ignorance by knowing a dozen plants in your environment that you can eat and use for medicine. In this way, you are well prepared and you can spend the rest of your life building on and expanding this knowledge, but you can learn these plants in a day, master them in a weekend. If you practice with those plants around you before you need them, it will ensure your skill sets and assure you the confidence in your abilities to choose wisely under duress, reducing stress, vanquishing fear and living to see another day and return to your loved ones.
So, pick 12, give it a day, own it and go hot!
30 Medicinal Plants That Could Save Your Life
8 Herbal Teas and Their Medical Benefits
10 Powerful Medicinal Plants From Around the World
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November 22, 2013 at 12:15 PM
I’m in Texas, near Houston, and one of my favorite edibles is purslane. It is a succulent, so it’s a virulent weed here with all the concrete cracks. Here is a link that lists some recipes for it.
July 17, 2014 at 11:38 PM
Perhaps “virulent” means the exact opposite of what you mean. I too eat purslane, and it is anything but virulent.
November 22, 2013 at 1:36 PM
I think you might want to change one so these statements. They can’t both be true!
90% of all animals are edible for humans.
Only 10% of all plants are edible for humans.
Excellent article, BTW!
November 22, 2013 at 1:37 PM
Never mind! I misread it! Ha!
November 22, 2013 at 2:54 PM
Dont eat the purslane if it is growing out of the cracks. Check out Linda Runion she has got some great books and disk she took he family out of the city and ate only off the land. Also ther is a web site called: eat the weeds.
November 24, 2013 at 10:46 AM
I was quite disappointed that in such a fine article that 12 “recommendations,” or more, were not made to give people a good place to start their search. Why not recommend a good book with the most for the least, or some such. Plus,
not all of us are all that into detailed research for one reason or other, but still need and want the info.
August 8, 2014 at 11:01 PM
Ewell Gibbons’ “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” is a classic edible plant guide, also I believe that “The Foxfire Books” may have some good pictures of edible plants as well. You may be able to find these at amazon.com or in your local used bookstore. Happy hunting!
December 1, 2013 at 10:22 AM
A good article would be the 10% of animals that are not edible. For example, I recently read that bear meat need extra cooking because it is infected with trichinosis and you need to make certain that you have killed those critters before you chow down on Smokey. Bears are quite plentiful, even in many urban areas and would provide a significant source of protein but not if you don’t know to cook the heck out of it. While not a problem for most of us, Arctic animal liver is probably poisonous due to toxic levels of a vitamin that those animals store in their liver. Not usually a problem for me as I am particularly not fond of liver but if starving, might be able to overcome that aversion, but wouldn’t want to make the effort if it killed me!
December 4, 2013 at 11:47 AM
When I was a kid they told to avoid all plants with a milky sap, and still a good idea only use if you know it is ok.
December 4, 2013 at 7:42 PM
Love The article, keep The good stuff comming!
December 6, 2013 at 5:15 PM
One of my favorite ways to do this is to grow the plant I’m learning about in a separate pot, and keep track of it by taking pictures or drawing it as it goes through it’s various stages.
March 1, 2014 at 6:47 PM
There is an excellent book by Richard Mabey called Food For Free it is available in hard back, paperback and a small Collins gem pocket version. I have both the larger and pocket versions, I also use a very good book on mushrooms, but I am very careful to only pick and eat fungi and herbage that I am 100% sure of their being the said item.
The trouble is getting the practice when the supermarkets are still full of all the fruit and veg you need topped up with a full garden, but I try.
I pick blackberries, hazelnuts, and shaggy parasol mushrooms every year from favorite places plus a few extras to keep my hand in.
I use dandelion, nettles, and a few wild herbs to add to salads and stews, but would never call myself an expert on the subject but like to read and learn as much as I can. thank you for a great article.
May 31, 2014 at 7:14 PM
Carry a pair of welding gloves in your car or truck you can pick up red hot material or grab glass with no effort, the cost is about $15.00 dollars. keep them under the car seat.
May 31, 2014 at 7:15 PM
Whoops , go to a welding supply store.
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