Incredible Edibles

When food is scarce turn to these common plants.

There are dozensof edible plants in nature. Can you identify them?

Knowing how toidentify and use wild edible plants is a very valuable skill to possess. If asurvival situation goes long-term, food gathering and preparation will becritically important. Over time, insufficient caloric and nutritional intakewill deplete physical, mental and emotional strength, leaving the victim unableto take care of basic needs.

Supplementing thediet with every available resource can help stave off these effects. There areseveral hundred thousand plant varieties in the world, but only a fraction ofthem are edible. I don’t subscribe to “edibility tests”–sampling asmall amount of something and waiting to see what happens. But you can use wildplants safely if you know how to identify them. Here are a few widely availableplants that are safe to eat.

WILD ROSE PLUS: Ripened rose hips contain an exceptionally high level of Vitamin C. In the wild, rose flowers tend to be small, but the leaves and thorns areotherwise similar to those of domesticated varieties. The edible part is the”hip,” the globe left behind after the flower has fallen. As the hipripens, the outer layer (a pithy covering over the seeds) becomes a tasty andnutritious treat. Related to apples, rose hips sometimes have a hint of flavorthat is similar to that of the well-known fruit.

DANDELION PLUS: Eat the dandelion early in the season, since it becomes bitter with age. Everybody recognizes this lawn pest, but it also grows in the wild. In fact, dandelions are one of the most versatile edible plants. All parts of thedandelion can be used for food: root, leaf, bud and flower. I like the youngflower buds before they blossom. They remind me of Brussels sprouts. The leavescan be used raw for salad or cooked for greens. The flowers can be eaten raw orcooked.

BULLTHISTLE PLUS: A biennial, the bull thistle will only grow a flower in its secondyear.

A native of Europe, the bull thistle can now be found growing alongroadsides all across the U.S., as well as in deserts, pastures and forests.It’s easy to identify because of its very rough appearance, pain-inducingspines and purple flower head. The edible part is the young stalk. Scrape awaythe outer skin and spines, then eat the inner core as you would celery. Late inthe season the stalks become too woody to eat.

CATTAIL PLUS: You can use the cattail’s flowers as a flour supplement for yourpancakes.

Found in moist ground near lakes, streams and swamps, cattails are easy torecognize. Both the roots and the young shoots are edible. I particularly likethe young shoots before the familiar brown seed head emerges. These can bepulled from the center at the base of the leaf cluster, peeled and eaten.Later, when the seed head emerges (it will still be covered by flowers) you canprepare it like a skinny ear of corn.

STINGINGNETTLE PLUS: Dry and crush leaves to steep for a tea.

The nettle is easy to identify–just brush the back of your hand against it.Tiny hollow hairs act as hypodermic needles to inject irritating formic acid.Given its appearance, most folks are surprised that the stinging nettle isedible. Steam or boil the young tender tops, but only briefly so the greensdon’t turn to mush. Nettles can also be eaten raw. I pluck the tops whilehiking and pop them in my mouth. A bit prickly, but entirely edible.

PIGWEED PLUS: Pigweed seeds are now grown commercially and prized as a cerealgrain.

Pigweed can be found in every corner of the country, and farmers andgardeners generally consider it a pest. The tender tops and young leaves areedible as potherb greens after 15 minutes of cooking to soften the roughleaves. The flavor is bland, so they make a nice complement to more flavorfulgreens such as dandelions and other more wildly flavored edibles. In survivalsituations pigweed can be eaten raw.

Plant Guides

****Some excellent books for further study are Wild EdiblePlants of the Western United States, by Donald R. Kirk; Tom Brown’s Field Guideto Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants; and Identifying and Harvesting Edible andMedicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, by Steve Brill.

Photo: cygnus921