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Warning! This article is meant to be an overview and not a detailed guide on identifying and consuming edible plants. Seek guidance from a trained botanist before attempting to eat any plants. Any attempt to consume plants shall solely be at the reader’s risk.
Most of our readers already know that our preference is for fresh meat in the wild during a bug-out or backcountry hiking scenario. And as Green Beret Mykel Hawke noted in Issue 23 of RECOIL OFFGRID, it’s much easier to get life-saving nutrients and energy from animals than it is from plants.
That being said, animals aren’t always available to us. And in a true survival situation we may need to end up foraging for plants in order to scrape by. The problem is that foraging for plants, although easier because they can’t run away from you, is complicated by the fact that some plants can harm you and others can kill you. The second issue is that some plants that resemble edible options and look familiar to us can actually be quite harmful if ingested. If you’ve ever seen the movie Into the Wild, this situation was depicted to reflect one of the theories about how Christopher McCandless died.
To help us sort things out, we tracked down professional backpacking and climbing guide Lee Vartanian. These days, besides guiding in his “spare time,” he works as the founder and head of Modern Icon, which handcrafts K9 leashes and harnesses for high-end law enforcement and military applications. He also helps train U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) agencies in “the art of vertical access in nonpermissive environments.” In other words, using ropes and climbing skills to gain passage to areas that bad guys don’t want you to access.
Lee earned his bachelor’s degree in outdoor education, with a minor in environmental science, and has been guiding professionally for 18 years. As a kid, he practiced by foraging for food in his neighborhood and constructing homemade snares. Besides reading every book on edible plants he could find, he also hoarded magazine clippings from survivalists, including wild food proponent Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, who some readers may recognize from circa-1970s Grape Nuts commercials.
“Everyone thinks about clubbing a wild rabbit and cooking it over a fire when they think of survival experiences,” Lee told us. “But they forget the importance of being able to eat on the move. Killing and prepping wild game with primitive tools is a challenge even on a good day. Doing that while you’re malnourished, cold, and sleep deprived can be close to impossible and potentially hazardous to your physical safety.”
If unexpectedly stranded in the backcountry, Lee’s recommendation for most people, most of the time, is to shelter in place and wait for rescue. Hiking out, however, may sometimes be necessary. “In either scenario,” Lee said, “you may have to rely on both hunting and gathering depending on how long you are lost. So don’t miss out on the benefits of gathering plants that are plentiful and won’t run away when you’re on the move.”
First of all, don’t just randomly chow down on the first thing that looks like a tomato or a berry. Follow a series of protocols to help make eating in the wild less hazardous (note that we never used the word “safe.”)
Crush the plant’s leaves and take a whiff. If it smells unpleasant, or like almonds, discard it.
Rub the juice of the crushed leaf on the inside of your arm, and wait for 15 minutes. If no irritation develops, place a small piece on your lips, then in the corner of your mouth, then the tip of your tongue, and finally under your tongue, holding each for three minutes before moving.
If the plant irritates your skin or mouth, treat it as you would an acid. Pour water over your skin to remove toxins, and use alcohol or dish soap to clean off the residue. Contaminated clothing must be washed or thoroughly discarded.
If no negative side effects are observed, swallow a small amount and wait for five hours, consuming nothing else in the meantime. Assuming nothing bad happens, the plant can be considered less hazardous to eat.
“The part a lot of people miss,” Lee said, “is ensuring that whatever they’re testing is plentiful. Don’t let your curiosity override your logic, and always consider boiling the plant to make it more easily digestible.”
If the sample you ate starts to give you a bad ride, or if you or someone else inadvertently ate something that’s turning out to be toxic, there aren’t a lot of great options. An unpleasant reaction can turn deadly in a short amount of time. The best thing to do is to make a note (or take a sample) of the plant or plants ingested, then evacuate immediately to a hospital. However, if you’re in such a bad situation that you’re forced to eat plants in the first place, it’s likely that immediate evacuation isn’t feasible.
If you can’t get your victim to a hospital, place them into the recovery position (¾ prone) and prepare to wait it out. Rest will give their body the best chance at fighting the toxins in the event you’ve exhausted all other options.
Many people assume that the easy solution at this point is to induce vomiting, but that’s really not the answer. First, a toxic plant may cause vomiting on its own, so if it’s going to happen, it’s probably already happening. Second, induced vomiting can cause caustic substances to create more damage on the way up, especially if the vomiting is projectile and goes through the nose. Last, there’s also a chance to inadvertently inhale the vomit accidentally, further complicating an already bad situation.
Because your self-treatment options are so limited, it’s critical to avoid eating anything that you can’t 100-percent positively identify in the first place. The mess you don’t make is the mess you don’t need to clean up.
So now that you know how to test items, and just how dangerous it can be to accidentally eat the wrong thing, watch out for the following deadly doppelgängers — though keep in mind that this is just a small sampling of harmful plants. Our hope is that this listing will help you more safely stalk your own wild asparagus and get more nutrition with less nausea. Good luck out there, and happy “hunting!”
“This is my favorite deadly doppelgänger comparison because everyone seems to want to eat anything that resembles a grape or berry,” Lee said. “When in season, wild grapes provide a tremendous amount of nutrition with their fruit, leaves, and even new shoots being edible, but keep in mind that the roots are poisonous. Wild grapes also provide a great source of potable water through cutting their vines. Cut high first, then low, to maximize the amount of water yielded per vine.”
Tell Them Apart: Wild grape tendrils are more conspicuous and grow in branches, as opposed to Virginia Creeper, which adhere using terminal pads. Also, Virginia Creeper leaves are compound leaves, meaning that they consist of several leaflets joined to a single stem. Wild grape leaves just have one leaf attached to each stem.
Wild Grapes Range: Eastern Half of Canada and throughout the United States, excluding the far Southwest and Southeast U.S.
Virginia Creeper Range: Eastern half of United States and Canada
American Black Nightshade berries and leaves are traditionally eaten by Native Americans as well as modern cultures in Central American communities. Black Nightshade also has more protein, calories, fiber, calcium, iron, B vitamins, and vitamin C than spinach.
Deadly Nightshade, on the other hand, can cause delirium, hallucinations, and death when eaten in large quantities. “This is the most likely deadly doppelgänger to get you into trouble,” Lee said. “Avoiding both varieties, if you’re unsure, would be your best bet.”
Tell Them Apart: “The most obvious way to differentiate between them is that the edible Black Nightshade berries grow in bunches, as opposed to Deadly Nightshade berries which grow individually. Remember that only the ripe berries can be eaten safely, and the leaves still need to be boiled before consumption.”
Black Nightshade Range: Southern and Western United States, British Columbia
Deadly Nightshade Range: Central United States, Saskatchewan
The Virginia Ground Cherry is edible when ripe, resembling a small tomato. However, more often than not, any “wild tomatoes” stumbled upon in the wild should be regarded with suspicion due to their similarity to Horse Nettles.
Though they look quite similar to cherry tomatoes, all parts of the horse nettle are poisonous and can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and death.
Tell Them Apart: Horse Nettle has large spiky prickles on its stems, while the Ground Cherry only has thick, stiff hairs. Additionally, the fruits of the Ground Cherry are enclosed in a papery husk while those of the Horse Nettle are bare.
Virginia Ground Cherry Range: Central and Eastern United States, Eastern half of Canada
Horse Nettles Range: Throughout the United States, Parts of Eastern Canada
Wild garlic should smell strongly of onions or garlic, and is generally edible without issues. Use the chopped green leaves as chives to make any food more palatable and eat the onion-like bulb. Be aware, though, that Death Camas also looks a lot like an onion. It can cause loss of voluntary muscle movement, diarrhea, vomiting, among other unpleasantries.
Tell Them Apart: Take a whiff. Although the Death Camas bulb looks like an onion, it won’t have the smell of garlic or onion like its edible cousin.
Wild Garlic Range: Eastern half of United States and Canada
Death Camas Range: Throughout the United States and Canada
The roots of young carrots are very edible, although as they age they become more woody and inedible.
Tell Them Apart: Look for purple blotches or spots on the smooth (hairless) stems of Poison Hemlock. Wild carrot stems are usually covered in hairs, while hemlock is bare.
Wild Carrot Range: Throughout the United States and Canada
Poisonous Hemlock Range: Throughout the United States and Canada
Books by Tom Brown Jr. and Courses at his Tracker School in New Jersey
“Tom Brown is one of my literary mentors,” Lee says. “Anything written by Tom is a sure bet, and any survival courses at his school come highly recommended, even though people think he is a little ‘out there’ with the spiritual side of things.” www.trackerschool.com
Courses at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Western North Carolina
Look for courses titled Wilderness Survival 1 and Wilderness Survival 2. The first course teaches you how to survive the first 72 hours in the wild, when most rescues typically happen. In the second course, you learn what to do after the first three days have passed, addressing the need to survive on the move while self-rescuing. www.noc.com
Survival Courses from 88 Tactical at their Tekamah Training Facility in Nebraska
With introductory to advanced courses ranging from 8 hours to 48 hours, 88 Tactical offers skillset training you can benefit from regardless of skill level. www.88tactical.com
One of these plants is edible, but the other could kill you.
Wild garlic, also known as Ramson, presents clusters of white flowers.
One of these plants is edible, but the other could kill you.
Black Nightshade. Photo: Richard A. Howard, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Deadly Nightshade. Larry Allain, hosted by theUSDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Virginia Ground Cherry. Photo: Katy Chayka
Horse Nettles. Photos: Ted Bodner / Jennifer Anderson, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Wild Garlic. Photo: Thomas G. Barnes, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Death Camas. Photo: Al Schneider, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Wild Carrot. Photo: Joaquim Alves Gaspar
Poisonous Hemlock. Photos: Doug Goldman, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Gary A. Monroe