How do you know if a plant is edible

When caught off-grid, one of the toughest tasks is to recognize if a plant is edible. This is especially true in a “hit&go” scenario.
In this article we will lift the lid on some basics related to Plant ID 101.

Observation and resources

“Change what you can, accept what you can’t, and be smart enough to know the difference.”

Wally Lamb

Imagine to find yourself a possible escape & evasion situation where you need to leave a city to make your way into a suburban area.

If you are in a hurry, you may not notice some – unexpected! – resources you have at very easy reach.
They could be items that, with some smartness, can turn out to be tools.
Others can provide you unusual but edible food, which means energies.
Or they can be a perfect tinder for making fire in uneasy conditions.

When your easy days are over, you may learn how to become smart enough to see opportunities even in things they seemed insignificant to you in the past. Or, in case of plants, you never imagined they could be edible.

Throughout the paragraphs, we will gain the essential informations on how to tell if a plant is edible and how can we take advantage of it.

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A brief overview on edible plants

“As civilization advances, man grows unconscious of the primitive elements of life; he is separated from them by his perfection of material techniques.”

Charles Lindbergh

This meaningful quote from Charles Lindbergh surely fits perfectly the concept behind evolution. Specifically, how certain plants have been able to survive till nowadays.

I am no rube in saying that this fact itself does well worth our attention. From a darwinistic perspective it is surprising that some plants still exist nowadays. Moreover, it is amazing to notice that they maintained the same features they used to have thousands of
years ago.

In fact, some of them, like ferns, did appear in some fossil records. Others, like cycads, gingkos, horsetails, mosses and clubmosses are still considered either as primitive either as well adapted specimens.

No doubt at all: resilience and adaptability granted them to survive until nowadays, under different forms. In fact, they are just the slighest forms of evolution of their ancestors. For this specific reason they are considered “living fossils”.

We must demonstrate gratitude to those primitive men who assess the edibility of plants. Triggered by necessity or curiosity they were, in fact, the first who ate some plants – or parts of them.

In certain cases, they paid their audacity with their own lives. On the opposite, they discovered how nutritious and delicious they were.

Later on, the first records on edible plants were filled in, passing down this precious amount of informations which actually allowed us to be not only informed on the edibility – or not – of a determined plant, on the nutritional facts but also on the side effects of overeating it.

Edibility: an introduction

“In some Native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Unless you are a botanist or a plant biologist, it takes years to study the properties of plants.
As a matter of fact, you can always resort to other ways, like:

  • attending some Plant ID courses
  • purchasing and studying books of local plants
  • carrying a Plant ID Field Guide with you when you are off for some activities in the Great Outdoors

But what if you find yourself in an emergency situation, with a shortage or absence of provisions of food? You may regret not having the proper knowledge to provide yourself some easy-at-reach things to eat, without ending up placing traps or hunting wildlife.

This is why it is so important to master the basics related to identification of edible plants, and, equally, to
know how to proceed with the “universal edibility test”.

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On Plant Parts

Each plant consists of several parts, which can be safe to eat or poisonous. In severe cases, eating even a microscopic quantity could lead to death. One case above all is the yew (Taxus Baccata). Commonly known as “Tree of death”, it must be said that all its parts happen to be deadly poisonous. This is because of the presence of toxines alkaloids.

Nonetehless, the red, mature aril (the red flesh of the berry which cover the seeds) are not only edible, but also are rich in antioxidants.
Plant parts are: fruit, nuts, berries, flowers, leaves, stems and obviously roots. In some cases, berries may be edible but not leaves and vice versa. Bear this in mind when you proceed them with the universal edibility test.

Plants you need to avoid

In case you find yourself inside an unfamiliar area and you aren’t accostumed to what you can actually eat or not, keep in mind some basic rules which could literally save your life.

By saying that, keep yourself at large from the following plants:

  • which have sap inside the stems or glassy leaves
  • which have a very distinctive and unpleasant smell
  • which you may sting with
  • which grow in rotting area, maybe near unsafe water
  • which have some sorts of bright colored stings

How to do the universal edibility test

If caught up alone in an emergency situation, you will be forced to run the test by yourself. The best way to go is to determine a specific area which is rich of specimens of a particular species. By doing so, you will be sure you can take advantage of the plant in case it will end up to be safe to eat. In fact, in a long-term survival scenario, a systematic foraging will be the key to success.

In order to be successful at your test, keep in mind to drink only purified water before and while getting the test done, and don’t reach the point of starvation. Do all the experiments in daylight, so you cannot go wrong with the quantity of plant you wish to test.

In fact, you need to be extremely clear headed while you will test the plant. Focus on testing just one part at a time, avoiding to mix stems with roots. By that, you will know exactly what if the plant is edible.

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Refrain from consuming it raw. By cooking a small partion of the plant, in fact, you make sure to kill any possible pathogens. Boil it for fifteen minutes at least, and observe if the portion shows any signs of redness, stinging, blistering or even burning.

Then you can proceed with the second phase. Carefully touch your outer lips with the now mild portion of the plant and wait for additional fifteen minutes to determine any possible reaction.

If the lips aren’t itching, positionate about half table spoon of the plant’s amount on your tongue. Don’t chew it! Just hold it on and eject it. Check with extreme caution if you have any symptoms.

If anything alarming happens, chew the piece of plant for at least a quarter of hour, but do not swallow it. In fact, you still must wait for any possible bad reaction you may experience.

After fifteen minutes, you can swallow it and undertake the next eight hours to assess if any specific reaction takes place in your vomit. Eat another small part of the cooked plant (1/4 cup is recommended) and wait for additional time (8 hours). If no abdominal pain, vomiting, dizziness happen, you can consider the plant safe to eat.

This process may appear to be tedious and time-consuming, but it is universally considered the safest way to assess the edibility of a plant you aren’t familiar with. In a survival scenario, it is manadatory to priviledge safety to speed.

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Kyt Lyn Walken is the official European representative and instructor for Hull's Tracking School (Virginia, USA), and is a certified Conservation Ranger for C.R.O.W. (Conservation Rangers Operations Worldwide). She has been an outdoors and tracking enthisast since childhood. She is contributor as a writer for several magazines in U.S. and U.K.Kyt is author of the manuals "The importance of being a Tracker", "The Urban Tracker, "Tracking Compendium" (this one with Andy Martin), "Jungle Trackers: S.A.S. In Malesia and Borneo".

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