Tips for the Road #11 – Edible Plants you Should Know

This is the Eleventh installment of my ongoing series of Random Survival Information.

Time for an arboreal theme.

6 Trees Every Survivalist Should Know & Why from Willowhaven
Now is a good time to go out and flag the following six trees before the leaves drop (except the pine).  Revisit them in the winter and learn how to ID them by the bark alone.  Then again in the Spring with the buds and new leaves.

White birch (paper birch)

White birch is easy to identify with its distinctive, white, papery bark. The sycamore tree also has white bark, but it does not sluff off in thin, paper-like furls like the white birch. The sycamore also has large hand-shaped leaves versus the white birch’s smaller, oval-shaped leaves with a pointed tip. The birch leaf is also irregularly toothed.  These grow almost exclusively in northern climates.

White birch survival uses:

  • Sweet drinkable sap that does not need purification
  • Containers can be fashioned from the bark (and even canoes – hence the name “canoe birch”)
  • It’s papery bark makes some of the finest fire starting tender on the planet, which will light even when damp because of its resinous quality
  • A fine tea can be made from the small twigs at the end of a branch or by shaving the bark from new growth. Toss a palmful of these elements into boiling water for a fresh, wintergreen-flavored tea
  • The tinder fungus (chaga) grows almost exclusively on the white birch tree. The fungus is one of the only natural materials I know of that will take the spark from flint and steel. A piece of tinder fungus along with flint and pyrite to create sparks were even found on Otzi, the “iceman” who was uncovered in the Austrian Alps several years ago.
  • Pine tar can be extracted from the bark of the white birch by heating it over a fire.  Pine tar makes an excellent natural adhesive which natives used for all kinds of purposes including securing stone points on arrows.

American Basswood

The American basswood (also called American linden) is a very common tree – especially in the Eastern U.S. It prefers moist soil and is often found by creeks, streams and ponds. It likes to grow several shoots from the base so it’s not uncommon to see the basswood growing in what appears to be clumps. Basswood trees have large, heart-shaped, coarsely toothed leaves and dark red young leaf buds. One of the most distinctive features of the basswood is what I call the “tongue.” A tongue-shaped leaf grows at the base of the regular heart-shaped leaves on mature trees. Hard, little, nut-like fruits dangle from the center of this “tongue” leaf throughout the summer.

Basswood survival uses:

  • Delicious edible leaves – especially in spring
  • “Bass” comes from the word “bast,” which is an old word for rope. The inner fibers from the Basswood make some of the best natural cordage on the planet.  In my last course, 2 adult men could not break a 1/2″ thick strip of basswood bark.
  • Basswood is my favorite wood to use in fire by friction sets. It is soft and makes a perfect friction fire wood for bow drill spindles and hearthboards and for hand drill hearthboards.
  • Basswood is preferred by most wood carvers and chainsaw carvers because of how easy it is to work and carve
  • Inner bark layer is edible and can be scraped off with the edge of your knife. It has a very sweet flavor.

White Pine

The leaves of the White Pine grow in batches of 5 needles. Every fall the white pine loses all of its needles except those that grew that year. Pine is an evergreen. Evergreen trees keep some green leaves year-round, unlike deciduous trees, and have needle-like leaves. They also produce cones (pine cones) instead of flowers.

White pine survival uses:

  • Resin can be used a fire extender when mixed with tinder material
  • Resin can be heated and mixed with crushed charcoal to make a natural epoxy
  • Resin-rich joints and stump pieces make incredible fire kindling
  • Make pine-needle tea from the green pine needles – very rich in Vitamin C
  • Inner bark layers are edible
  • Harvest pine nuts from the pine cones
  • Pine needles make excellent fire tinder
  • Pine needles make excellent natural insulation material for debris huts and survival shelters
  • Green pine boughs are perfect for lean-to shelter roofs
  • Green pine boughs are great for making a ‘pine bough bed’ to protect from the cold ground or snow
  • The lower, dry, dead branches of the pine tree (squaw wood) is often some of the driest fire kindling available. It is exposed to the wind and also protected from the elements by the year-round needle canopy above,  I’ve also used these branches for making bow drill fire friction sets.
  • Very effective candles and lamps can be made from pine resin
  • Pine resin can be used to waterproof seams in clothing or crude containers
  • The very pliable surface layer roots make excellent (and strong) natural cordage. Use as a whole or split into smaller pieces.

White Oak (and all oaks in general)

White oaks have rounded leaf lobes instead of pointed ones like red oaks. Contrary to popular belief, acorns are edible. I like white oak acorns better because it seems they are less bitter and it takes less effort to leach out the tannic acid (which causes this bitterness) to become more palatable. An abundance of acorns in mid-summer makes the oak family almost impossible to misidentify. Oaks are some of the largest trees in the forest. I have many white oaks at Willow Haven that are over 100 feet tall and easily 3-4 feet in diameter.

White oak survival uses:

  • Acorns (after leaching out the tannic acid) can be ground and used as flour to make acorn bread
  • Tannic acid (which can be extracted by boiling or leaching acorns and/or inner oak bark and twigs) is anti-bacterial. I’ve used it as an antiseptic wash before and have heard of it being used to quell diarrhea.
  • Acorns can be used a trap bait for squirrel and other small game animals
  • Can tan leather using the tannic acid found in bark, acorns and wood
  • Oak is a very hard wood that is good for ax handles, digging sticks and shelter frameworks
  • When dried, the white oak flowers make suitable tinder bundles and can be found in great abundance certain times of the year

Sugar Maple (and pretty much all maples)

The sugar maple is one of my favorite trees and probably one of the most popular in the Eastern woodlands. Its beauty is on full display when the leaves change each fall into bursts of red, orange and yellow. The leaves usually have five lobes, and the tips are pointed. Young maples have smooth silvery bark. The unmistakable, “winged helicopter” seeds are a tell-tale maple tree indicator. Sugar maple is the source for maple syrup. This tree is preferred because its sap has high sugar content. It takes 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.

Sugar maple survival uses:

  • In later winter/early spring when the sap is running, the sugar maple is an excellent source of drinkable water (sap) that needs no purification. Maple Sap is nature’s version of an energy drink – rich in sugar and nutrients. I’ve filled a 1-liter canteen in as few as 15 minutes before.  Maples don’t have fully developed (or any) leaves during this time of year – hence the important of 4 season identification.
  • The seeds inside the little helicopters are edible, just like edamame. I just boil them and lightly salt. They can also be fried or added to stews. Remove the outer helicopter.
  • I almost always use maple branches for wilderness cooking. Whether it’s a spit roast, a hot dog stick or utensils, I can always find a maple branch suitable for the task. Maple branches naturally have a lot of forks, which is great for pot holders and other wilderness kitchen uses.  I also use the leaves to wrap fish or other small game animals when cooling in an earth oven.
  • Young maple leaves are also edible. Toss them into a salad or boil them down with other spring greens. They get bitter and rough as they mature.

Willow Tree

There are tons of different willow varieties. Every willow I’ve seen has a similar leaf shape. The leaves are narrow, lance-shaped and grow in great numbers along the branches. Willows must be in moist areas to survive. If you’ve found a willow, then there is a water source nearby.

Willow survival uses:

  • Willow bark contains a chemical called salicin, which is similar to aspirin. I can personally attest to its effectiveness in relieving headaches and inflammation. Just chew on a few small green twigs and swallow the juices.
  • In spring and summer, willow bark will peel away from the wood and makes excellent cordage that can be used for a huge variety of tasks.
  • Young willow branches and saplings are very flexible and can be used to weave a variety of different baskets and funnel traps.
  • I’ve used dried willow wood on many occasions for friction fire sets – both hand drill and bow drill
  • Willow saplings make excellent frog and fish gigs. Just split the base into 4 equal sections, press a rock to the bottom of the splits and sharpen the tines.

Now for smaller edible plants from the SurvivalistBlog;

Foraging; 27 Edibles You Can Find in the City Post Collapse

  1. Acorns

Oak trees are everywhere. You can not eat raw acorns, they must be prepared for consumption. Soak acorns to remove tannins and make them edible. After acorns have been soaked, dry or cook them and grind to use as a substitute for flour.

  1. Beech Nuts

Often used as shade trees, you can identify beech nuts by their unique prickly covered husks. Inside the husk you’ll find 2 to 3 nuts triangular in shape, slightly bigger than sunflower seeds.

These little nuts are higher in protein than acorns and are at least half fat. Harvest just before leaves begin to change color in the fall and they’ll be a great addition to your survival diet.

  1. Burdock

If you’ve ever taken a walk in the woods late in the summer or early in the fall, you may remember coming out with burrs stuck to your clothing or hair. Those burrs came from the burdock plant.

If you can harvest the leaves of burdock in spring or in the early summer months, they make a great addition to your wild greens menu and can even be made into tea. Use in moderation due to medicinal properties.

  1. Catbriar

Also known as bullbriar, greenbriar, horsebriar, its Latin name is Smilax. Catbriar is a prevalent plant, highly nutritious, and roots, leaves, and shoots are edible. Berries do contain seed pods that are inedible. This is a good one to look for because many people will think its a weed.

Look for a vine with tendrils and thorns. The vine part that snaps off in your fingers is edible cooked or raw and is similar to asparagus. Cook leaves similar to cooking spinach. The root is great for calories and nutrients but is very starchy.

  1. Cattail

We’ve all seen the tall reed-like stalks of cattail growing in wet areas, drainage ditches, in highway medians, or near water sources. But did you know that you can eat cattail? In fact, pretty much every part of the cattail can be used for food.

The centers of the cattail roots are edible and can be cooked and eaten similar to potatoes. The pollen of a cattail can be ground and used as a substitute for flour when cooking or baking. Even the main prior to pollen forming can be roasted and eaten similar to corn.

  1. Chicory

Look for it in empty lots or along roadsides. The roots can be brewed into a pretty passable coffee substitute. The leaves are bitter but can be used on salads.

  1. Chickweed

Chickweeds, also known as starweed, satinflower, mouse ear, or tongue grass, have a strong flavor, are great for salads and pair well with dandelion. They prefer damp soil. Add chickweed leaves to sandwiches or salads or toss into stews or soups.

  1. Clover

Depending on when you grew up, you may remember eating these as a child right out of your backyard. Clover is a great source of nutrients including Vitamins B2, B3, and Vitamins C and A.

Medicinally, clover can be used to relieve asthma and works well as an expectorant for cough and congestion. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that help relieve a number of different health issues.

  1. Crabapples

Many people believe crabapples to be toxic to humans. Other people will pass it by. Crabapples are a tiny apple-like fruit that grow on a tree.

The only real difference between apples and crabapples are the size. They are edible although many are sour to taste. The best way to use crabapples is to make them into jelly or sauce.

  1. Daisies

An easily recognized flower, daisies are completely edible. The flowers and leaves can be picked and eaten fresh or cooked. For gastrointestinal issues, take a page from the Austrians and make a tea from the flower petals.

  1. Dandelions

Believe it or not, dandelions are one of the best edible plants you’ll find in an urban environment or anywhere else actually. The greens are a great source of fiber, and contain calcium, Vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, zinc, and iron. Dandelions are available on every continent and they are pretty easy to identify. They do well even in near drought conditions, making them a good edible for urban dwellers.

Harvest spring leaves prior to blooming for sweetest taste. Dandelion wine is best made from just opened dandelion flowers. Use closed buds of flowers in stir fry dishes. You can even pick dandelions, dip the tops in pancake batter, and then leave the stems sticking up and fry in oil.

Dandelions can be added to scrambled eggs or used to make cake. One dandelion user even claims roasted dandelion root tea cured his Crohn’s disease after 8 months of drinking several cups a day. In fall, harvest roots to dry them and then roast to make a decent substitute for coffee.

  1. Garlic Mustard

In North America, this plant is categorized as an invasive species. But garlic mustard can be used to add flavor to fish, various soups, and even mashed potatoes. It contains Vitamins C and A, can help give your immune system a boost and works as a natural diuretic.

  1. Goosefoot

More commonly known as lambs quarters, you’re likely to find it just growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Harvest the leaves when they are young, prior to seeds forming and they have a sweet taste. Seeds are edible but mildly toxic so use with caution. The seeds can also be mashed and used to make a soap-like substance.

  1. Ground Ivy

Chances are you’ve seen this growing wild already in shady areas of your yard or around the city. It’s primarily used for medicinal purposes to treat health issues involving the kidneys and liver. The leaves are somewhat bitter but depending on your taste preferences it can also be used to add a bit of flavor to stews or soups.

  1. Hazelnuts

These trees are easy to recognize. Look for and harvest nuts in the fall. The first nuts are typically non-fruitful and empty, but after that nuts can be picked or gathered and dried and then stored.

  1. Mint

Even people who don’t forage regularly are probably familiar with mint, especially in the Midwest and Eastern United States. If you unknowingly run it over with the lawn mower, the scent of mint immediately fills the air.

Look for small white flowers clustered around the tops of thin stalks (slender mountain mint) with elliptical shaped leaves or purple flowers (bee balm) with petals that radiate out and serrated leaves. Mint has multiple uses for tea and medicines. These two species of mints often grow together in clearings or fields.

  1. Pennywort

Also known as dollarweed, most gardeners will tell you this plant is impossible to get rid of but those who know its value know its leaves taste similar to snow pea or celery. It’s very prevalent in yards in the South. Pennywort contains a compound demonstrated to lower blood pressure. Wash leaves thoroughly before eating.

  1. Pineapple Weed

Chances are you’ve walked right past this edible. It prefers sandy soil and resembles chamomile but without the white petals.

Look for it along the road, in the middle of parking lots, and growing in the cracks of sidewalks. The yellow cone-shaped flowers have a scent of pineapple when crushed. You can pick and eat them, cook, or use to make tea.

  1. Plantain

You’ll find plantain, not the fruit but the weed, often in the same area as stinging nettles. In North America, plantain is one of the more common yard weeds.

A crushed plantain leaf will soothe wasp and bee stings. Steam or boil plantain leaves and serve with a mix of greens as a vegetable side dish or add fresh greens to salads. Plantain seeds can be harvested and ground as a flour substitute.

  1. Purslane

When it comes to vegetables and leafy greens, purslane is one of the top sources for omega 3 fatty acids. This garden weed prefers shady areas. Like other foraged greens, you can use it in salad. The peppery taste of purslane makes it a great seasoning to give your survival dishes a little kick.

This is one of those plants you need to positively identify because it has a look alike called spurge that is deadly. Spurge has flat leaves and grows flatter to the ground than purslane. Spurge also has a milky white fluid that oozes from it if you break it. Always double check before using.

  1. Rumex

Also called Broad-Leaf Dock, the rumex plant is actually a weed but it is edible. The leaves taste best if harvested in the spring. Cook rumex leaves similar to spinach. You can eat rumex leaves raw but the high oxalic acid content can prevent absorption of nutrients and cause deficiencies, especially calcium. The seeds have a lot of chaff but they are edible as are the roots.

  1. Violets

The bright purple-blue flowers of violets are easy to identify and you’ll find them growing at the edge of sidewalks or in areas of yards that get more shade. The leaves and flowers of violets are edible and contain Vitamins C and A to supplement your survival diet.

  1. Walnuts

Another tree that people like to use for landscaping, these trees drop green covered nuts. Protect your hands with gloves as you remove the hull to keep your hands from being stained black. Leach tannins by soaking nuts and then cooking before eating.

  1. Wild Asparagus

Great for your heart and easy to grow in your backyard. Too many health benefits to mention with this wild edible. You may notice a change in the smell and color of your urine and if you eat wild asparagus on a daily basis, you may experience some increased gas.

  1. Wild Carrots

Be careful when foraging for wild carrot, it has a poisonous look alike, the water hemlock which grows in marshlands. Wild carrot is very similar in look to wild asparagus, wild parsnip, and Queene Anne’s Lace. The leaves and roots can be eaten raw or cooked. Be sure to identify positively before eating.

  1. Wild Grapes

You’ll find wild grapes vining their way in and out of other structures both organic and non organic. The fruit of wild grapes resembles grapes you find in the store only smaller.

The only downside of foraging wild grapes is they are more recognizable than many other wild edibles you can find  which means others may get to them before you do.

  1. Wild Spinach

Closely related to spinach you buy in the store and taste is similar. Like other green leafy vegetables, wild spinach is high in calcium which makes it a great option for the forager.

Wash Thoroughly

Always wash the edibles you forage thoroughly to remove any potential bacteria, animal feces, road grime, dirt, or vehicle exhaust residue. Edibles you can find in the wild may look clean but there are many different contaminants that you can’t see that could be lurking on the leaves, flowers, or even roots.

Positively Identify

If you plan to use foraging to supplement your food supply, it’s extremely important that you invest the time needed to learn to positively identify wild edibles.

There are many wild edibles that have “look alikes” which if ingested can make you ill or even be fatal. Always positively identify a wild edible before eating it. If you aren’t sure it’s the plant you think it is, it’s better to move on and find one you can positively identify than to risk death.

Forage Responsibly

The last part of foraging safety is to forage responsibly. The first part of this involves knowing the area you are foraging in and foraging away from places where contaminants could be. Rather than forage near the roadside, take the time to go further from the road where vehicle exhaust residue is less likely.

Do not forage near chemical plants or other buildings which may have toxins leaching into the air or soil. Lastly, make sure you aren’t destroying your future food supply by harvesting too aggressively in one area if it’s a place you will want to come back to for food later.

You need to also be aware that in a post collapse situation, other people may not harvest responsibly so harvest more than your immediate need and preserve it for later use.

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