How to Identify Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants
Frustrated at your ability to learn wild edible and medicinal plants? This article will show you how.
Knowledge of wild edible and medicinal plants is an important asset in every survivalist’s mental toolbox. They allow you to supplement and extend your food storage. They provide a fresh source of vegetable and fruit matter that is full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants — much of which is diminished in bulk-stored food. And they provide a source of medicine in an extended grid-down situation where hospitals and modern medicine might not be available.
However, when it comes to identifying wild edible and medicinal plants, many people become overwhelmed and intimidated by the “wall of green” that they see in nature. They don’t know where to start. And even those who are ambitious enough to purchase a field guide and get out there to try to identify their local plants, they quickly become disenchanted and frustrated at the difficulty in matching what’s in the field guide with what’s in the field.
Having a fair amount of experience with wild medicinal and edible plants — both in the identification and use of them — I wanted to share with you some of the methods and resources I use to break through that “wall of green”. This, I hope, will put you on the road to successfully identifying and using many of the wild edible and medicinal plants that grow in your area.
Field guides are probably the most commonly used method of learning to identify and use wild edible and medicinal plants. However, if you don’t have the right kind of guides you’ll only frustrate yourself.
When beginning to learn about edible/medicinal plants, most people will go to the bookstore and pick up the fattest field guide they see with a bunch of colorful photos. This is not the best option. Before you go and waste any money on less-than-optimal guides or even some that could get you killed, let me clue you in on a few that I’ve found to be very effective in helping you identify and use the many plants around you.
As a side note, when it comes to identification, I feel that detailed drawings and descriptions are much more effective in helping you positively recognize plants compared to photos. Drawings (as long as they are detailed) provide an average representation whereas photos only capture one instance of a plant and, depending on the habitat, may look a bit different in your area. There are exceptions to this rule (see Forager’s Garden and Nature’s Harvest below) if the author depicts multiple good-quality photos.
| A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and central North America (Peterson Field Guide)
The standard on Wild Edible plants. Not the best book for taking out in the field to do on the spot identification but it’s excellent for using as a basis for journaling since the drawings are excellent and the descriptions are thorough.
|The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide
Linda is well respected for her knowledge of wild edible and medicinal plants since she lived for 13 years out in the wilds with her family living off of them! Although the drawings and photos have much to be desired, this book has great recipes, wonderful first-hand stories, and contains a solid collection of core plants that everyone should know. A good resource overall.
|The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
Samuel Thayer hit it out of the ballpark with this book. It has excellent descriptions and photos, is well organized, and goes into detail on where to find the plants, when to gather them (missing in many books) and how to prepare them. Best of all, this book is not just a rehash of other peoples views and experiences — every plant in here that he talks about, he has had personal experience with (something that I value highly). This is highly recommended.
|Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
Another home run for Samuel Thayer. This book is a continuation of his previous book (see above) which covers many more plants that he did not get into in The Forager’s Harvest. Excellent resource and again, highly recommended.
|Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide
When it comes to going out in the field and identifying what you see, this book is king. It uses an ingenious system of identification that is based on natural structural features that are easily visible even to the beginner (no more looking up all the plants with white flowers and hoping on finding a hit).
After using this book for a while, what I’ve noticed is, your ability to observe and distinguish differences among plants becomes highly tuned. This book helps to train your eye to see unique qualities of plants (very important to proper identification when your goal is to eat them). Note: This book is primarily for the North Central or Northeastern states but it still contains quite a bit of overlap
|Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places
Although this book is not ideal for going out in the field and identifying new plants, once you do know the plants then it is an excellent resource to return to time and time again. I particularly like that the book is organized by season and the habitat within that season. This helps me to know what edible/medicinal plants I should be on the look for when I go hiking in a wetland area in the fall for example.
The Importance of Applied Knowledge in Learning Edible and Medicinal Plants
After successfully identifying a plant for the first time, your likely response will be a feeling of excitement since you now know the plant’s name. It’s at this point that most people make the error of stopping since they now think they “know” the plant. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’m of the opinion that you never truly know a plant until you use it. When you use a plant, something amazing happens. It becomes a part of you. You go beyond mere identification since you now have seen it, touched it, smelled it, and in many cases consumed it. Studies have proven that when you involve multiple senses in the learning process, you’ll remember that thing so much better. This is very true with plants.
So next time you positively identify a wild edible or medicinal plant, bring it home and learn how to use it. This will forever be etched in your memory, so much that the following years when you see the plant again — instead of it being just a name — you’ll feel a real connection to it because you know it intimately.
Journaling as a Learning Method
Journaling is another fantastic way to learn wild plants. And best of all, you can do it in the winter when the plants are dormant!
What I do is look in the field guides for edible or medicinal plants that grow in my area (I like the Peterson’s Field Guides for this). I’ll make a list of them and organize them by habitat. After making the list I’ll then begin journaling these plants.
The best way is not just to copy the plant from the field or from a field guide but to use the minds-eye approach. Here’s how it works:
- Study the photo or drawing of the picture: Spend around 5 minutes studying the picture of the plant. Try to focus on the structure of the leaves. Do they grow opposite each other like a person putting out their arms to the sides or do they grow up the plant in an alternating pattern? Are the leaves round, oval, compound? Do they have serrated or smooth edges? Is the stalk woody, green, succulent or non-existent. Try to close your eyes and see the plant in your mind’s eye.
- Draw the plant: After studying the plant for 5 minutes, close the field guide and without looking at the picture or photo, begin to draw the plant based on what you see in your minds eye. Draw as much as you can until you’re stuck. If you can’t move on or forgotten a detail, refer back to the field guide to refresh what you saw, close the book, and continue drawing. Continue this process until you are finished.
- Imagine the plant’s habitat and general size and other characteristics: For this step, you’ll want to read about where the plant typically, its overall size, and any other attributes like fuzzy leaves, or woody stalks and so on.
Then again, in your minds eye try to imagine seeing yourself in a location where this plant grows. Picture how tall it is relative to you and imagine bending down and touching the plant. How would it feel?
- Imagine preparing and using the plant: For this final step, I want you to use your minds eye to imagine taking the plant home and processing it into a meal. If you can eat it raw then imagine picking the leaf or other edible portion and eating it. Try to be as detailed as possible.
I know a lot of this sounds like hokey new-age crap, but in reality, this method works. I can’t tell you the number of times I would be out in the field and “discover” a plant that I had already had experience envisioning during a previous winter! Try it for yourself.
A final way to learn wild plants is through expert mentors. While we may not all be lucky enough to grow up with an naturalist in the home, if you do a search in your area you’ll likely find someone offering nature courses on identifying wild and medicinal plants.
These classes are an excellent means to quickly learning plants in your area. One thing I do want to note is that these classes are much more effective after having learned a few wild plants on your own. This way your eyes will be trained to subtle differences that will make the class all the better.
If you live in the New York area, I would highly recommend visiting “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Central Park nature walks. Bill has a unique gift of teaching wild edible and medicinal plants in a memorable and fun way.