The Fantastic Four – 4 Essential Wild Edible Plants that May Just Save Your Life
Did you realize that knowing just 4 wild edible plants could one day save your life?
If there were any four categories of plants that I would recommend all people to know how to use and identify it would be these: Grass, Oak, Pine, and Cattail. For the knowledgeable survivor, knowing just these four plants can make the difference between life and death if stranded in the wilds – for each one is an excellent food source which can sustain you until help arrives.
Throughout this week and part of the next, I’ll be going into details on how you can prepare and eat these plants. For now though, here’s a quick overview into what they have to offer:
Surprising to many is the fact that you can eat grass. Despite there being hundreds of varieties of bladed grass found in the Americas, almost all (99% of them) can be eaten. This ranges from wheat, oats, and bamboo to the wild meadow varieties.
The young shoots up to 6 inches tall can be eaten raw and the starchy base (usually white and at the bottom when you pluck it) can be eaten as a trail nibble. The more mature the grass plant gets, the more fibrous the plant becomes. For older plants the base can be chewed and spit out — extracting the beneficial juices in the process. Or a tea can be made from the fresh or dried leaves.
The best part of the grass plant to eat are the seed heads, which can be gathered to make millet for breads or filler for soups & stews. Of the 99% that can be eaten raw, about 1% have toxic seeds and require that you roast or cook the seeds first. As a word of caution, stay away from blackish or purple colored grass seeds. This is a good indication of toxic fungus. Just make sure they are green or brown. Also use common sense when gathering. Don’t gather where there has been recent sprayings of weed killer.
Oak – specifically the acorn – is a great source of food in the fall and early winter time. Like most nuts, acorns contain a good amount of protein and fat which is beneficial in keeping you alive. While White Oak species of acorns can be eaten right after shelling, the remaining oak varieties require processing of the acorns first in order to remove the bitter taste.
I found that many ‘survival guides’ explain you only need to shell the acorns then boil them in a couple changes of water to remove the bitter taste. However, in my experience, it takes far more than a couple of boilings and on top of that it is a waste of fuel. The best way to do this is to crush the acorns into a course flour then immerse this flour into water and boil it. Depending on how much water used, it can take only one boiling (at most two) to remove the bitter taste.
After straining the flour into a t-shirt, the resulting acorn ‘dough’ can be eaten as is, set out to dry to be used as flour at a later time, or added to other flours for a great tasting bread – in fact, every Fall I make a killer ‘acorn bread’ that is a family and friend favorite.
“You can eat pine?!” Yes, pine trees are an awesome food source that I’ve eaten throughout the year. “OK…so how do you eat it” Good question, let me explain.
First of all, if you’ve ever eaten pesto, chances are you’ve eaten pine. ‘Pignoli’ or pine nuts are a common ingredient in pesto and are often served on ice-cream . Every species of pine produces seed (or nuts in this case) and all can be eaten. In the late fall and early winter, the cones can be gathered, opened, and the seeds extracted. The only issue is that most pine don’t produce large seeds like for example the pinion pine does.
In most other species the seeds are quite small and it takes quite a few to make a decent meal. However, if you’re lucky to live in the Great Basin or other arid areas where pinion pines love to grow you’re in luck, if not and if you don’t feel like spending so much time for a meager meal, read on…
In the spring, the male pollen anthers can be eaten and are high in protein. The inner bark of the pine can also be eaten and surprisingly makes quite a tasty meal if prepared right. And with some species – like the white pine – it can be surprisingly sweet.
In addition, pine needles can be gathered year round to make a great tea which contains a ton of Vitamin C (not in the least bit ‘piney’ tasting as you would expect).
This is my favorite wild edible. Not only is it referred to as the wilderness ‘supermarket’ (because of its many edible parts), but it has some great medicinal and utilitarian purposes as well.
Cattail provides something to eat year round. And the amount that you can gather is quite substantial. In fact, a study was conducted at the Cattail Research Center of Syracuse University’s Department of Plant Sciences by Leland Marsh. He reported that he could harvest 140 tons of rhizomes per acre near Wolcott, NY. That equates to more than 10 times the average yield per acre of potatoes!
In the early spring the young shoots and stalks can be eaten raw or cooked. The flower heads in late spring can be husked like corn and boiled — in fact it has an almost corn-like taste. Very yummy. In summer, the brown-orangish pollen heads can be eaten raw or dried into flour. Fall is the best time to gather the horn-shaped corms (the sproutings of next years’ plants) which are eaten raw or roasted. And in winter, the root stalk is full of starch which can be broken up into water, dissolved, strained and dried into flour as good as wheat flour.
Even if you can only identify the previous four categories of plants, knowing how to use them can give you enough nutrients to stay alive. Supplement that with some additional plant knowledge and some hunting/trapping skills and you can forget surviving, you’ll be well on your way to thriving out in the wilds!
For the next week, I’ll be going into detail on how you can process and use each of the above groups of plants for life-sustaining food. Stay tuned!!