Tom Brown, Jr. was brought up in the ways of the woods by a displaced Apache named Stalking Wolf. Today, he is one of our country’s leading outdoor authorities, author of The Tracker and The Search, and head of the largest tracking and wilderness survival school in the U.S. Tom has also agreed to do a series of special features for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, articles that will help all of us learn how to survive — in comfort! — in the wilds.
It’s very difficult to write a survival article on wild foods that will be relevant to readers in a broad range of areas and terrains. Therefore, I’ve tried to include a variety of widely distributed plants that can be easily identified and are — for the most part — to be found throughout the year.
Remember, though, that when a person sets out to gather wild edibles, he or she must do so with a great deal of caution. Some people, for example, might have allergic reactions to otherwise “safe” plants, and a number of factors — including the time of collection and method of preparation — can make a big difference in both the safety and the palatability of many free foods. You should never, of course, pick plants close to roadways, polluted waterways, croplands or any other place where chemical sprays or fumes could have contaminated them.
Furthermore, the forager should never eat a plant that looks unhealthy, or one that he or she can’t identify beyond the shadow of a doubt. Whenever my survival school students collect wild edibles, I ask them whether they’d stake their lives on their ability to identify the species at hand. That, in fact, is just what they’ll be doing when they eat it. So use a good held manual on the subject — preferably one that contains both sketches and photographs showing leaf, root, flower and stalk structure, and — when possible — get some training from a wild-plants expert in your area (both the common names of and, surprisingly, the appearance of some plants will change from one locale to another).
General Tips For Identifying Edible Plants
A person in a survival situation will likely find that roots and tubers are most easily gathered with a “digging stick” (a sturdy branch pointed at one end). When working in rocky soil, it’s a good idea to fire-harden the point by heating — but not burning — it over glowing coals. The digger is then pushed into the ground next to the plant, and the root is levered out.
To collect seeds, tie a shirt in the form of a bag (wrapping the sleeves around the neck hole to close it), place the seed heads in the sack and shake the kernels loose. Or, you might want to make a willow hoop out of a flexible sapling and place the shirt over it to form a shallow tray into which seeds can be knocked off.