Survival: Wild Edible Plants

Posted by Jeff Wise on Dec 9th 2021

Terence McKenna--A famous American Philosopher, Ethnobotanist (one who studies a region's plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of local culture and people), and author once stated, "Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up." Having participated in many wilderness survival courses during my time in the Scouts, as well as the U.S. Military, what really stands out to me in this quote is: if you're committed to nature, it's study and respect, nature has a way of taking care of you. I genuinely believe this. From a "survival" standpoint, when you are down on your luck, this can have a tremendous positive impact on your overall survivability when faced with a worst-case scenario; for example, if you are stranded in an isolated position with limited equipment and resources. This article is designed to increase your overall knowledge of edible wild plants in the wilderness to increase the odds of survival. Throughout human beings' time on earth, we have successfully evolved from the wild to a more, for lack of a better word, "chill" environment. This article is intended to reestablish nature in regard to survivability--so we can reestablish the meaning of being "Brilliant at the Basics," as well as to thrive during moments of peril. In order to accomplish this, before sharing which plants may be consumed in the wild, it is important to understand the "rule of three," foraging rules and ethics, equipment, safety, as well as testing for allergic reactions.

The Rule of Three:

Throughout my time studying survival strategy and tactics, I have continuously seen and come to believe in the Rule of Three. If stranded in the wild, this may act as a great guideline to build a foundation for your overall survival plan:

  • You can survive for 3 Minutes without oxygen or in icy water.
  • You can survive for 3 Hours without shelter in a harsh environment (unless in icy water).
  • You can survive for 3 Days without water (if sheltered from a harsh environment).
  • You can survive for 3 Weeks without food (if you have water and shelter).

The reason I bring up the Rule of 3 is to highlight, in a rank-order, what is the most important category in reference to your survivability. This allows the establishment of priority based on your overall needs to win against a worst-case scenario.


The number one rule to remember when foraging for wild edible plants is to never consume anything unless you are 100 percent sure the plant you're consuming is edible. Make sure you study edible plants in your geographic region/area of operation. Also, be sure to understand the visuals of edible plants prior to departure, so you can become acclimated to their looks in case technology fails or if it is not available. Make sure to follow the law regarding permission to forage on private and public lands. Additionally, never take more of a plant than needed, unless faced with a life or death situation. Using a pair of scissors or a knife allows plants to heal quicker due to clean cuts.


There is some equipment you should keep in mind when foraging for edible wild plants. It is never a bad idea to add them in your everyday care (EDC) because they can be used for a number of different tasks. Some plants have thorns, spikes, and burs, so carrying a pair of gloves and wearing/having an extra set of clothes that protects your skin can be very beneficial. Also, to make clean cuts on a wild plant (which allows the plant to heal quicker) you should consider carrying a multi-tool-one that has both the knife and scissor option. Additionally, adding a few trash bags to your pack can help in the overall collection of edible wild plants in case you are foraging far from your home, camp, or shelter. Some of the plants you may collect require you to boil them to increase edibility. There are a few ways you can go about being prepared for the boiling process in the wild. The first option is to add a fire-starting kit to your EDC and a travel-size cooking pot, or the second option is to invest in a Jetboil or similar stove. A lot of the plants shared in this article can be eaten raw; however, boiling certain plants takes away the bitterness.


Always maintain your situational awareness when looking for wild edible plants in a survival situation. It is incredibly important to understand wildlife and their habits regarding your geographic region. Understand which wildlife may become a threat to you and understand the type of food they consume in case you become heavily embedded in that type of environment and need to bug out on a moment's notice. Plants may be unsafe for up to one year if embodied with herbicides and pesticides. Always maintain awareness of the cleanliness of the water in your geographic location-contaminated water leads to contaminated plants. Here are some common poisonous plants to avoid in the wild:

Poison Ivy:

Poison Ivy is a quite common allergenic flowering plant in North America. It has often been referred to as the "leaves of three," due to its three identical almond-shaped leaves. Notorious for being hidden in underbrush, poison ivy can range in color from light green for immature plants to dark green for mature plants, and it may turn to red during the fall months. Also, poison ivy contains a toxic chemical known as urushiol-which can cause painful inflammation to the skin known as contact dermatitis. Urushiol is an oil that can not only directly affect an individual upon contact, but it can also live on shoes and clothes-affecting someone after contact has been made with the plant. If you do come in contact with poison ivy, be sure to wash yourself and your clothes immediately and seek medical care if symptoms progressively worsen.

Poison Oak:

Poison Oak is also quite common in North America; and like poison ivy, contains urushiol, which can cause contact dermatitis. Poison oak peak flowering usually occurs in May and can be found in diverse leaf forests. The leaves, like poison ivy, are divided into three; however, sometimes may appear in leaves of 5,7, or 9. Poison Oak resembles the same leaves as true oak; however, they are glossier. The leaf color ranges from bronze in the winter, yellowish-green in the spring, red in the summer, and bright red or pink towards fall.

Testing for Allergic Reaction:

It's important to remember, that while some plants may be edible to some, they may not be edible to others. It is paramount to know if you have an allergic reaction to certain wild plants because it can quickly turn a bad situation even worse (potential death). However, there are some steps you should take to minimize the risk of an allergic reaction. This test should be conducted every time you consume wild edible plants-even if you know you are not allergic to a certain plant because you may not know if the plant has been altered with toxins in the soil, and in or on the plant. Here is a list of the Universal Edibility Test, which can be found in U.S. Army Field Manual (FM) 3-05.70:

1. Test only one part of the potential food plant at a time.

2. Separate the plant into its basic components-leaves, stems, roots, buds, and flowers.

3. Smell the food for strong or acid odors. Remember, smell alone does not indicate a plant is edible or inedible.

4. Do not eat for eight hours before starting the test.

5. During the eight hours you abstain from eating, test for contact poisoning by placing a piece of the plant part you are testing on the inside of your elbow or wrist. Usually, 15 minutes is enough time to allow for a reaction.

6. During the test period, take nothing by mouth except purified water and the plant part you are testing.

7. Select a small portion of a single part and prepare it the way you plan to eat it.

8. Before placing the prepared plant part in your mouth, touch a small portion (a pinch) to the outer surface of your lip to test for burning or itching.

9. If after three minutes there is no reaction to your lip, place the plant part on your tongue, holding it there for 15 minutes.

10. If there is no reaction, thoroughly chew a pinch and hold it in your mouth for fifteen minutes. Do not swallow.

11. If no burning, itching, numbing, stinging, or other irritation occurs during the fifteen minutes, swallow the food.

12. Wait eight hours, if any ill effects occur during this period, induce vomiting, and drink a lot of water.

13. If no ill effects occur, eat a 0.25 cup of the same plant part prepared the same way. Wait another eight hours. If no ill effects occur, the plant part as prepared is safe for eating.

The information covered so far can act as a sound foundation to your overall level of preparedness regarding wild edible plants. However, I encourage you to continuously research the topic from time to time to adapt your plan to your environments, as well as stay up-to-date scientific research, technology, and thought regarding the subject. Now we can go a little more in-depth on the wild edible plants out there!

Wild Edible Plants


Amaranth, also known as "Pigweed," has edible seeds and young leaves. Amaranth is highly nutritious, and it can be identified by their highly distinctive veins and oval/diamond-shaped leaves. Amaranth can usually be found throughout Northern America around disturbed earth and cleared land. To harvest, cut the young leaves away from the plant top, and if the seed heads are brown, you can collect thousands of seeds to consume. The entire plant may be eaten raw; however, it is recommended the leaves should be boiled due to the nitrates they can hold (Vorderbruggen, p. 66).


Arrowhead is an edible plant that grows in shallow and freshwater areas throughout North America. This plant is composed of leaves, stocks, and tubers (grow below ground and are composed of starch-a great source of carbohydrates-storing tissue (Sagittaria, 2020). They represent the resting stage of various plants and enable overwintering in many plant species). In the late Fall or early Spring, disturbing the aquatic mud in which this plant grows will cause the small tubers to float to the surface. You can eat the tubers-just be sure to remove the outer skin and boil them before consumption (Arrowhead Wild Edible Food, 2020). The stalk and leaves can also be eaten, but they should be boiled, as well.


Balsamroot is located in Western North America, and it can be identified, and it can be identified by its large basal leaves and yellow blooms. Balsamroot is a genus of plant in the sunflower family. The plant grows on dry hillsides and dry open meadows throughout the Mountain West of North America. The entire plant is edible and nutritious. Native Americans harvested balsamroot into starchy flour when other foods were scarce. Also, Native Americans used the sticky sap of this plant as a topical antiseptic for minor wounds (Balsamorhiza, 2020). The resin in the roots can support the immune system if you are experiencing a cold or the flu (Sunflower of the Desert, 2020). Additionally, balsamroot begins to bloom in May and lasts through July.


Blackberries are an edible fruit of the Rosaceae family and can be found in North Temperate regions-the highest producing state of blackberries in the United States is Oregon. Blackberries can be found in woods, scrub, hillsides, hedgerows, and meadows; additionally, blooming usually peaks in the mid-Summer months. When blooming, the berries start off green in color, then transition to red, and finally to black. This thorny plant can grow between three to six meters tall; and in some cases, the plant can grow to nine meters. Blackberries can be eaten raw, as well as the plant's young leaves and ground shoots. Blackberries contain significant contents of dietary fiber and Vitamins (C and K). Native Americans have also been known to use the stems to make rope (Blackberry, 2020).


Blueberries are perennial flowering plants with blue or purple berries, and they are predominant in North America. Blueberries usually grow in humid, northern climates that have winter chills. The berries are pale-greenish at first, then reddish-purple, and finally dark purple. Depending on climate, altitude, and latitude, harvest can vary from May to August in the Northern Hemisphere. Blueberries can be consumed raw, and they provide a good source of dietary fiber, Vitamin C, and Manganese (Blueberry, 2020).


Burdock can be found in most parts of the United States except for Florida and Hawaii, and this plant is native to Europe and Asia. Burdock can be identified by the purple flower which grows on the top of the plant's burs (Arctium, 2020). Also, burdock can be found growing along riverbanks, roadsides, and fields. Edible parts of the plant include the roots, stem, and leaves. It is recommended to boil first-season roots and second-season stems. Stems should be peeled, and roots scrubbed prior to cooking to rid the taste of bitterness (Burdock: Arctium Lappa, 2020). Burdock consists of carbohydrates, volatile oils, plant sterols, and fatty oils. Also, Burdock is known to have healing properties, like anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial effects. In America, burdock leaves have been simmered in milk to counteract venom from rattlesnake bites (Arctium, 2020).


Cattails are largely distributed in the Northern Hemisphere and it is found in a variety of wetlands. Cattails are easy to identify, the flower looks like a brown cigar and the plant can grow up to nine feet tall. Yellow pollen may appear on the flower by Summertime (Typha, 2020). Eat the Weeds is a great website to increase your knowledge of plants; and they stated, "It is said that if a lost person has found cattails, they have four of the five things they need to survive: water, food, shelter, and a source of fuel for heat-the dry old stocks. The one item missing is companionship." Cattails are completely edible year-round, and they provide an abundance of carbohydrates, vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, potassium, and phosphorus (Typha, 2020).


Chickenweed is native to Eurasia, and it has naturalized throughout the world. This plant is a low growing weed that can be found in many areas. Also, it is the most common weed found in lawns; however, it also grows in fields, meadows, and forests. Chickenweed is sparsely hairy, with hairs in a line along the stem. The leaves are oval and opposite-the lower leaves have stalks. Its flower is white and small with five petals; however, some plants have no petals. Chickenweed leaves and flowers can be eaten raw. Also, chickenweed was used by the Ainu for treating bruises and aching bones-stems were steeped in hot water before being applied to affected areas (Stellaria Media, 2020).


Chicory is a somewhat woody plant of the dandelion family. This plant can be found along roadsides, and it is native to Europe. Now, Chicory is common in North America, China, and Australia, where it has become widely naturalized. When flowering, chicory has a tough, grooved, and more or less hairy stem (from 10 to 40 inches tall). The leaves are stalked, long (wider in the middle and shaped like a lance tip), and unlobed. The chicory flower is usually light purple or lavender. The flower has also been described as being light blue, and rarely white or pink (Chicory, 2020). You can find chicory growing from July to October, and the leaves, roots, and flowers are edible (Chicory (Stellaria media) Wild Edible Food, 2020).


Clovers have a cosmopolitan distribution with the highest diversity in the Temperate Northern Hemisphere; however, many species also grow in South America and Africa, as well as high altitudes on mountains in the Tropics (Clover, 2020). You can find clovers virtually anywhere in open grassy areas. Clovers may be consumed raw; however, the taste increases if they are boiled. Additionally, clovers are high in protein and contain Vitamins (A and C) (Clover, 2020). However, you should not consume white clovers in warmer climates-these clovers may be poisonous (Clover Great Wild Survival Food, 2020). Always remember the Universal Edibility Test and apply it prior to consumption.


Dandelions are thought to have evolved thirty million years ago in Eurasia (Taraxacum, 2020). Also known as the lion's tooth, Dandelions can be found in woods, cultivated fields, rocky hillsides, and fertile gardens and lawns (Dandelion-Taraxacum Officinale, 2020). Leaves are generally two inches to ten inches or longer-they are simple, lobed, and form a basal rosette above the central taproot. The flower heads are yellow to orange colored, and they are open in the daytime and closed at night. Edible parts of dandelions include the leaves, root, and flower. Raw dandelion greens contain high amounts of Vitamins (A, C, and K), and they are moderate sources of calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese (Taraxacum, 2020).

Goose Grass (Cleavers):

Goose grass is native to a wide region in Europe, North Africa, and Asia-from Britain and the Canary Islands to Japan. It is now Naturalized throughout most of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, some Oceanic Islands, and scattered locations in Africa. Cleavers have creeping, staggering, stems which branch and grow alongside other plants. They attach themselves like Velcro, due to small, hooked hairs, which grow out of the stems and leaves. Goose grass can be eaten raw, and they emerge from early spring to summer. Bandages and washes made from cleavers were traditionally used to treat a variety of skin ailments, light wounds, and burns (Galium Aparine, 2020).


Horseweed is an annual plant native throughout most of North America and Central America. It is also widely naturalized in Australia and New Zealand. Horseweed can grow to sixty inches tall, with sparsely hairy stems. The leaves are unstalked, slender (two to ten centimeters long and up to one centimeter across) and have a coarsely toothed margin. Native Americans used a preparation of the plant's leaves to treat sore throat and dysentery (Erigeron Canadensis, 2020). Also, the plant has numerous flower heads which form clusters. This plant prefers full sunlight, and can be found in fields, pastures, and roadsides. Edible parts of horseweed include young leaves and seedlings (Horseweed - Conyza Canadensis, 2020). The leaves are a good source of calcium, potassium, and protein (Erigeron Canadensis, 2020).


Juniper is a type of tree/shrub of the cypress family. Juniper grows in dry to damp coniferous mixed forests. There are thirteen juniper species native to North America, and eleven of those species are tree-like. Juniper can be found at sea level expanding to elevations over 10,000 feet. It typically grows in dry rocky environments and on mountainsides. Juniper can vary in size and shape-from tall trees (66 to 131 feet) to columnar or low-spreading shrubs with long trailing branches. They are evergreen with needle-like or scale-like leaves. Juniper ash has been historically consumed as a source of calcium by the Navajo (Juniper, 2020).


Mesquite trees are native to the Southwestern United States and Mexico. This tree blooms from Spring to Summer, and it often produces fruits known as pods. These bean pods can grow between two and six inches long. Mesquite trees have also been known to survive in conditions with low light, as well as areas where drought may occur. Reddish-orange sap can be found on mesquite trees during the summer months. Historically, this sap was used on burns and cuts to speed up the healing process (Mesquite, 2020). Once the bean pods acquire a yellowish color, they have matured, and the beans can be boiled for consumption (Mesquite Trees A Wild Natural Food, 2020).

Miner's Lettuce:

Miner's lettuce is a flowering, fleshy, annual plant native to the Western Mountains and coastal regions of North America-from southernmost Alaska and British Columbia to Central America. However, it is most common in California (Sacramento and the Northern San Joaquin Valleys). Miner's lettuce is a tender rosette forming plant that can grow to a maximum of sixteen inches and a minimum of one centimeter. Miner's lettuce also produces a small, five-petal, pink or white flower, and bright-green round leaves. You can find miner's lettuce in shady and damp environments, and it is in season from April to May (Claytonia Perfoliata, 2020). The common name of miner's lettuce refers to how the plant was used during the California Gold Rush to prevent scurvy. It provides nutrients to include Vitamins (A and C), and iron. Edible parts of the plant include the leaves, flowers, and roots. However, older leaves should be boiled (Miner's Lettuce Wild Edible Plant, 2020).


Pines are native to the Northern Hemisphere and in few parts of the Tropics in the Southern Hemisphere. Pines can be found in a large variety of environments, ranging from semi-arid deserts to rainforests. They often grow in mountainous environments up to 17,000 feet in elevation; however, they can also grow at sea level. Pinecones produce an average of two pine nuts (seeds) and are located within the cone. Once the outer brown shell is removed from the pine nut it becomes ivory colored and about half an inch long. To remove the nut(s) from the pinecone, simply tap the pinecone on a solid surface. Once the seed has been freed from the cone, you can deshell it by applying pressure with your fingers and rolling it around until you feel the shell crack. Make sure you observe the pine nut prior to eating. You want to look for holes. If there are holes, this means an insect already got to it, and you can discard. Also, the soft-white inner bark from a pine tree may be eaten raw (Caution: never eat the outside bark). This inner bark is a great source of Vitamins A and C (Pine, 2020).

Prickly Pear Cactus:

Like most true cacti, prickly pears are native only to the Americas. In the United States, prickly pears are native to many areas of the arid, semi-arid, and drought prone Western and Southcentral United States. This area includes the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest Desert, as well as sandy coastal beach scrub environments of the East Coast. Prickly pears produce a fruit known as tuna (pulp), and this fruit can appear red, green, or yellowish orange. Prior to modern medicine, Native Americans and Mexicans used prickly pears as a coagulant for open wounds (Opuntia, 2020). The flower (tuna) blooms from April to June. Edible parts include its fruit and pads; however, WARNING: extreme caution should be used to remove spikes and bristles. Be sure to use gloves, a knife and/or tongs to remove the flower or pedal. Be sure to scrape off the spikes and bristles with a knife underwater. Another technique you can use to remove the spikes and bristles is to burn them off.


Purslane, also known as duckweed and little hogweed, has an extensive distribution-ranging from North Africa and Southern Europe, through the Middle East, and Malaysia to Australia and New Zealand. Purslane is also abundant in North America and Hawaii. This plant has smooth, reddish, mostly prostrate stems, which may be alternate or opposite, and are clustered at stem joints and ends. The yellow flower has five-petals; and depending on rain, this plant can be around all year long (Portulaca Oleracea, 2020). Purslane usually grows in disturbed areas, so be sure the area you are foraging has no toxins (Purslane Wild Edible Plant, 2020). Stems, leaves, and the flower pod of purslane are edible-a great source for Vitamin C and potassium (Portulaca Oleracea, 2020).


Sassafras is a member of the laurel family and is native to Eastern North America and Eastern Asia. It is commonly found along roadsides, fence lines, in open woods, or in fields. Sassafras grows well in damp, well-drained, fertile soil of sand and clay. Sassafras trees can grow from 30 to 115 feet tall with many slender sympodial branches (This type of growth is a type of bifurcating branching pattern where one branch grows more strongly than the other. The strongest branch attached to the tree and progressively becoming weaker as a new branch forms off the previously stronger branch. The bark on sassafras trees appears as an orangish-brown or yellow color. Also, Sassafras trees have three distinct leaf patterns, all on the same tree: unlobed oval, bilobed (mitten-shaped), and trilobed (three-pronged) (Sassafras, 2020). WARNING: Sassafras does contain safrole; and in large consumptions, can lead to poisoning. With this in mind, be sure to moderate consumption in any situation. The twigs and leaves of sassafras can be eaten raw.

Wood Sorrel:

Wood sorrel has a vast presence all around the world, including North America. Additionally, it can be found on forest floors that have damp soil and moderate shade. If cleavers are present, it is a good indicator that wood sorrel is close by. The leaves of wood sorrel closely resemble that of clovers-having three heart-shaped leaves coming from a center crease. Wood sorrel blooms between March and October and produces a yellow, five-petal, flower which blooms from May to October (Wood Sorrel - Oxalis Stricta, 2020). Through moderate consumption, wood sorrel's leaves, flowers, tubers, and seeds can be eaten raw (Wood Sorrel Edible Wild Plant, 2020). WARNING: Wood sorrel contains oxalic acid, which in large amounts, can become slightly toxic-which interferes with proper digestion and kidney function.

Bug Out Plan and Technology:

Something you can consider when choosing a Bug Out location is the wild edible plants in and around the area. This can be conducted through a ground recon (preferred) or through research. Also, if you find a Bug Out Position, you can cultivate it with edible plants prior to insert so you can have a food supply ready. Secondly, there are really great software applications you can download on your phone-where you take a picture of a plant and it will give you its information. This is a great tool you can use when beginning to identify wild edible plants, learn the plants in your area, as well as build your overall confidence on the topic. It is important to take a crawl, walk, run approach when it comes to plant identification and consumption. Research from the internet and books of edible plants in your area is the crawl. Secondly, getting out in nature and positively identifying the plants is the walk. Finally, using the Universal Edibility Test and consuming wild edible plants is the run. Take your time in building your knowledge regarding this topic, you will absolutely thank yourself if faced with a survival situation down the road!


The critical factor in using plants for food is to avoid accidental poisoning. Eat only those plants you can positively identify, and you know are safe to eat.


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