Thursday, May 1, 2008

Survival Use of Plants 2 of 3: Edible Plant Identification

Note: This post is under construction. Plant descriptions and usage information is being added. This may take many days to complete. If you found this post through Digg, I'll send a shout when the article is fully updated. Thanks for your patience. - covertress

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"Do not let the fear of being poisoned deter you from experimenting with wild edible plants. Cases of fatal poisoning are extremely rare. Of the thousands of species of plants that grow wild in eastern North America, only a handful can be considered dangerously poisonous. These should present no problem if you are careful and follow a few simple rules." - Lee Allen Peterson, Peterson Field Guides.

  1. Learn to recognize and avoid the common poisonous plants in your area. Be aware also of those that commonly cause dermatitis.
  2. Teach children not to put plants in their mouths; keep all plants away from infants. Most cases of poisoning involve small children. Parents should learn what poisonous plants grow in or near their homes and warn their children to leave them alone.
  3. Do not use any plant that you cannot positively identify as edible. If you have even the slightest doubt about the identity of a plant, leave it alone. This is particularly important when dealing with roots, shoots, and berries. Mushrooms and members of the Carrot Family often defy precise identification and should be approached with extreme caution; mistakes can be fatal.
  4. Do not assume that plants that superficially resemble edible plants are themselves edible. Unfamiliar members of the Lily Family (6 petal-like flower parts, parallel-veined leaves) and the Pea Family (pealike flowers, pods) may be particularly tempting in this respect. They are just as likely to be poisonous as not.
  5. When collecting an edible plant, make sure not to include parts from nearby poisonous plants.
  6. Do not collect plants that have recently been sprayed with insecticides, or that grow in contaminated water or along the margins of heavily traveled highways. Although washing will frequently remove most of the toxic substances from these plants, it is safer and wiser to collect elsewhere.
  7. Be absolutely certain which parts of a plant should be collected and at what season, and the proper way to use them. Pay close attention to warnings and caution notes in the field guides you use to identify edible plants. Some species are edible when cooked but poisonous when raw, or edible when young but toxic later. Note that certain plants become toxic if eaten in excess.
  8. Sample unfamiliar edible plants sparingly at first. Refer to the Universal Edibility Test outlined in part one of this series (link below.) Body chemistries vary from individual to individual; a plant may be safe for one person te eat, but not for another.
  9. There are no foolproof lists for determining either edible or poisonous plants. Animals are not reliable indicators of edibility.

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In addition to the information in part one of this series, on plant edibility and preparation, you should keep the following in mind when you are looking for plant food:

  • There are no known poisonous grasses, so you should consider wild grains as an important emergency food source. Grains are edible raw, but roasting or boiling improves the food quality.

CAUTION: Many grasses are infected by the ergot fungus, which is extremely toxic. Ergot forms a dark black hornlike growth on the grain. This growth is about one inch long and persists through winter. Do not eat any plant that has this fungus on it.

  • Some cacti are not edible. If the cactus grows close to the ground (not more than five inches tall) and does not have padlike segments, avoid it.
  • The young leaves of all ferns uncoil from a fiddleheadlike structure, and it is at this stage that ferns are best for eating.

CAUTION: Limit the amount of fern leaves you eat as some species contain a material that may destroy vitamins in the body.

  • Eating large quantities of some moss (lichen) may cause sickness.
  • Water lilies, cattails, and water fern - although edible raw - should be washed in water suitable for drinking since th water they grow in may be contaminated.
  • The roots of some root crops (taro, arrowroot, malanga, yam) should not be eaten raw as most contain mildly poisonous compounds. Boiling or baking destroys these compounds. It also destroys harmful bacteria that may be present on the root surface.
  • Many trees have edible fruit. Some trees may be a source of water. Most are an excellent resource for building materials.
  • If you are unsure of the edibility of a plant, apply the Universal Edibility Test (see part one of this series - link below.)

As you look at the plant illustrations, note the habitats and distributions of these plants to find out if they grow in your area. Learn to spot and identify them immediately. Keep in mind, however, that in another area the same plants, certainly different species of the same plants, may vary in size and structure.

Temperate Zone Food Plants

Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus & other species)

Description: There are various species of Amaranth that vary from 6 inches to 6 feet in height. These plants are coarse, hairy weeds with stout stems. The leaves are dull green, ovate to lance shaped and long-stalked. Flower clusters vary from dense and bristly to slender and nodding.

Habitat and distribution: Amaranths can be found along roadsides, in fields and in waste grounds across America.

Edible parts: The tender leaves can be eaten raw or added to salads. Cooked tender leaves can be boiled and eaten as vegetables. The tiny black seeds can be ground to make a nutritious flour.

Arrowroot (Sagittaria species)

Description: This plant grows up to 5 feet tall. Its leaves are 1 foot long and 4 inches wide. The leaves fold at night.

Habitat and distribution: This plant is a native of South America but is now brown on a wide scale in the humid tropics. Look for it in open sunny areas.

Edible parts: The rootstock is a rich source of high quality starch. Boil the rootstock and eat it as a vegetable.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Beechnut (Fagus species)

Blackberries, Raspberries & Dewberries (Rubus species)

Description: These plants have prickly stems (canes) that grow upward, arching back toward the ground. They have alternate, usually compound leaves. The fruits may be red, yellow or orange in color.

Habitat and distribution: These plants grow in open sunny areas at the margin of woods, lakes, streams and roads throughout temperate regions.

Edible parts: The fruits and peeled young shoots are edible.

Other uses: Use the leaves to make tea. To treat diarrhea, drink a tea made by brewing the dried root bark of the blackberry bush.

Blueberries and Huckleberries (Vaccinium species & Gaylussacia species)

Description: These shrubs vary in size from 1 foot to 12 feet tall. All have alternate, simple leaves. The fruits may be dark blue, black or red with many small seeds.

Habitat and distribution: These plants prefer open, sunny areas. They are found throughout much of the North Temperate regions and at higher elevations in Central America.

Edible parts: Fruit. Eat raw, cooked or dried.

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

Description: This plant has wavy-edged leaves and flower heads in bristly receptacles.

Habitat and distribution: It is found growing in open wastelands during spring and summer.

Edible parts: Peel the tender leaf stalks and eat them raw or cook them like greens. The roots are also edible.

Other uses: A liquid made from the roots will help to produce sweating and increase urination. Dry the root, simmer it in water, strain the liquid and then drink the strained liquid. Fiber from the dried stock can be used to weave cordage.

Cattail (Typha latifolia)

Description: Cattails are grasslike plants with strap-shaped leaves 1/2 inch to 2 inches wide and growing up to 6 feet tall. There are several species, but all are recognized as cattails. The male flowers are borne in a dense mass above the female flowers. These last only a short time, leaving the female flowers that develop into the brown cattail. Pollen from the male flowers is often abundant and bright yellow.

Habitat and distribution: Cattails are found throughout most of the world. Look for them in full sun at the margins of lakes, streams, canals, rivers and brackish water.

Edible parts: The young tender shoots are edible raw or cooked. The rhizome is often very tough but is a rich source of starch. Pound the rhizome to remove the starch and use as a flour. The pollen is also an abundant source of starch. When the cattail is immature and still green, the female portion may be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob.

Other uses: The dried leaves are an excellent source of weaving material and can be used to make floats and rafts. The cottony seeds make good pillow stuffing and insulation. The pollen makes excellent tinder.

Chestnut (Castanea species)

Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

Description: This plant grows up to 6 feet tall. It has leaves clustered at the base of the stem and some leaves on the stem. The base leaves resemble those of the dandelion. The flowers are sky blue but remain open only on sunny days. Chickory has milky juice.

Habitat and distribution: Look for chickory in old fields, waste places, weedy lots and along roads. It is a native of Europe and Asia but is found in Africa and most of North America where it grows as a weed.

Edible parts: All parts are edible. Eat the young leaves raw as a salad or boil to eat as a vegetable. Cook the roots as a vegetable. For a coffee substitute, roast the roots until they are dark brown and then pulverize.

Chufa (Cyperus esculentus)

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Description: The leaves have a jagged edge, grow close to the ground and are seldom more than 8 inches long. The flowers are bright yellow. There are several species of dandelions.

Habitat and distribution: Dandelions grow in open, sunny locations throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Edible parts: All parts are edible. Eat the leaves raw or cooked. Boil the roots. Roots roasted and cround are a good coffee substitute.

Other uses: The white juice in the flower stems can be used as glue.

Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)

Nettle (Urtica species)

Oaks (Quercus species)

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Plantain, Broad Leaf Lawn (Plantago Major, P. Rugelii)

Description: These plants have borad leaves, over 1 inch across, that are borne close to the ground. The flowers are on a spike that arises from the middle of the cluster of leaves.

Habitat and distribution: Look for these plants in lawns and along roads in North Temperate regions.

Edible parts: The young leaves are edible raw or boiled.

Other uses: To relieve pain from wounds and sores, wash and soak the entire plant for a short while and apply it to the injured area. To treat diarrhea, drink tea made from 1 ounce of the plant boiled in 1 pint of water.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species)

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Strawberries (Fragaria species)

Thistle (Cirsium species)

Water lily & lotus (Nuphar, Nelumbo, & other species)

Wild onion & garlic (Allium species)

Wild rose (Rosa species)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis species)

Tropical Zone Food Plants

Bamboo (various genera including Bambusa, Dendrocalamus, Phyllostachys)

Description: Bamboos are woody grasses that grow up to 50 feet tall. The leaves are grasslike and the stems are the familiar bamboo used in furniture and fishing poles.

Habitat and distribution: Look for bamboo in warm, moist regions in open or jungle country, in lowland, or on mountains. Bamboos are native to the Far East, both temperate and tropical zones, but have been widely planted around the world.

Edible parts: The young shoots of almost all species are edible raw or cooked. Raw shoots have a slightly bitter taste that is removed by boiling. To prepare, remove the tough protective sheath, which is coated with tawny or red hairs. The seed grain of the flowering bamboo is also edible. Boil the seeds like rice or pulverize them, mix with water and make into cakes.

Other uses: Use the mature bamboo to build structures or to make containers, ladles, spoons and various other cooking utensils. Bamboo can also be used to make tools and weapons. You can make a strong bow by splitting the bamboo and putting several pieces together.

Bananas and Plantains (Musa species)

Description: These are treelike plants with several large leaves at the top. The flowers are borne in dense hanging clusters.

Habitat and distribution: Look for bananas in open fields or margins of forests where they are grown as a crop. They grow in the humid tropics.

Edible parts: The fruits are edible raw or cooked. They may be boiled or baked. The flowers can be boiled and eaten like a vegetable. The rootstalks and leaf sheaths of many species can be cooked and eaten. The center or "heart" of the plant is edible year round, cooked or raw.

Other uses: Layers of the lower third of the plant can be used to cover coals to roast food. The stump of the plant can be used to obtain water.

Breadfruit (Artocarpus incisa)

Description: This tree may grow up to 30 feet tall. It has dark green, deeply divided leaves that are 2-1/2 feet long and 1 foot wide. The fruits are large, green, ball-like structures up to 1 foot across when mature.

Habitat and distribution: Look for this tree at the margins of forests and homesites in the humid tropics. It is native to the South Pacific region but has been widely planted in the West Indies and parts of Polynesia.

Edible parts: The fruit pulp is edible raw. The fruit can be sliced, dried and ground into flour for later use. The seeds are edible cooked.

Other uses: The thick sap can be used for glue and caulking material. It can also be used for birdlime. Entrap small birds by smearing the sap on twigs where the birds usually perch.

Cashew nut (Anacardium occidental)

Coconut (Cocos nucifera)

Description: This tree has a single, narrow, tall trunk with a cluster of very large leaves at the top. Each leave may be over 20 feet long with over 100 pairs of leaflets.

Habitat and distribution: Coconut palm are found throughout the tropics. They are most abundant near coastal regions.

Edible parts: The nut is a valuable source of food. The milk of the young coconut is rich in sugar and vitamins and is an excellent source of liquid. The nut meat is also nutritious, but is rich in oil. To preserve the meat, spread it in the sun until completely dry.

Other uses: Use coconut oil for cooking; for protecting metal objects from corrosion; for treating saltwater sores, sunburn and dry skin; and for improvising torches. Use the tree trunk for building material and the leaves for thatching. Hollow out the large stump to use as a food container. The coconut husks are good for flotation and the husk fibers for weaving ropes and other items. Use the gauzelike fibers at the leaf bases as strainers or use them to weave a bug net or to make a pad to use on wounds. Husk makes a good abrasive. Dried husk fiber is an excellent tinder. A smouldering husk helps to repel mosquitoes. Smoke caused by dripping coconut oil in a fire also repels mosquitoes. To render coconut oil, put the coconut meat in the sun, heat it over a slow fire, or boil it in a pot of water. Coconuts washed out to sea are a good source of fresh liquid for the sea survivor.

Mango (Mangifera indica)

Palms (various species)

Papaya (Carica species)

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)

Taro (Colocasia species)

Desert Zone Food Plants

Acacia (Acacia farnesiana)

Description: This is a spreading, usually short tree with spines and alternate compound leaves. The individual leaflets are small. The flowers are ball-shaped, bright yellow, and very fragarant. The bark is a whitish grey color. The fruits are dark brown and podlike.

Habitat and distribution: Acacia grown in open, sunny areas. It is found throughout all tropical regions.

NOTE: There are about 500 kinds of acacia. These plants are especially prevalent in Africa, southern Asia, and Australia, but many kinds occur in the warmer and drier parts of America.

Edible parts: The young leaves, flowers, and pods are edible raw or cooked.

Agave (Agave species)

Description: These plants have large clusters of thick, fleshy leaves borne close to the ground and surrounding a central stalk. The plants flower only once, then die. They produce a massive flower stalk.

Habitat and distribution: Agaves prefer dry, open areas. They are found throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of the western deserts of the United States and Mexico.

Edible parts: The flowers and flower buds are edible. Boil before eating.

CAUTION: The juice of some species causes dermatitis.

Other uses: Cut the huge flower stalk and collect the juice for drinking. Some species have very fibrous leaves. Pound the leaves and remove the fibers to use for ropes and weaving. Most species have thick, sharp needles at the tops of the leaves. These can be used for sewing or making hooks. The sap of some species contains a chemical that makes it suitable for use as a soap.

Cactus (various species)

Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

Desert amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri)

Milesian world map, circa 510 BC. (Included here because it's interesting -- and one should be able to locate an ocean without a map.)


Dulse (Rhodymenia palmata)

Green seaweed (Ulva lactuca)

Irish moss (Chondrus crispus)

Kelp (Alaria esculenta)

Laver (aka Nori) (Porphyra species)

Mojaban (Sargassum fulvellum)

Sugar wrack (Laminaria saccharina)

Excerpt from the US Army Survival Manual FM 21-76


Coming Soon:

  • "Survival Use of Plants 3 of 3: Plants for Medicinal and Other Uses"

Related: Eat The Weeds: Edible Plants Near an Urban Lake [2 videos]


  1. Interresting blog
    Greeting from Belgium

  2. Hello,

    I'm working at the Natural History Museum, London, and need to collect images for Porphyra umbilicalis as part of our Species of the Day online program

    i was wondering where you found your picture of Porphyra in the seaweed section, as i need to find credible sources.

    Your help in this would be most appreciated.

    Heloise Thomson,
    Interactive Media,
    Natural History Museum

  3. good points and the details are more precise than elsewhere, thanks.

    - Norman

  4. I LOVE your plants page! I am a current botany student, and we are learning drawing our plants and identification, more about plant families, and I have taken interest in ethnobotany and edible wild plants. This is an excellent page to share with the class. We have a class blog on Wordpress. My blogs are peachyhiker on both wordpress and at