Edible plants should never be overlooked as a possible food source in a survival situation.
By knowing which plants in your area are edible and which are poisonous, you’ll have an opportunity to obtain more calories and nutrition outside of what you’ll be able to consume from hunting, fishing, or trapping.
It can make a world of a difference to have a little bit of substance in your stomach and some calories to expend for energy. It could just keep you moving forward until your next successful hunt. And that makes all the difference.
However, you must be knowledgeable about the edible plants in your area to avoid being poisoned. Some edible plants in the wild can look very similar to poisonous plants.
Even if you think you know what plant you’re eating, you should still perform a universal edibility test to make sure everything is completely safe.
How to Know if a Plant is Edible or Poisonous
According to the United States Army, you can tell if a wild plant is edible or poisonous by performing a Universal Edibility Test.
A Universal Edibility Test is a simple procedure that’s performed over 24+ hours where you go step by step to find out if a plant is poisonous or not.
Before you perform a Universal Edibility Test, make sure there’s an abundance of the plant you’re testing in your area to make it worth it. If there’s only a limited amount of the plant in your area then it’s probably not worth the time and effort.
You should also avoid eating large amounts of edible plants at one time, especially on an empty stomach. Eating too much of a certain edible plant can lead to negative side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, or cramping. Even if the plant is safe it should be eaten in moderation.
Before I explain the process of the Universal Edibility Test, you first need to be aware of the common signs that a plant could be poisonous. This list is directly from the Official U.S. Army Edible Plants Guide.
Avoid any plants that have these features:
- Bitter or soapy taste
- Milky or discolored sap
- Spines, fine hairs, or thorns
- Three-leaved growth pattern
- Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods
- Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley-like foliage
- “Almond” scent in woody parts and leaves
- Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs
Any plant that has one or more of these qualities should not be tested in the Universal Edibility Testing phase. These plants should be completely avoided as they could be toxic to the touch.
How to Perform a Universal Edibility Test
You should only perform a Universal Edibility Test on wild plants that you’re practically certain are safe to eat. If you don’t have a reason to believe a certain plant is edible, then avoid eating it.
If you need help identifying edible plants in the wild, get yourself a local guide on the edible plants in your area. Make sure the book has good images of the plants that are easy to view. Avoid hand-drawn images.
- Smell the plant for strong or unpleasing odors
- Separate every part of the plant including the stems, leaves, roots, buds, and flowers.
- Don’t eat anything for 8 hours before starting the test
- Place a small piece of the plant part you’re testing on the inside of your elbow or wrist. Wait 15 minutes and see if there is a negative reaction.
- Take the plant part and prepare it the way you plan to eat it. If eating raw then skip this step.
- Take a small portion of the plant and temporarily place it on the outside of your lip to test for burning or itching.
- If there is no reaction on your lip after 3 minutes of touching the plant then place a small piece of the plant part on your tongue for 15 minutes. Do not swallow.
- If there is no negative reaction after 15 minutes, place a larger piece of the same plant part in your mouth for 15 more minutes. Chew thoroughly at first to break up the plant.
- If there is no itching, burning, numbing, stinging, or other negative reactions during the 15 minutes, swallow the plant part.
- Wait 8 hours and see what happens. If you feel any ill effects during this period, induce vomiting and drink plenty of water.
- If there is no negative reaction, eat a larger amount of the same plant part (such as a ¼ cup) and wait 8 more hours to see if anything happens. If there are no negative effects, the plant part is safe to eat the way you prepared it.
- Just because a plant is safe to eat cooked doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat raw. Additionally, just because one part of a plant is safe to eat doesn’t mean the rest of the plant is safe to eat. You’ll have to perform the Universal Edibility Test on each plant part you plan to eat.
Now that you know how to tell if a plant is edible or poisonous, let’s learn about the 10 most common edible plants you can find in the wilderness.
5 Common Edible Plants in the Wild
With so many edible plants in the wild, you can greatly improve your chances of survival if you take your time to find out the most common edible plants in your area. Here’s a list of the 10 most common edible plants in North America.
Cattails are commonly referred to as the “supermarket of the swamp” as it’s the closest thing to a supermarket that you can find in the swamp. Cattails can be used as a food source, a medicine, and even as a source of cordage.
There’s even evidence that our ancestors from Europe ate Cattails over 30,000 years ago!
Here are some of the most common ways to eat a cattail.
- Remove the young stems and have them boiled or eaten raw
- Clean off the roots and then have them boiled, baked, or broiled.
- Squeeze out the tender shoots before the plant flowers and cook them or eat them raw.
- Cut off the lower parts of the leaves and eat them raw. You can even use them in a salad.
- Mix the yellow pollen with water to make dough or use it as a thickener in recipes that use flour.
- When the flowers are still young you can boil them, butter them up, and eat them like corn on the cob.
- Dig up the plant and remove the sprouts on the end of the roots. Once removed and cleaned, you can then peel them and eat them raw, or you can cook them like a potato. They can also be dried out and pounded into flour.
Besides being a great food source, cattails are further loved by herbalists and survivalists because of the clear slimy goo that’s found on the inner layer of the stems. This clear slimy goo can be used as a medicine as it’s a natural antiseptic and analgesic.
Another reason that survivalists love cattail is because it can be used to create cordage for basket weaving, thatching, and much more.
Just make sure to avoid harvesting cattails from stagnant or polluted water as they are known to absorb impurities from the water. This is why cattails are often referred to as Mother Nature’s natural water filter.
Here is a good video explaining some of the different ways you can eat a cattail plant.
How to Identify Cattails: Cattails are amongst the most common aquatic plants in the world. Cattails grow anywhere there is shallow freshwater, although it typically grows best in wetlands as the water is shallow enough for them to grow in.
It’s easy to identify cattails as they shoot straight up out of the ground (or water) and will often have that infamous brown cigar-shaped flower at the top of the plant. Most of the time there will also be a smaller male flower on top of the female cigar-shaped flower.
The leaves on a cattail plant are ½ to ¾ inches wide and sort of resemble a bright-green sword that grows straight out of the ground and then curls up at the end. If you look closely at the long blade-shaped leaves you’ll notice that one side is fairly flat and the other side is completely rounded.
Benefits of Cattail: Cattails are a great source of nutrition. Their stalk shoots alone contain calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B, C, and K. Whereas cattail roots contain a high amount of starchy carbohydrates.
To use cattail for its medicinal properties, simply pull apart the stems and collect the clear jelly located inside. This clear jelly is a natural antiseptic and analgesic, meaning it can be used to keep wounds clean, while at the same time relieving pain and inflammation. It can treat cuts, bruises, sunburns, bug bites, toothaches, and much more!
Cattail jelly can also be used to slow down blood flow and prevent anemia. This can be extremely useful if you’re wounded and losing blood, but it can also be helpful if you or someone you know is suffering from heavy menstrual bleeding.
You can also use cattail to create cordage. While it may not be the strongest cordage ever made, it’s certainly strong enough for bow drills, fishing nets, basket weaving, thatching, etc.
Here’s a good video that explains the process of creating cordage with cattail.
Dangerous Plants that Resemble Cattails: The one toxic plant that resembles cattail is the yellow iris, or Iris pseudacorus. The reason you have to worry about mistaking cattail with yellow iris is that it grows in all of the same locations that cattail grows in.
While it may not have the long brown flower head that you commonly see on cattails, it does have that appearance that sort of resembles a long blade of grass. Here are some of the common differences between cattail and yellow iris.
|Outside Leaf Color||Blue-green||Emerald green|
|Inside Leaf Colors||Green||Green or Purple & Green|
|Leaf Tip||Rounded or Bullet Shape||Pointed|
|Bottom Leaf Shape||Rounded||Elliptical|
|Top Leaf Shape||Crescent||Diamond|
Of course, the best way to tell the difference between cattails and Iris is to look for the cigar-like flower on the end of the plant. If the flower hasn’t bloomed yet, you can always tear the plant open and look for the color purple. If you see purple, that’s a sign that it’s an Iris plant. A yellow or purple flower is another dead giveaway that the plant is an Iris.
If you accidentally consume yellow iris instead of cattail, it could result in skin irritation, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and(or) abdominal pain. However, if you’ve eaten cattail before, you should be able to instantly tell you’re not eating cattail once you begin to chew on yellow iris. This is because the texture of yellow iris is far denser than cattail.
Because the texture of yellow iris is so different from cattail, most people will quickly spit it out once they realize they’ve made a mistake. While not ingesting yellow iris will help negate gastrointestinal issues, it doesn’t prevent the burning sensation in your mouth and throat and all of the tiny blisters that come with it.
Here’s a blog post from Buzzard Bushcraft that explains in greater detail the difference between yellow iris and cattail.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed is a common edible plant that can be found all over the United States, Europe, and much of the world. You may even find chickweed growing in your yard or garden as it’s a common weed that grows well in nitrogen-rich soil. Hence why it’s commonly found in gardens.
Chickweed is a great edible plant to find in the wild as you can eat the entire plant raw (except for the roots) or cook it in a pan like spinach. Just make sure not to cook chickweed for too long as it can easily overcook and lose its nutritional value. 5 minutes of cooking time is perfect.
If you do stumble upon some chickweed in the wild, try not to consume too much at one time as chickweed contains large quantities of saponins that could easily upset your stomach and possibly cause you to experience nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting.
Some even report getting an upset stomach from eating a small amount of chickweed, which is why you should always consume a small amount of the plant the first time you eat it.
How to Identify Chickweed: Chickweed grows in large tangled patches that are low to the ground and has pointy oval-shaped leaves that grow opposite each other. As the plant matures, the leaves will begin to grow larger and become ruffled.
An easy way to identify chickweed is to look for a single line of fine hairs on the stem of the plant. These fine hairs will completely change direction at each node on the stem. And if you break the stem open with your fingernails, you will notice an elastic cord underneath.
During spring and summer, small 5-petal flowers will begin to bloom on chickweed that has deep notching to make it appear as if the flower has 10 petals.
Benefits of Chickweed: Chickweed is a highly nutritional plant that has both cooling and cleansing properties. This means you can use chickweed to reduce inflammation and eradicate germs at the same time!
You can achieve the health and nutritional benefits of chickweed by eating the plant, but you can also drink chickweed in the form of a tincture by chopping it up and mixing it with alcohol. You can also use chickweed as a poultice to topically treat wounds and skin conditions.
Here are some of the skin conditions that chickweed can treat.
- Diaper rash
- Insect bites
Here are some of the health problems that chickweed can treat.
- Peptic ulcers
- Menstrual pain
- Respiratory problems
Many people even recommend using chickweed as a weight-loss supplement or as a blood cleanser. Chickweed can also be consumed as a way to add some nutrition to your survival diet.
Chickweed contains vitamins C, D, and B-complex, plus an abundance of healthy minerals including beta carotene, biotin, calcium, iron, magnesium, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), phosphorus, potassium, and zinc.
Dangerous Plants that Resemble Chickweed: Prostrate spurge (Euphorbia supina) and spotted spurge (E. maculata) are both commonly mistaken for chickweed as each plant grows low to the ground and has leaves that grow opposite of each other. You have to be careful when harvesting chickweed as both the prostrate spurge and spotted spurge plant can grow side by side with chickweed and possibly be intertwined with one another.
An easy way to tell the difference between chickweed and the prostrate or spotted spurge is to look for the single row of tiny white hairs on the stem of the plant. If the hair completely covers the stem then you know the plant is a spurge and not chickweed.
You can also tell the difference by cutting the stem of the plant. If you notice a white, milky sap oozing from the stem after being cut, then you know the plant is either a prostrate or spotted spurge.
The side effects of ingesting prostrate or spotted spurge are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If a spurge plant touches your skin and is then exposed to sunlight, you may experience redness, swelling, or blisters on your skin.
Another plant that appears similar to chickweed is the scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis). Once again, the scarlet pimpernel grows low to the ground and has opposite leaves, but is missing that single row of fine white hairs that are found on chickweed. You can also identify the scarlet pimpernel by looking for the tiny red flower that blooms on the plant between June and September.
The negative side effects of consuming scarlet pimpernel are constipation, headaches, skin inflammation, staggering movement, kidney problems, and nausea.
Curly Dock (Rumex crispus)
Curly dock, often referred to as yellow dock, is an edible plant that grows all over the United States, Europe, and every Canadian province except for Nunavut.
The entire plant of curly dock can be eaten raw or cooked, including the leaves, roots, stems, and seeds. Just make sure not to consume too much at one time as curly dock contains high levels of oxalic acid. This is what gives curly dock its lemony flavor.
The problem with oxalic acid is that it prohibits the body from properly absorbing calcium. Due to this side effect, it can lead to the formation of kidney stones in some individuals if consumed in large quantities. This can be extremely dangerous in a survival situation. If you suffer from kidney stones, you may want to avoid this plant altogether.
However, if you don’t suffer from kidney stones and only consume curly dock in moderation, you should be okay. It also doesn’t hurt that curly dock is loaded with beneficial fiber and vitamins A and C. All of which are great for survival.
The best time of the year to harvest curly dock would be during early spring when the plant is still young and hasn’t flowered. As the plant begins to age, the leaves will slowly turn sour and eventually become inedible. The stems will remain edible for a short while after the flavor of the leaves has become unbearable, but you’ll want to peel off the outside layer of the stem to get to the more tender, edible core.
Even if the plant hasn’t flowered yet, the best-tasting leaves will be the young leaves that are all curled up and a bit slimy. Slime isn’t a bad thing though. It’s when the leaves are slimy that they’re best eaten raw. Although you can still eat the older leaves if you don’t mind the bitter taste.
You can also consume the seeds of curly dock after the plant has flowered. Separating the seeds from the chaff isn’t easy though, so you’ll probably want to grind them together to make flour. This flour can be used to make dock crackers, dock cookies, dock bread, and anything else you can make with flour. Since curly dock is a distant relative of buckwheat, it can be used for virtually all of the same recipes. Just prepare for a more bitter, lemony taste!
How to Identify Curly Dock: Curly dock is a perennial plant, meaning it grows year after year in the same location. This means you can identify a curly dock plant grown during a previous year by looking for the 1-4 foot tall rustic brown stalk covered with tiny brown flowers and seeds. Of course, this stalk will turn green again during spring, but as summer drags on the stalk, flowers, and seeds will transform to rustic brown once again.
However, if the curly dock only recently started growing this year, it may not have had time to flower yet. This means you will have to look at its leaves to properly identify them.
The leaves of a curly dock plant are elongated and will typically have curly edges. Although this is not always the case. Curly dock leaves also appear to grow right out of the ground, but if you look closely you will see a papery sheath surrounding the bottom of the stems. If you look even closer at the papery sheath you will notice a slimy, mucilaginous substance. This is the same slimy substance that you’ll find on younger curly dock leaves.
Another way to identify curly dock is to dig up the plant and chop up its roots. If the inside of the root has a yellowish color then that’s another good sign the plant is a curly dock. Hence the nickname yellow dock.
Benefits of Curly Dock: Curly dock is a nutritional plant that contains a high amount of fiber and vitamins A and C. Curly dock is also loaded with healthy minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and phosphorus.
While the leaves of curly dock are responsible for most of the nutritional benefits, the roots contain most of the medicinal benefits. You can make a curly dock tea or tincture out of the roots to help aid digestion, stop constipation, reduce internal inflammation, stimulate urination, and much more.
The roots can also be dried and used as a powder – or better yet mashed and used as a poultice or salve – to help treat sores, ulcers, wounds, and inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and nettle rash.
You can also mash the leaves into a poultice and use it to soothe the pain from blisters, insect bites, insect stings, scalds, stinging nettle, and much more.
Dangerous Plants that Resemble Curly Dock: Fortunately, there are no dangerous plants that resemble curly dock. The only plants that look like curly dock are other species of the burdock plant.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelions are an edible plant that can be found growing in the wild and on lawns all over North America, Europe, and Asia. Typically recognized for its bright yellow flower, the dandelion is another plant loved by survivalists for its nutritional and medicinal benefits.
The entire plant of dandelion can be eaten raw or cooked, although the best leaves to eat raw are the younger and greener leaves at the center of the plant. It’s also best to harvest dandelions during springtime while the plant is still young. As the plant gets older, the leaves will begin to become more bitter tasting. Although you can always cook the dandelion to remove some of the bitterness.
The best way to cook dandelion is to either sauté the leaves in a pan or chop them up and use them as a substitute for spinach. And while the flower petals can be eaten raw as well, they’re often used to create dandelion tea or are infused with olive oil to make a lotion or salve. The roots of dandelion are typically dried and crushed up to make a substitute for coffee.
How to Identify Dandelion: The best way to identify a dandelion is by its bright and yellow flower petals or its white and puffy seed balls (known as a pappus) that easily blow into the wind. If you look closely at the white seed balls they sort of resemble tiny parachutes made of feathers.
Both the yellow flower and the pappus can grow side by side with each other, but the flower will always grow first. After a couple of days, the thin flower petals will eventually dry up and fall off and a pappus will then grow in its place. You will typically find that dandelions bloom between May and October, but dandelions can bloom all year long (depending on the weather).
Another way to identify dandelions is to look at how many stems the plant has. Unlike other plants with yellow flowers, the dandelion only grows one stem at a time. This means that only one flower or pappus can grow at a time. However, the leaves on a dandelion can continue to grow if the stem is removed.
The next way to identify a dandelion is to look at its leaves. Dandelion leaves are typically deep green and have a jagged shape that resembles the teeth of a lion. A young dandelion leaf should also be hairless. Whereas catear (a plant that closely resembles dandelion) will be covered with hairs and have a fuzzy appearance.
Benefits of Dandelion: Dandelions are one of the most nutritional edible plants in the wild. Their leaves are packed with essential vitamins such as vitamins A, C, and K and important minerals for your health such as calcium, iron, copper, phosphorus, potassium, and manganese.
In addition, dandelions contain small amounts of vitamins E and B and are rich in beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant that helps with maintaining healthy vision, immunity, and more. Dandelions also contain a variety of medicinal benefits that could prove helpful for survivalists with health problems.
Here are some of the medical benefits of consuming dandelion:
- Supports the liver
- Improves eczema
- Detoxifies the body
- Regulates digestion
- Reduces cholesterol
- Acts as a mild laxative
- Lowers blood sugar levels
- Decreases blood pressure
These medical benefits can be received from either eating the leaves of a dandelion or drinking dandelion tea. You can also use the stem of a dandelion to remove a wart.
Dangerous Plants that Resemble Dandelions: Fortunately, all of the plants that resemble dandelions are non-toxic and even safe to consume. These edible plants include catsear, sow thistle, and wild lettuce.
While catsear and sow thistle both have yellow flowers that are similar in appearance to dandelions, neither have hollow stems or leaves that look like the teeth of a lion. The leaves on catsear will be covered in small hairs (like a cat’s ear) and the leaves on sow thistle will look more like spades.
Wild lettuce has a yellow flower that’s also similar in appearance to dandelions, but the leaves can be prickly and there’s a long central stalk that the leaves are connected to. You can also tell the difference between dandelions and catsear, sow thistle, and wild lettuce by looking at how many flowers are growing on each stem. If there are multiple flowers per stem, then the plant is not a dandelion. Dandelions can only grow one flower per stem.
It’s hard to find a wild plant more loved by survivalists than the plantain. I’m not talking about the fruit plantain either, but the edible plant plantain known as broadleaf or narrowleaf plantain.
These two species of plantain are by far the most common in North America, but there are many other variations of plantain in the wild as well. All of them are edible and have medicinal properties.
Plantain was originally brought to North America during the 1500s when settlers from Europe first migrated to what’s now known as the United States. Native Americans referred to this plant as “white man’s foot” as it showed up everywhere white people migrated.
You will typically find plantain growing in large patches between early spring and late fall. It may not be the best-tasting edible plant in the world, but it does have a wide array of medical uses that are helpful for survivalists. This plant can be used to treat burns, cuts, wounds (gunshot or knife), coughs, bites, stings, digestion problems, and much more.
You can eat the young leaves of plantain raw, but if you want to eat the older leaves you may want to steam, saute, or boil them to make them more palatable. It’s also wise to remove the fibrous strands inside of the stem to make the plantain easier to consume. This way you don’t have to expend extra energy on chewing.
The seeds of plantain can be eaten raw as well, although they’re better tasting when cooked or ground into flour. Plantain seeds can also be used for their medicinal properties. Simply remove the husks from the seeds, grind them down, and then mix the plantain flour with oil and gently cook it in a pan to create a soothing salve.
How to Identify Plantain: An easy way to identify plantain is by the long parallel veins on its leaves. While the shape of the leaf can vary depending on which species of plantain you’re looking at, all species of plantain have those long parallel veins and ribbed texture.
The next step to identifying plantains is to look at the shape of their leaves. While broadleaf plantains have a broad or oval shape to them, narrowleaf plantains are narrow sare far more narrow. Both species of plantain will have leaves that are smooth and wavy (with no serrations).
Here are some more ways to identify plantain:
- Grows up to a foot tall
- Has a basal rosette pattern
- Can produce up to 20,000 tiny oval-shaped seeds
- Can grow several flower stems at a time
- Leaves are darker green on top and lighter green on the bottom
However, my favorite way to identify plantain is to crush the outside layer of a stem and locate the stringy threads underneath. Skip to 4:06 on the video below to see what I’m referring to.
Pretty cool, right?
Benefits of Plantain: Eating plantains is great for your health in a survival situation as they’re high in calcium and vitamins A, C, and K. However, what makes plantain stand out from the other edible plants on this list is the large number of medicinal uses it has.
One of the most useful medical benefits of plantains for survivalists is that it works as an astringent so they can be used to draw out impurities from your body. By simply chewing on some plantain leaves for a few seconds you can make a poultice and then place it on a cut, scrape, bite, sting (plant or insect), or wound, and it will help soothe the pain, draw out the impurities, and even heal the wound.
This medical benefit alone is why plantains are one of the best edible plants for survivalists, preppers, and outdoors enthusiasts.
Let’s say you’re in the backcountry and need to relieve the pain from a bee sting, insect bite, or stinging nettle, simply cover it up with a plantain poultice and it will reduce the inflammation, block the microbial growth, and even relieve the pain. If you ever need to treat a knife or gunshot wound and can’t access a doctor, you can use a plantain poultice for that as well.
Here’s a list of the medical benefits of plantain leaves.
- Aids digestion
- Relieves sore throat
- Reduces inflammation
- Accelerates wound healing
- Improves respiratory health (asthma, coughing, bronchitis)
Plantain seeds can also be used for medicinal purposes as they contain psyllium – the main ingredient in laxatives.
Dangerous Plants that Resemble Plantains: Another reason the plantain is a favorite amongst survivalists is that there are no poisonous plants that resemble it. This means if you find a plant in the wild that looks like a plantain, it’s probably a plantain!