10 Plants You Can Eat to Survive in the Wild (slideshow)
May 21, 2014
Stranded in the wilderness? Here's a handy guide to the plants you can eat to survive
Amaranth is a weed that looks a lot like pigweed, and is a tall, upright, broad-leafed plant that grows all-year round. It comes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The leaves can be round or lance-shaped, measure from five to fifteen centimeters long, and have a light green, dark green, reddish, or variegated color. The seeds are usually white, yellow, pink or black and the flowers can be huge tassels or tiny globes, with a red, pink, yellow or cream color.
Amaranth is kind of leafy vegetable and grain that’s actually been eaten for centuries all over the world. Amaranth seeds have been used since ancient times in Central and Latin America and in the countries of the Himalayas, and the leaves are used across Asia. Most green-leaved varieties are popular in India and other places. The Chinese prefer their amaranth red-leaved and amaranth grain once was a staple in the diets of pre-Columbian Aztecs.
Amaranth seeds, in particular, have a much higher content of the minerals calcium, magnesium, iron and of the amino acid Lysine. It’s actually much higher in nutrients than beets, Swiss chard and spinach. Also, amaranth leaves contain three times more calcium and three times more niacin (vitamin B3) than spinach leaves.
Burdock is mostly considered a stout, common weed with annoying burrs that stick to animal fur and clothing. This plant grows relatively tall therefore having deep roots which are brownish green, or nearly black on the outside. It has a basal rosette of leaves that stays close to the ground the first year and the beginning of the second — these can grow up to a meter wide.
Burdock is an interesting biennial plant because it consists primarily of carbohydrates, volatile oils, plant sterols, tannins, and fatty oils. Researchers aren't sure which active ingredients in burdock root are responsible for its healing properties, but this plant may have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects. In fact, recent studies show that burdock contains phenolic acids, quercetin and luteolin, which are all are powerful antioxidants.
Better known as bullrush, this plant is easily recognizable by its brown cigar-shaped head that stands atop a very long, stout stalk. Young shoots first emerge in spring and once fertilized, the female flowers transform into the familiar brown "cigars" also called candlewicks that consist of thousands of tiny developing seeds. Bullrush is one of the most important and most common wild foods that also boast a variety of uses at different times of the year — it can be used to make mats, baskets, and the cigar-shaped head can even be used as packing material. Dipping the head in oil or fat, they can be used as torches.
Aboriginals used the roots to make flour (high in protein and carbohydrates) and the fluffy wool of the head was used as diapers because of its softness and absorbency. These “cigar-heads” are also excellent fire started. The tight heads are often dry inside even after a heavy rain, making this essential survival tinder. Inside the stalks of fresh shoots is tasty food that can be eaten as is, sautéed or tossed into a stir fry.
If you’re stranded in the wild and hungry then running into a field of clover would definitely be a stroke of luck… mostly because this wild plant is 100 percent edible. Clover leaves are delicious in salads or as juices, and are also a valuable survival food as they’re high in protein, are widespread and plentiful in most parts of the world. They are not easy to digest raw, but this can be easily fixed by juicing them. The clover dried flower heads and seed pods can also be ground up into nutritious flour and mixed with other foods. The dried flower heads can also be steeped in hot water for a healthy, tasty tea.
Chickweed is one of those weeds we’re used to seeing spring up everywhere — your backyard lawn, between cracks in the pavement, in you flowerbeds, and especially in the wild. It’s wild and edible and grows all year round and is hardy despite its delicate appearance. Chickweed is an easy-to-grow plant that’s healthy to eat and it produces flowers throughout the growing season even in hot, dry conditions; it’s multi-functional because its presence decreases insect damage to other plants. This plant has a lot of health benefits and is full of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients.
Remember when you played with dandelions as kids, with those delicate yellow (or white) feather-like flower heads that flew off into the wind with a gust of air? Less endearingly they’re also a weed and the scourge of many a lawn perfectionist: anyone who ever had a front yard will recognize those barbed leaves and cherubic yellow flowers. But don’t wipe them out with weed killers, just eat them instead. Dandelion leaves are packed with vitamin A, vitamin C, and beta carotene. The blooming flowers can be made into a great homemade wine, too (if you’re stranded for a while and have time to kill).
At one point fireweed (also known as great willowherb in parts of Canada, or rosebay willowherb in the U.K) was actually considered a rare species, though now it’s found all over the world and is regarded as a common weed. It particularly thrives in wet and slightly acidic soils in open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over lands (hence the name). Fireweed has reddish stems which stand straight at around one and a half to eight feet high and has a scattered and alternate leaf pattern. Its radially symmetrical flowers have four magenta (or pink) petals. Fireweed’s leaves are particularly unique with circular veins and do not terminate on the edges of the leaf, but form circular loops and join together inside the outer leaf margins. This feature makes the plants very easy to identify in all stages of growth. When fireweed first emerges in early spring, it can closely resemble several highly toxic members of the lily family, however, it is easily identified by its unique leaf vein structure.
Young firewood shoots were often collected in the spring by Native American people and mixed with other greens. As the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. The southeast Native Americans use the stems in this stage. They are peeled and eaten raw. When properly prepared soon after picking they are a good source of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A.
Stranded at the beach and need to find food to survive? Seaweed is likely to be your most obvious, easy-to-harvest food source and is full of nutrients and minerals. An important note: not all seaweed is edible. Seaweed washed up on shore can be old and rotting and could make you sick. So could certain kinds of brown seaweed (they could give you a bad tummy ache), and seaweed found with blue algae should be avoided too (green-blue algae is poisonous). The best seaweed is eaten green and fresh from the ocean, stream, or river.
Although purslane is mostly considered a weed in the United States, it can also be eaten as a tasty leafy vegetable, though it has a slightly sour and salty taste. It is consumed throughout much of Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Mexico. Purslanes’s stems, leaves and flower buds are all edible, which makes it useful in a salad, stir-fried, or cooked as spinach is, and because of its mucilaginous quality it also is suitable for soups and stews. Purslane contains more omega-3 fatty acids any other leafy vegetable plant, which should keep you going for a while if you’re stranded in the wild.
Wood sorrel is an illustrious (if slightly mythical) backstory — it is rumored to be the plant that Saint Patrick used to illustrate the Trinity to the ancient Irish people as it is distinguished by its clover-like leaves, arranged alternately along the stem, divided into 3 heart-shaped leaflets. Aside from this, wood sorrel is also a versatile edible weed too. It is sour, but pleasantly so (that is, not bitter), and is high in vitamin C. It’s also handy if you’re dehydrated because the root system, seed pods and leaves are all edible and are juicy enough to serve as a water source. Though fair warning: wood sorrel is also an effective diuretic and so shouldn’t be consumed in high quantities as it could end up doing the opposite and dehydrating you instead. Its diuretic qualities though do make it good for soothing an achy belly, relieve indigestion, encourage an appetite, and quell vomiting.