“Need To Know” Rules When Picking Edible & Medicinal Plants

Categories: Nature


Next to mastering fire, a knowledge of plants is considered one of the most difficult, complex and one of the truer signs of being a genuine expert in survival.  There are other skills like hunting, fishing and trapping that are good marks of a woodsman and skills like navigation, orienteering and terrain association that are standard fair for an outdoor adventurer.

But mankind has always had an interest in the plant world as even now, we are constantly learning about seemingly miraculous properties of plants through science that still feel like some sort of magic to most. And indeed, plants can be magical, but they can also be deadly.

Perhaps that is why so many people have a fear of them when it comes to survival. We see plants all around us, every day, but most of us do not know what most of them are. We may know a few from our personal experience but most people could not name 100 different plants that surround them daily and they have grown up with all their lives. It makes sense as there are literally millions of plants, it becomes a daunting task to learn them all.

Likewise, for most of us, we simply do not have the need to know them. We get our food from cans, boxes and stores. A few folks may have a garden or even a farm, but most folks simply buy their food, including their fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices even their flowers and house plants. With this distance from the source and our roots (pun intended) it is even easier to understand why folks would be afraid about plants in a survival situation.

Face it, in a real survival situation, you are already, lost, cold, wet, tired, hungry, thirsty and scared. Now, are you going to start eating something you’re not sure about and never did before and you know this could kill you and that people do die every year from eating poisonous plants? So, the fear is real and reasonable. But like anything in survival and life, we have to break it down into small steps we can handle and before long, we’ll have it mastered and have the confidence that comes with skills acquired through training and familiarization.

I try to teach everything in the simplest terms I can as that helps me to remember not only what to teach when in a dynamic scenario, but it also helps me personally to remember when in a stressful situation. Likewise, I know from years of experience in combat, that when people start dying and death is happening or very possible if not likely or imminent, then we all tend to get scared and the higher thought processes begin to shut down and focus on survival instincts. The paradox here is that this is the very thing that can likely get you killed.

Fear in survival is a lot like an allergic reaction- it is a paradox. When for example, a bee stings us, we may have been stung before with no response, but for whatever reason, the body reacts to this sting. It in fact, scientifically, over reacts to the point of inflammation of the airways, resulting in airway obstruction and ending with fatal asphyxiation. This hyper-reaction as basic and as common as it is, is still a mystery to science. We can easily manage it, but we do not fully understand why the body responds in an attempt to help the body with a result of killing the body. The same is true of fear. It leads to panic, panic is stress which shuts down our higher thoughts and the result is, instead of thinking our way through and surviving, we stop thinking and end up not surviving.

So, first, one of the basic tenets of all survival, is vanquish fear. The best way to do that is with some knowledge. So how does one build up knowledge with such a vast, almost impossible task of learning all the plants that are around us for survival purposes?

This is an especially poignant question when we know that folks like Botanists spend their entire lives dedicated to the study of plants and never learn them all. So, how can we, as parents and regular working people, ever hope to know what we need, for that rare occasion when we might actually be surviving and need it? The key is stream lining, or simplifying.

The main thing you have to start out with is setting realistic goals and expectations. There is no way you can learn all the plants in the world. That’s a good start. The next thing is to realize that you don’t need to know them all. I use some simple figures to put it into perspective. These are not scientifically proven, yet, as I don’t think anyone has ever had need to do this type of study, but here are my guidelines for plant edibility versus animal edibility.

90% of all animals are edible for humans.

Only 10% of all plants are edible for humans.

Again, I know these are not the finite facts, but think about it, in the absence of a report on the global edibility of everything, does this not resonate? Anyone with common sense and a bit of world knowledge can come to the same deduction, I can eat almost every type of animal and even insect, bird or fish, or reptile with few exceptions. BUT, I know most plants I can not eat, such as trees or bushes, vines or roots, all for one reason or another, maybe too fibrous and hard, or too noxious or toxic. That is why the few plants we can consume as humans, are so highly cultivated, farmed and used by man kind.

I say all that to say this, you simply don’t need to master all the world’s plants, you only need master a few. Here are some guidelines I help use to help myself determine which plants to dedicate some time to learning, and even mastering.

1)    Make sure any plant you decide to learn and master is IDENTIFIABLE. I always look to see if there are any poisonous plants that look like a potential plant I want to learn. For example, cow parsley has a poisonous look-alike called poison parsley that requires a refined eye to differentiate. It’s simple enough if you study but a mistake can be disastrous. I tend to steer away from any plants that have poisonous look-a-likes, unless they simply are so abundantly around me, I could not logically forego mastering the identification of them.

2)    That is the next determining factor before I decide to dedicate time to studying a plant as potential for an emergency or survival food source- abundance. Is the plant PLENTIFUL? Meaning, are there lots of it about? It does little good to know the identity and edibility of some plant if it is so rare, you are likely never to encounter it, especially when needed most in desperate times.  So make sure there are lots and lots of it about.

3)    The other key to helping narrow down your choices of plants to master is DISPERSION. If the plant is only found in one region, or on one mountain or valley, chances are you won’t be in a hurt box in that specific location. And if you were, likely those plants would indicate where you are and you could then find your way out! The key here is how widely distributed are the plants? Are they found all over the world? Are they growing everywhere? These are crucial to the survivor as you want to make sure you have mastered a few plants and that the mastery will pay off in that when you need, you will find, because they are indeed, all over the place.

  • So Remember: D.I.P. (Distribution, ID, Plentiful?).

Now that we have QUALIFIED the screening criteria let us take a D.I.P. into the world of QUANTIFYING our survival plant mastery stratagem.

I like simple numbers, so I use 12 here for plants. My recommendation for how many to learn is this:

MASTER 6 to 10 EDIBLE plants based on the criteria above and 2-6 MEDICINAL.

Choose these from which ever environment is most important and likely to you for need-

Home region, Work place, Travel Areas or anywhere you think you might need this knowledge. Most folks live and work in the same region but some people travel to remote areas for work and need that knowledge in case of emergencies while there.

Some great plants to learn come in many variations, sometimes in over a hundred different forms, but they all basically are from the same family, look alike enough to be easily and readily identified and eaten almost year round in some form or another.

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