A Beginner's Guide To Wild Edible And Medicinal Plants
Learning to identify and use wild edible and medicinal plants can seem like a daunting task. Many people who would like to learn these basic skills are discouraged by the perceived difficulties involved in learning this very ancient skill – this need not be so!
In this article we will discuss how to begin, what books and tools you will require, how to go about choosing, finding, and collecting wild edible plants, and what some of the things are that you can do to ease any concerns you may have. With a little patience and some knowledge, just about anyone can learn to identify, collect, prepare, and use wild edible and medicinal plants.
How To Begin
You should begin by learning to identify about twenty of the more frequently encountered species and concentrate on those until you are able to recognize them on-site and have become familiar with them, where they occur, and how to collect and prepare them. Start with a plant that you are already somewhat familiar with and then slowly add other plants.
When you think you have identified a particular edible or medicinal plant you should go over it's identification several times and pay close attention to the characteristics which distinguish it from plants found in the surrounding environment, especially any poisonous look-a-likes. You should follow these plants through their various stages of growth, taking notes (start a journal), and repeating the process for the first few years until you have become comfortable identifying these plants during all seasons. This is important as plant recognition becomes much more difficult in the fall, winter, and spring when flowers are not available for proper species identification.
You should know when and how to find a particular plant (where it will occur), why a plant grows a certain way and in a certain area, what to do with the plant after it has been identified (how to collect and prepare it), and what some of the more common plants are which are associated with it.
Be sure to start a journal which details as much information about a particular plant as you feel is necessary, and consider joining an online foraging community.
What You'll Need
You will require certain materials and information to begin finding and collecting wild edible and medicinal plants. At least three well illustrated field identification guides specific to your region should be acquired. You will also want to obtain a list of some of the more common edible and medicinal plants found in your area as well as the poisonous plants which are located in that same region.
Consider purchasing or making illustrated charts for leaf shapes, plant anatomy, and other useful guides to help in plant identification. You might also wish to obtain or create a botanical glossary to aid you in understanding some of the technical terms you will come across.
It would also be wise—depending on how much you intend to learn—to identify who the native people are or were within your local area (Cherokee, Iroquoi, etc.) and to study the ethnobotany (the relation of plants and their uses to a specific culture) of those native people.
Finally, you will wish to gather some tools useful in the collection and preparation of wild edible and medicinal plants such as: a knife, gardening gloves, a trowel, bags, baskets, scissors, mortar and pestle, and storage jars.
Finding Edible Wild Plants
It is always a good idea to get a brief overview of the plant you are interested in identifying and harvesting before heading into the field. Each plant has it's own specific habitat which is determined by several factors. Understanding a plant's natural environment such as soil composition, sunlight, moisture, and neighboring plants is essential in locating and identifying a specific species.
The best way to get started is to choose one of the more common edible or medicinal wild plants found in your area to find, identify, harvest, and prepare. Once you have decided upon a specific species you should make certain that it is in season (the best time for identification) and that you have determined it's habitat before setting out to find it.
Lastly, you will need to know what parts of the plant to harvest. Generally, plant parts should be collected as follows: leaves and shoots in the spring and summer, seeds and fruit in the fall, and roots in the winter.
About Poisonous Plants
It is recommended that you acquire and familiarize yourself with a list of poisonous plants specific to your region. A list of commonly encountered poisonous plants which are found in your area can usually be obtained from your local department of conservation, and poison plant identification guides are also available at most public libraries and book stores.
In general, there are ten basic rules you should follow to make certain that your experience with wild edible and medicinal plants is safe and enjoyable:
Learn to recognize and avoid plants in your area which are poisonous, or which might cause you to have an allergic response.
Do not allow children to put plants in their mouths, and do not put any plant in your mouth unless you have positively identified it as safe for consumption.
Never use or consume a plant which you cannot positively identify as safe for the purpose you intend to use it for.
Be absolutely certain of any plant parts to be collected, when to collect them, and how to prepare them before doing so.
Never use or ingest a contaminated plant. Plants growing in contaminated water, containing mold or fungus, growing near roadways, or which have been sprayed with insecticides should be avoided.
Never assume a plant is safe for use or consumption, always obtain information on the plant first. Do not assume that it is safe for human consumption simply because an animal is known to consume it.
Sample all medicinal and edible wild plants which you have no familiarity with before using larger quantities. Follow the universal wild plant edibility test.
Be aware of your own body and always be weary of the potential for allergic responses.
Whenever possible, experiment with new and unfamiliar plants and plant parts when in the company of another individual who knows what you are experimenting with and what to do in case of emergency.
If poisoning is suspected seek help immediately! When a plant has been ingested it may be necessary to induce vomiting. If this is required you should induce vomiting until the stomach is completely empty, drink plenty of water, obtain a sample of the plant, and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Don't let stories concerning the dangers of wild plants deter you from learning about and experimenting with wild edible and medicinal plants. The truth is that cases of fatal poisoning are extremely rare and most instances involving accidental poisoning are likely to result in illness or extreme discomfort rather than certain death. Edible and medicinal plants are no more dangerous than fire, but as with fire they should be approached with circumspection. If you exercise a certain degree of caution your experience with wild edible and medicinal plants should be safe and enjoyable.
Foraging Etiquette and Conservation
Preserving and protecting the free food source that nature provides us is extremely important. No plant that is threatened or endangered should ever be harvested or harmed in any way, and even common plants that are available for harvesting should be collected and used in such a way as to ensure their continued survival. Understanding proper foraging etiquette and the basic rules of conservation will help keep nature's bounty available for all to enjoy for generations to come.
Follow these simple guidelines:
Do not collect more than you intend to use.
Never take all that is available in a certain area. Always leave enough for others and ensure the plant's survival so that you may return and enjoy the plant again the next year.
Unless you are collecting the root of the plant, always leave the root in place and intact.
Always leave some leaves on perennials as leaves are required for the plant to continue to thrive. Never completely denude the plant of all of it's leaves.
Disturb as little as possible and do your best to leave no trace.
Avoid entering fragile habitats such as bogs, alpine tundra, and dune communities.
Obtain a list of threatened and endangered species, learn to identify them, and never harm or harvest them.
Use common sense.
Using A Plant For The First Time
If you have never used a plant before and you are trying it for the first time refer to the following rules:
Positively identify the plant and the part which is edible.
Separate the plant into parts: flowers, leaves, stem, buds, roots, etc.
Test only one part of the plant at a time. Perform the entire test and wait the required time period before testing another part.
Roll the plant between your fingers and smell the plant. Discard if the plant is objectionable, or has strong or acid odors. Remember that smell alone is not an accurate indicator of a plant's safety.
Test the plant part for contact poisoning by lightly rubbing it on the inside of your elbow or wrist. Wait 15 minutes for any signs of irritation.
Take the plant part and prepare it the way you intend to consume it. Avoid the smoke of burning plants!
Test the prepared plant part by rubbing a small portion of it on your gums, above your teeth. Wait 20 minutes and look for signs of burning, itching, nausea, or stinging. All poisonous plants usually produce one or more of these symptoms!
If there is no reaction, take another properly prepared piece (another small portion of the same plant part) and hold it on your tongue for 15 minutes. Do not swallow the plant part! Look for signs of adverse reaction as you did when you rubbed it on your gums.
If there is still no reaction, thoroughly chew the plant part (do not swallow it), and hold the chewed plant in your mouth for another 15 minutes. Look for signs of a reaction.
If no reaction has occurred, swallow the plant part.
Wait 8 hours and remain alert for any symptoms during this time! If any ill effects occur during this period, induce vomiting and drink plenty of water. Seek medical attention immediately if any adverse effects persist!
If there is still no reaction, prepare and eat about ¼ cup of the plant part and wait another 8 hours. If no adverse reaction occurs the plant part is safe for consumption in the way that it had been prepared. If ill effects do occur, induce vomiting and drink plenty of water. Seek medical attention immediately if any adverse effects persist!
Use the plant part sparingly for the first few uses until you are confident it is completely safe.
Never assume that a plant part that has been tested raw is edible when cooked, or vice versa.
Never assume that because one plant part is safe a different plant part will be safe for consumption as well. Many plants have both edible and inedible plant parts!
It is best to begin the test in the morning so you are not tempted to fall asleep during the test process. The total time for the entire test is 17 hours, 5 minutes. You should only drink water when performing the test and consume no other food.
* Personal Disclaimer: Although many have used and sworn by the edible plant test method listed above, you should understand that all experimentation is done at your own risk. There is no such thing as an officially recognized 100% foolproof wild plant edibility test. You are ultimately responsible for your own life and health and you should proceed accordingly.
Hopefully this article equipped you with a basic understanding of where to begin and gave you some idea of the sorts of tools, knowledge, and resources you will require to begin learning about wild edible and medicinal plants.
For more information I recommend visiting the following websites:
- Food Foraging: Wild Edible Plants & Mushrooms
Annotated links to sites and books on wild edible plants, food foraging, and ethnobotany.
- National Audubon Society
- PLANTS Database | USDA PLANTS
The home page for the United States Department of Agriculture PLANTS Database
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - The University of Texas at Austin
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center focused on protecting and preserving North America's native plants through native plant lists and image galleries, conservation, education, natural landscapes, seed collection - Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) Project,
- Native American Ethnobotany Database
UM-Dearborn College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters
Also consider these books:
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