What you should know about edible plants in the United States….
by Guest Blogger on February 28, 2014
This is a guest post by Christine W and entry for our non-fiction writing contest.
I once read a very interesting article from a survivor of the Bosnian Collapse in the late 90’s. This was a true end of the world as they knew it event, and it was fascinating and eye opening to read. One of the things the man talked about in his extensive article was the most useful skills to posses. Medical knowledge was the highest on his list. Lacking real world medical training, people with the knowledge of the uses of herbs and plants were able to trade and use that knowledge to survive.
Most people in America can’t identify even 1% of the plants that surround them. They don’t know useful from poisonous or nutritious from useless plants. And yet there are dozens of plants that grow even in urban settings that are not only edible but down right lifesaving if you only can identify them. For 15 years I have been a gardener and outdoorswoman. Much of my knowledge has come from being a curious person interested in the world around me, and also from searching for natural ways to heal common ailments for myself and my children.
I have been amazed at the amount of plants growing near me that can be used for healing, and have compiled a small list of what I consider the important common plants that grow in the USA, things you can find right out your back door. I am sure there are thousands more! Knowledge is power, so I recommend that you should start now when it comes to identifying wild and not so wild food and medicinal sources. Once you can recognize a plant start noting where you see them, what time of year they flower in your area and when they bear fruit. I go out for drives along country roads and memorize where plants, bushes, berries, and helpful trees are growing.
You can also look around your neighborhood. Rose Bushes will provide you with rose hips that are high in vitamin C and can save you from scurvy in the winter. Echinacea also known as Purple Coneflowers are popular in gardens can boost the immune system and also have a host of other uses. Look up color photos of plants on the internet to help you identify them, or join a wild crafting group if one is available. Having a print out of each plant with multiple pictures and uses of them, along with how to use them and dosages, is very important in a SHTF event. There are many books specifying every area of America for finding wild foods and they often have excellent color pictures and identification keys. I keep a few of them in my purse when I go up to the wild and try to identify as many helpful plants as possible. Often these books are inexpensive so picking them up is a good idea.
As a note I say where you can find the below plants. We live in the dry west so most plants only grow near water sources. However I know that in other areas of the country rain is more plentiful so the growing habitat is much different. If you are gathering post or during SHTF remember your personal safety and weigh the possible benefits vs. danger of running into other hungry people. Never go alone even now as accidents happen and wild animals many times enjoy wild foods as much as people do. Meeting a hungry bear while picking berries is a highly unpleasant event! When you head to any wilderness take precautions and let people know where you are going and when you are coming back. Always take a first aid kit, water, a good map, and some food with you.
Caution! As with any wild foraging check and double check your identification before eating anything, do not take another person’s word on the safety of a plant. Some wild foods are debated on their safety as some people will have a reaction where other do not. Also if you have food allergies be wary and careful when trying new things. Remember that when harvesting wild foods make sure they are not sprayed with poisons or chemicals. I am not a doctor and am not giving medical advice. If you want to try natural remedies do your research and also talk to your doctor. Even though these plants are natural they can still be very strong medicines and even interact with other medication you are taking!
Alfalfa – Amazingly enough, this plant, a common feed for animals, is one of the most useful in a TEOTWAWKI collapse, or even just in a financial collapse where you suddenly become dirt poor. Alfalfa is highly nutritious and can be used to treat several conditions. The most important in my mind being bleeding, hemorrhaging, hemorrhaging after birth, and heavy menstrual bleeding. Blood loss is a common problem where medical care is limited and people are exposed to hard physical work or dangerous situations.
Childbirth for women is the most fatal event during life in 3rd world countries, many of the deaths coming from hemorrhaging after birth. Drinking a tea made from alfalfa, or eating alfalfa in the last few weeks of pregnancy can help prevent hemorrhage or excessive bleeding due to several compounds it contains, this includes vitamin K which is essential to blood clotting. I used this supplement under my midwifes supervision during my last two pregnancies.
My first two births went off well except that I hemorrhaged after birth. After my second birth I hemorrhaged so severely that I was only saved by my midwife administering emergency shots of anti hemorrhaging drugs (which will not be available to most women in a SHTF event). For two months after I was weaker than normal and under strict instructions to take it easy. My next two births went well and I barely bled at all, even compared to normal bleeding. Both times I was taking alfalfa at the end of my pregnancy. Pregnant women should not take it until the last three weeks of pregnancy due to the fact that as it has hormone properties that could cause labor and miscarriage.
Once a woman is considered full term at 37 weeks that is not such an issue. Taking too much alfalfa for longer than a month can have the opposite effect and cause bleeding to be worse! Newborns need Vitamin K for proper development and usually receive an injection soon after birth, but during or after a SHTF event those shots may not be available and doctors recommend mothers consume foods with high vitamin K so that it will be passed to the nursing child. Dried or fresh alfalfa can be used in the human diet and also as a compress on wounds to help them stop bleeding. In application to a wound it is essential to boil the water for 10 minutes to kill bacteria and then boil the alfalfa added for a few minutes thus killing any bacteria on the plant leaves. Alfalfa helps people who are nutritionally deficient.
It helps a great deal with vitamin C deficiency when used fresh, for it contains more vitamin C than some citrus fruits. Scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency and is a common problem for people during famines, or when there is a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. It also has very high B vitamin levels and Vitamin D levels which help with problems such as rickets, a common disease especially effecting children who have poor diets or are not exposed to enough sunlight. This is a common problem when living in a war zone or an area where people must stay inside much of the time due to violence as Vitamin D cannot be manufactured by the body and is mainly created by the skins exposure to the sun.
Alfalfa is also easy to store when dried and is very cheap. It is a good item to keep on hand. Alfalfa is grown everywhere in the USA and can be found along ditch banks and country roads growing wild, in fields as well as in farm yards. It does not need to be reseeded every year so a field that had it last year will have it this year as well.
Raspberry Leaf – Raspberries (also known as redcaps, bramble berries, dewberry, and thimbleberry) grow wild in the USA and are even considered an invasive species. They come in red, black, purple, and golden fruit all of which is essentially the same plant, but these other fruit colors do not generally grow in the wild like the common red does. Obviously the fruit is edible but the leaves and even roots can be used for highly effective remedies. The most well known is for aid to painful menstruation, to regulate and normalize a woman’s cycle, and also to help shorten and lessen the pain of childbirth. I am all for shortening the length of childbirth; having had four children naturally! Caution must be used however as raspberry leaf can cause uterine contractions, so it should only be used once labor has begun or a week before birth is expected. It can be used by non-pregnant women during and right before menstruation. Another equally important use of raspberry leaf is it’s use as a cure for diarrhea. More on that in the Blackberry Section. These plants are found near water, in boggy areas, besides stream banks, in gullies, on ditch banks, or growing anywhere that gets plentiful rainfall.
Blackberry Fruits, Leaves, and Roots – Diarrhea is one of the most common killers in third world countries due to contaminated water supplies and poor water treatment facilities. As a country collapses the infrastructure of water treatment always breaks down, and waterborne illness explodes. Preparation for such disease is essential when we plan for a SHTF event.
Diarrhea is especially fatal to children and the elderly, and is frightening at how fast it kills. Soldiers in battle frequently suffer from dysentery due to bad water as well. For centuries blackberries (and to a lesser extent any of the bramble berry varieties such a red caps, black caps, Marion berries, dewberries, and raspberries) have been used for treating diarrhea, dysentery, food borne illness, and even the more deadly waterborne illnesses. This must be remembered to be a treatment, not a cure as diarrhea is a symptom of an infection in the body which must be treated as well.
Blackberry Root Bark is the most effective remedy for diarrhea, but if you can’t get to the roots the leaves are highly effective as well, even dried ones. Last is the fruit which can be eaten or a syrup or juice made from the fruit. A syrup or juice is especially useful when treating small children. One teaspoon of root or leaves per boiling cup of water, steeped for 20 minutes, then sweetened with honey if possible due to its healing and soothing properties is a good dosage. It is the tannins in the blackberry plant that help with diarrhea . Blackberries are even more invasive than red raspberries and grow profusely throughout the USA. If in a dry region look for them along streams or down in gullies and canyons. The leaves and root bark are easy to dry, and the leaves can be eaten and are high in nutrition.
Elderberries – I grew up eating wild elderberries, these are a round purple-ish blue fruit that grows in clusters on a bushy tree. The bush flowers in late spring depending on your area and the fruits are ripe in early fall. They are very common growing wild and like water so they grow either near bodies of water or in areas that get plenty of water. I often see them growing in old farm yards or homesteads because the pioneers and old farmers used them not only for health but as a much needed fruit. They also can be found in gullies and draws. The fruit has a dusty powder on it, but care should be taken as the red elderberry, the stems of all elderberries that connect to the fruit, and also the unripe fruit, are poisonous.
The fruit and flowers have been proven in clinical trials to help with many ailments, but especially in respiratory infections such as bronchitis and also to help thin mucus. The fruit are very high in vitamin C and are used to treat the flu and to boost the immune system. Elderberries would be good for an insurance against scurvy. Harvesting is easy and making juice, syrups, or tinctures from them is the best way to use them for healing.
The flowers are used to make a tea or tincture for respiratory ailments and compresses for wounds. They also are good in pies, jams, jellies, and to make wine and liquors. There is some evidence that they should be cooked before consuming as uncooked raw fruit can cause stomach upset. Elderberry syrup is safe for children.
Other Berries – Obviously there are many berries growing throughout the United states, many of them not only edible but beneficial as well. Getting a good book on berry identification for your area is an excellent idea.
Rosehips – Wild roses grow all over the USA along roads, up in the mountains, and in forests. They are usually found as just a single flower, meaning they are a single layer of petals in a ring around the central part of the flower, maybe five petals in a ring. Roses are also grown in many yards and gardens, and there are even rose varieties grown specifically for large rosehips. Rosehips are the main and most helpful part of the plant for use. Wild roses have small hips compared to their cultivated cousins, but size doesn’t matter when it comes to food and medicinal value.
They can be eaten raw in a pinch, but the most common way is to chop the hips roughly and pour 1 cup boiling water over two teaspoons of the chopped hips. Allow them to steep for 20 minutes and sweeten with honey, or, if for a child under two years of age, sugar or syrup. Rose hips are higher in vitamin C than citrus fruit and not only prevent, but also treat scurvy.
They are easy to identify and easy to harvest. Rose hips make a tea that is tart and pleasant to drink. They can help treat urinary tract infections and the flu, and rose hips also boost the immune system. When fresh veggies and fruit are unavailable, rosehips can be found even in winter and still be eaten as they do not rot easily and cling to the rosebush. Rosehips are generally a reddish color, and it is wise to look for ones that are still firm, not black or with mold or rot on them. They can be used to make syrup, jelly, jam, wine, and juice. The flowers of roses are also edible but make sure you don’t eat them if they are been sprayed with pesticide.
Bachelor Buttons – Bachelor Buttons, also known as cornflowers, are a flower that grows wild and cultivated across the USA. They are popular in wildflower or cottage gardens and are also drought tolerant and reseed prolifically in the wild. The common color is a cobalt blue, but especially in gardens they come in white, light pink, and purple. The flower is the part used and is most commonly utilized as an eyewash for injured or infected eyes. This is usually done by steeping the flowers in fresh boiled water, cooled, and then applied over the eyes on a moistened rag.
A similar rinse for cuts and sores in the mouth aids healing. In this instance it is best to spit out after swishing around the mouth. Furthermore, they can also be used in the same form to wash cuts, scrapes and bruises. Combine one teaspoon of dried cornflower petals, or five fresh blossoms with one cup of boiling water. Cover and steep for 15-20 minutes; after this you may strain and consume. If taking internally it is best for no longer than two weeks. Cornflower tea has been used to calm diarrhea, treat urinary tract infections, and for anxiety or nervousness. This flower can be found along road sides, in fields, and in clearings. They love full sun and they are very easy to grow. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use this internally. If you have allergies to daisies or ragweed you should not use this at all.
Lambs Quarters/Wild Spinach – Lambs Quarters, also known as wild spinach, goosefoot, pigweed, good king henry, and fat hen, is considered by most gardeners as a weed, but is in fact is a highly nutritious and delicious plant that grows everywhere and is easy to identify. It is nicer than common spinach because it is slow to bolt in the heat of summer, and because while tasting like spinach, it is even more nutritious. It can be cooked or eaten raw and the stems leaves and seeds are all edible. It can also be frozen, canned or dried for later eating. Lamb’s Quarters is a good survival food and can be found in yards, abandoned lots, fields, gardens, and along roads. You can cut it off almost to the root, yet it comes up and starts leafing out again.
Dandelion – Dandelion is another common yard weed that grows almost everywhere, including in the mountains. I never dig up the dandelions in my yard but use them and also feed them to our rabbits. We do not treat our yard with chemicals. It is highly nutritious, and all parts are edible- including the roots which can be dried and used as a coffee substitute. It has been used as a diuretic and to cleanse the blood of toxins. The milk that comes when you cut the plant can be used on wounds and is highly effective to use on warts. I have used the milk on three of my children’s warts and all three times it made them disappear naturally without pain or scarring. It must be applied every day for a good month to the warts. A tea made from all parts of the dandelion is absurdly rich in nutrients and would be well utilized by those suffering from malnutrition.
Wild Onions – Wild onions are easy to identify because they smell like onions! They are considered a weed in many parts of the country, and they can be eaten like regular onions while being a healthy addition to the diet and are easy to dry for future use. They can be in yards or near places that have a constant water supply or good rain.
Pine Trees/Spruce Trees – Pine trees are common all across the USA and several parts of the tree can be used both medicinally and nutritionally. The needles themselves are rich in vitamin C and can be steeped in boiling water to create a tea to fight scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), and they are also high in vitamin A and beta carotene. Spruce tip tea or pine needle tea is useful to treat sore throat, cough, colds, and chest congestion. This is a very important survival food as it is so readily available and easy to find. The best tasting needles are young tender ones, but older needles work just the same nutritionally. Pine nuts that are found in pine cones are rich in calories, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals and are high in vitamin K which helps stop bleeding. The inner bark of pine trees is even edible but should only be used in an emergency because to get at it you kill the tree.
Pine Sap has many uses and is highly effective for use on wounds when mixed as a salve to prevent and treat infection. It is also used as a flu and cold treatment when mixed with honey or made into a tincture. It not only fights the infection inside but also soothes sore throats.
Chopped pine needles added to a hot bath can help with skin problems since they contain natural sulfur, they also sooth sore muscles and joints. Pine oil can be used by adding a few drops to boiling water and then breathing in the steam; there is evidence that it helps cure sinus infections, bronchitis, and breaks up mucus. Pine oil kills germs and can be used to clean surfaces during illnesses, although, it must always be diluted and never applied straight to skin.
However, pine oil is a distilled product and must go through special processing and may not be easy to replicate after SHTF (although what a skill to have!) Use roughly chopped pine needles, with boiling water poured over, then cover your head with a towel over the bowl and breath deeply. Pine needles are also a natural flea and bug repellent and can be used to stuff beds and cushions to deter them. The scent of pine is generally very calming. Caution – Pregnant women should not use pine needle tea as there is fear it could cause miscarriage. There are three varieties of toxic pine, and it is highly recommended to learn how to identify and avoid them. They are Norfolk Island Pine, Yew, and Ponderosa Pine.
Crabapples – These are a variety of apple that are often overlooked as an edible fruit because they are unpleasant for fresh eating. They are very good for cooking and if sweetened can be made into pies, jams, jellies, syrup, wine, pickled, and when mixed with other fruits dried in fruit leather. They were mainly used by our forefathers as an addition to cider making as they added depth of flavor and a bit of tartness to the finished product. There are many varieties of crabapple tree and the fruit can be quite large as they are grown for their pretty look. They are grown in many yards and businesses as a decorative tree and the fruit is most often left to rot. Most people I have asked are eager to let me pick off their trees since otherwise they eventually fall and have to be raked up. They also can be found growing wild and in old orchards or farms. Crabapples are high in vitamin C and make a pleasant tea when sweetened. They have been used to treat urinary infections and can also be juiced to make cider vinegar which is one of the most healthy things you can make. For the best flavor harvest after they have been frosted on.
Wild Plums – These are native to the USA and grow in all parts. They are small and are usually a yellowish red color. Wild Plums are a tasty fruit for fresh eating and are useful in making jam, jelly, syrup, pies, and pickles. They are very high in vitamin C and Iron. Dried or fresh they are a good laxative and treat anemia.
Cattails – A well known wild food that grows in marshy or wet areas these are easy to identify. All parts of the plant are edible in different seasons and have good food value. The root can be pounded and applied to cuts and scrapes as a poultice. As these always grown near or in water be careful of pollution.
Rhubarb – This is not necessarily a wild food but it is so common that noting where it grows is a good idea. This plant comes back year after year for practically ever and you see it often in abandoned lots, old farmsteads, abandoned homes, or in peoples gardens. Most people never use it and are happy to give away to those who will. Harvesting in the spring is best when it is tender. Rhubarb can be made into jam, sauce, syrup, put into pies, cakes, and breads and canned. Rhubarb is rich in B- complex vitamins such as folates, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, thiamin, and pantothenic acid and good levels of vitamin K. It has been used to treat stomach problems. The leaves are poisonous, only the stalks should be eaten.
Daylilies – These grow all over the US and in many places they grow wild or have taken over lots of land and gardens as they are hardy and invasive. They are edible. The shoots when young in spring can be cooked like asparagus or eaten raw, the flowers should be harvested in summer and can be fried like squash flowers, chopped and added to salads, and immature buds cooked like green beans. The tubers can be gathered year round and cooked like corn. They have been used to treat arsenic poisoning.
Nuts – There are so many trees that produce edible nuts that all I can recommend is that you get a good identification book and start looking around you. Nuts are high in nutrition, healthy fats, and calories so they make an excellent survival food. A couple of varieties that are overlooked by people are acorns and pine nuts found in pine cones. Acorns have good food value but are bitter so most people avoid them, meaning that you will have more opportunity to gather them. Learn how to process them to get out the bitterness.
Wild Strawberries – Also known as Alpine strawberry, Common Strawberry, Mountain Strawberry, Pineapple Strawberry, Wild Strawberries, Wood Strawberry, Woodland strawberry. These grow prolifically all over the USA and although the fruit is very nice to eat (but tiny) the leaves have great food value and have been used to treat diarrhea when made into a tea. The leaves contain beneficial minerals and vitamins. The root is also used to treat diarrhea. These like shady places but also can grow in sunny clearings and fields..
Wild Violets – The leaves and the flowers are edible and can be found growing in many yards and gardens where they are considered a weed. They are purple-ish blue or white and can be found in the shade of forests or moist clearings. They can be added to salads or cooked. The medicinal uses are many and they make a lovely salve for irritated skin and rashes and also a tea can be made from the leaves and flowers to ease the pain of headaches and arthritis as well as to treat diarrhea. They appear early in spring and grow all summer long in the shade. They are loaded with vitamin A and C which makes them a good remedy for colds and flu. The flowers can be added to jellies during the cooking stage and turn the liquid a lovely violet color.
Ferns – Several fern varieties are edible and are often called fiddleheads, however care must be taken as there are also several non edible varieties that can cause mild to severe illness. Invest in a good identification book or print many pictures out of edible varieties off the internet for better identification. These must be harvested in early to late spring. They are fried, steamed sautéed, boiled, and pickled and are rich in vitamin A and C.
Wild Greens – There are so many kinds that it would take a good sized book to describe them all and I highly recommend buying a field guide and searching them out. Some that are common and worth investigating are mustard, watercress, stinging nettle, miners lettuce, sorrel, red clover, and sweet coltsfoot. Most greens are best harvested in the spring and early summer when they are tender and young.
Willow Tree – The willow tree has been used for thousands of years to treat pain. It grows in yards and woods across the United States. The bark of the tree, especially that of the White Willow tree is what as used and has the same actions of aspirin for treating pain and fever Use 1 to 2 teaspoons of willow bark to 8 oz of boiling water and boil for 5 to 10 minutes. Then turn off heat and allow to steep for 20 to 30 minutes more. Drinking 3 to 4 cups throughout the day is recommended to be effective. Gathering and drying the bark in spring summer and fall would be a good idea to have a store through winter. This is a real medication similar in its side effects to aspirin, it interacts with several drugs and can cause the same stomach problems as aspirin so research it well before use. Pregnant and nursing women, and children under two should never use willow bark.
Mints – Mints are not a really wild species but are so highly invasive once planted in a garden that they quickly spread and can take over vast tracts of land. There are many varieties and just as many uses both as a food as well as medicinally. Mints are high in vitamin A and spearmint in particular is high in minerals. It is often used internally to treat stomach upset, headaches, body aches, reduce fever, for sore throats and cough, anti flatulence, and diarrhea. Externally mint is an excellent insect repellent and can be use to treat lice, muscle aches, soothe insect bites, hair care, and vaginitis. A simple tea is used internally and is quite pleasant, externally a similar tea can be made and cooled before application.
Mushrooms – Wild mushrooms can be very helpful both medicinally and nutritionally but great care must be taken as so many varieties are deadly. I won’t go into them here but invest in a good full color photographic field guide, and even then be carefull! The only mushroom I feel very safe harvesting is morels because they are so distinctive and only have one similar species to contend with. As my father said they look like a brain!
Tree Saps – There are several trees that produce edible saps that can be boiled down into sweet syrups. Most commonly we think of the maple tree, and all maples produce sap although the sugar maple is the most well known and produces the highest volume per tree. There are however several other trees that produce good sap for human use. Pine trees are one but the sap is more for medicinal use than for pleasurable eating. Birch, Walnut, and Sycamore all produce an edible sap for syrup making. Obviously these are high in sugar content which equals calories. As a caution only stick to the above or other documented non poisonous trees for sap. Tree sap syrup has many vitamins and minerals making them a good survival food.
Wild Leeks Or Ramps – These are a leek or onion like bulb that are common throughout the United States in forested areas and grow often near streams or on hills. The leaves when torn or bruised smell of onion or garlic so they are easy to identify. The plant resembles lily of the valley. These are found and harvested in the spring. When harvesting only take half of what you find so they can continue to propagate.
Supplies For Harvesting – A good pair of boots and weather specific clothing, good identification books or literature, a small hand shovel, a good sturdy bucket/basket with a handle/or canvas bags, a knife for cutting, gardening gloves, a sidearm for meetings with predators of the four legged to two legged kind.
M.D. Creekmore recommends you get a copy of The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants.