As part of prepping for when SHTF, preppers tend to have a stock of shelf-stable food supply that can last for years. However, it is a good idea to be able to establish other sources of food. Hunting, foraging, and fishing are great ways to try and support the rationing of food before a more stable way of producing it are achieved.
There are more than 20,000 species of edible plants in the world. Below is just a fraction of these plants that can be found in the wilderness of the USA.
- Common Burdock, Burdock
- Ostrich Fern
- Cactus/Prickly Pear
- Pine Trees
- Sheep sorrel
- Wood Sorrel
- Lamb’s quarter, Goosefoot
- Edible Berries
Every prepper and survivalist should have a book or a guide with clear images of the different edible, and toxic plants in their region. Two rules to follow when identifying new plants is to stick to the description given in the guidebook, and do not lower one’s standard to make the plant fit the description (eg. “This looks close enough”).
Common Survival Plants in the US
The cooking and preparation methods in this list are geared towards a survival setting. As such only the simplest cooking method is highlighted with occasional examples of other uses for different plant parts. However, as a general rule, if you can eat a plant raw, then you can cook it however you want. Anything that can be boiled, that doesn’t require leaching, can also be grilled.
Edible Parts: Leaves, soft stem, seed.
Habitat: All areas that receive plenty of sunlight, except arctic regions.
Distribution: Widespread across the US. It can be found nearly everywhere due to its weedy, invasive nature.
Description: The leaves are egg-shaped that grows in an alternate pattern and come in different colors from green, green and purple, red, and solid purple. Perhaps the easiest way to identify an amaranth plant is through its flower head that resembles a tassel. It starts with the color green and can bloom into different shades of pink, purple, or red.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The soft amaranth stem, leaf sprouts, and younger leaves are picked and can be eaten after steaming or boiling. It has edible seeds that can be harvested when they start to fall from the flower head. The seeds are cooked like grains and can be milled to produce flour.
To harvest the seeds, make sure the flower head is completely dry and ready for harvest (seeds easily fall). Cut off the flower head and shake it on top of a bucket to catch the seeds. The collected seeds will have some chaff that needs to be winnowed.
The principle behind winnowing is to throw the grains in the air, and let the wind blow away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grain falls back down for recovery. A winnowing basket, which is flat, wide, shallow, and with raised edges is used for this process.
Edible Parts: Flower spike, pollen, stem core, rhizome.
Habitat: Wetlands (marshes, swamps, bogs, fens).
Distribution: Widespread across the US.
Description: An aquatic or semi-aquatic plant that is easily identified through its brown flower spike reminiscence of a hotdog on a stick. Its leaves form a round clump at the base and become swordlike and nearly vertical as it extends upwards. It produces rhizomes that can be harvested and cooked.
The flowers are born on a long cylindrical spike at the top of the plant. It is divided into male, and female parts. The brown hotdog like structure is the female part that contains the seeds. When mature, the male part immediately at the top of the female spike produces pollen that can be harvested and eaten.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The flower spike can be cut and grilled. The male part can also be cut and chewed on to release its nutrients. When mature, pollen can be harvested from the male part and cooked into a gruel.
This is done by shaking the male part on top of a basin to catch the pollen.
At the base of the plant, the stalk can be cut, and peeling off the layers of leaves will reveal the soft stem core that can be eaten after boiling. The rhizomes can also be peeled and boiled. All parts below the flower spike should always be boiled before eating due to the risk of ingesting Giardia (protozoa parasite) that may live in the water.
Varied, no formal definition
Edible Parts: Entire organism
Habitat: Coastal area with plenty of sunlight
Distribution: All across US coastal areas.
Description: Seaweed is a broad term used for plant-like organisms that live in nutrient-rich seawater that receives plenty of sunlight. These organisms come in different colors, lengths, and forms. All types of seaweed are considered edible.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: Seaweed must be harvested fresh from the ocean. Anything that is washed up into the beach should not be consumed. It can be eaten fresh or dried for storage. When eating raw seaweed, it should be freshly harvested and washed thoroughly with fresh water.
Kelp, a long, large, and broad type of seaweed can be cut into manageable sizes and dried. It can then be eaten boiled, or used in preparing stock.
Edible Parts: Flower, leaves, roots
Habitat: Widespread, especially near lawns and roads. It can even be found in arctic regions and different elevations.
Distribution: Widespread across the US. It can be found nearly everywhere due to its weedy invasive nature.
Description: The common dandelion is easily identified through its distinctive yellow flower, which subsequently grows into round balls of silver tufted fruits that easily disperses into the wind. Its leaves are skinny and long with irregular lobes and a pointed tip.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The whole dandelion plant is edible. The leaves, when still young can be eaten raw. As it matures, the leaves gain a bitter taste, which can be partially reduced by boiling. Its flower, flower buds, and peeled roots can be boiled and consumed.
The stalk has a milky white sap that can be extremely bitter. It is edible after boiling and leaching multiple times until the bitter taste is removed.
Common Burdock, Burdock
Arctium minus, Arctium spp.
Edible Parts: Flower stalk, young plant stalk, roots
Habitat: This plant thrives along river banks, disturbed habitats, roadsides, on vacant lots and fields.
Distribution: Widespread across the US but becomes rarer as one travels south.
Description: The common burdock is a plant with an easily identifiable seed pod that has burrs that often sticks to clothing and animal fur. Its round seed pods are initially green but turn brown when mature. Its flower can come in shades of pink to red, that appears on top of the seed pod.
Its leaves are large, wavy, and heart-shaped that is green on the surface, and have a whitish underside.
There are other species of burdock that are native to the other parts of the world but has been naturalized in North America. These species look similar to the common burdock, but grows taller and produce larger seed pods.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The common burdock’s leaves are too bitter but can be edible if parboiled multiple times. Its long flower stalk can be peeled to reveal the soft, light-green inner core. Some fibers run along the length of the flower stalk that needs to be removed after peeling. It can then be cut into smaller pieces before being boiled.
The stem core of the young burdock plant is soft and can also be boiled. However, as the plant matures, the stalk becomes fibrous and tough even if boiled multiple times. The young stalk is cut and peeled to reveal the soft plant core, which can then be boiled and eaten.
If harvesting the roots, it is best to look for a medium-sized burdock plant. The taller this plant grows, the deeper and wider its root grows. This means that it will take too much work to dig out the roots, which can break off and stay underground. The roots should be thoroughly washed and peeled before boiling.
Cirsium spp., and Carduus nutans
Edible Parts: Leaves, young plant stalk, roots
Habitat: Fields, pastures, lawns, roadsides, and clearings in the woods.
Distribution: Widespread across the US in areas with ample moisture.
Description: The thistle plant is easily identifiable through its long, green, oblong leaves, that have edges with spine-tipped lobes. Its leaves grow in a circular arrangement called a rosette. Its central stem is long and has prickles that protect the plant from herbivores. The flower comes in a variety of colors and shapes, however, all of them will have thorns on their buds.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: Leaves are plucked and trimmed to remove the spines. It can then be boiled until tender. The middle rib of the leaf can be eaten raw as long as the spines are removed. It also has some wooly material on the surface, which can be wiped away before eating the midrib raw.
The stalk of a young thistle is still soft and non-fibrous. It can be cut and peeled to reveal the light-green core which can be eaten raw or cooked. The roots are also edible as long as it’s peeled and boiled.
Poaceae or Gramineae
Edible Parts: seeds, leaves, stalk
Distribution: Widespread across the US
Description: The grass is a large family of flowering plants that includes rice, and bamboos. The stems can be cylindrical or flattened, and are mostly hollow, but plugged at the segment where the leaves are attached.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The seeds can be eaten raw or boiled. Its leaves can be chewed on to release its nutrients. Swallowing the highly fibrous leaves and stalk is not advised as it is difficult for humans to digest, and can lead to constipation.
Edible Parts: Shoots
Habitat: Coastal plains
Distribution: South-central and the southeastern US.
Description: The bamboo is part of the grass family. It grows vertically as a tall segmented, hollow stalk, that is plugged at the segments. Its leaves grow out through thin petioles (leaf stalk) and look like large blades of grass.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The shoots look like cones and come out of the ground. It is cut at the base and needs to be peeled to reveal the softer yellowish flesh.
A lot of bamboo shoots contain cyanide. As such, it should be cut into chunks and parboiled multiple times, making sure to replace the water every time. Doing so removes the bitter taste, and smell, making the shoot safe for consumption.
Edible Parts: Entire plant and flower
Habitat: Widespread across lawns, fields, roadsides, forest clearings.
Distribution: Widespread across the US, as long as there are soil and moisture.
Description: The clover consists of more than 300 species of flowering plants. They are best identified by their distinctive trifoliate leaves (three leaflets), rarely quadrifoliate (four-leaf), with a white pattern nearing its petiole (leaf stalk). The shape varies from round, blunted leaflets, to oblong with a pointed tip. Its flowers also come in a variety of shapes and colors from shades of white, yellow, red, and pink.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The entire plant can be eaten raw. Its roots are edible but are best avoided since it is more difficult to digest.
(Although without the brown papery cover, the midline groove and smooth stem are great identifiers of the Ostrich Fern Fiddlehead.)
Edible Parts: Fiddlehead, stalk
Habitat: Moist rich woodlands, low areas along woodland borders, swamps, soggy thickets.
Distribution: It can be found anywhere from Nebraska going north to North Dakota, from N. Dakota going east up to the east coasts, from Missouri to Virginia except Kentucky. It is not found anywhere west of Nebraska, and south of Missouri.
Description: The Ostrich fern grows up to 3ft and has two fronds (large divided leaves of ferns or palm). The middle is large and green and is where the fiddlehead erupts. The outer frond is brown and smaller in size.
The middle frond produces a curled stem early in its cycle called the fiddlehead. This frond also has a deep middle groove that is absent in other inedible ferns. The edible fiddlehead of the Ostrich fern is covered with papery, brown scales that are very loose. Compared to other inedible fern species that have a wooly cover on their fiddlehead.
(Notice the wooly stem of an inedible fiddlehead fern.)
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The fiddlehead should be correctly identified before harvesting. The tip is cut off along with 12 inches of stalk, measured from the tip of the fiddlehead going towards the plant base. The thin, papery scales should be brushed off before cooking. The harvested parts can be chopped and then either boiled or steamed.
Edible Parts: Pads, fruits with seed
Habitat: Desert and drought-prone areas
Distribution: From New Mexico and Montana east to Florida and Massachusetts.
Description: This cactus has large, segmented, and flattened pads with large spines throughout its surface. It produces yellow or reddish fruits on top of each pad which is also covered in extremely short spines. It does not grow tall and instead grows wider, covering a large patch.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The pads are cut off from the plant and the spines are removed. It can then be peeled, and the soft inner flesh can either be eaten raw or cooked. Its fruit can be peeled or cut in half to reveal the soft flesh riddled with seeds, which is also edible.
Arrowhead aka Wapato, Swamp Potato, Katniss, Duck Potato
Edible Parts: Young leaves, young stalk, flower buds, tuber
Habitat: Shallow wetlands (marshes, swamps, bogs, fens).
Distribution: All across the US in regions with a temperate climate. It does not exist in the n
Description: The Wapato aka Arrowhead (not to be confused with the arrowhead philodendron, Syngonium podophyllum) is an obligate wetland plant characterized by its slender, trilobed leaves that resembles a stone arrowhead. It produces tubers that are long, white, and thin. Its tubers are often buried 1 to 2 feet deep underground.
Care must be taken when identifying this plant as it can look like the Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica), which is a toxic plant. The trilobed leaves of the edible Wapato plant are almost the same length, while the Arrow Arum’s trilobed leaf design is irregular, with a large single lobe, and two shorter lobes on the opposite side. Additionally, the Arrow Arum’s leaves are veinless.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: Early in the season, young Wapato’s stalk and leaves can be harvested and boiled. Like any other edible plant that grows in fresh water, it should be washed and cooked properly to prevent Giardia infection.
When aiming for the tubers it’s best to look for dying Wapato plants or the larger ones. Its tubers are buried deep, around 1 to 2 feet under the plant. To prepare, wash and peel the tubers, and then it is ready to be boiled until tender.
Edible Parts: Entire plant and flower
Habitat: Wetlands, along springs, streams, and waterways with slow-moving water
Distribution: Widespread across the US, in areas where the soil is wet all year round.
Description: This plant is found floating on water or growing on top of the mud. Its leaves are oval to egg-shaped which forms a clump of 3-7 leaflets. It bears small white flowers with 4 long stamens attached near the base.
Watercress can be found even during winter and is a great survival plant since all of its parts can be eaten.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: This plant can be eaten either raw or boiled. All parts are edible; however, the roots can be too bitter and should be discarded. Like any edible plant that’s harvested from wetlands, the watercress should be thoroughly washed before eaten raw.
Pinus spp. except Pinus ponderosa
Edible Parts: Pine nuts, pine pollen, inner bark
Habitat: Widespread from the desert to arctic mountains
Distribution: All across the US
Description: Various species of trees look like pine trees but are inedible. On the other hand, the majority of true pine trees are edible. The leaves of a true pine tree are clumped into 2-5 needles, held together at the base by a thin sheath. The only pine tree with inedible parts is the Ponderosa pine.
It is identified by having 3 clumps of pine needles per sheath. It also has a distinctive bark that has a vertical pattern that is orange to brown.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The pine needles and inner pine bark can be eaten raw or boiled until soft. Peeling off the outer bark will reveal the edible whitish inner bark. Placing the pinecone near an open flame, or on a pot over a fire will open it up, enabling it to release the pine nuts. The seeds can be eaten raw, or roasted.
Quercus spp., Lithocarpus spp.
Edible Parts: Nut
Habitat: Hardwood forest
Distribution: Widespread across the US.
Description: The acorn is the nut of oaks and their close relatives (Lithocarpus). It’s a seed enclosed in a tough, leathery shell, and borne in a cup-shaped cupule (top part that connects to the branch). The cupule is usually yellow-green and stays lighter in color than the nut. The nut turns from green to brown as it matures, and becomes darker in color than the cupule.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: All acorns contain a chemical called tannin that makes them taste bitter, ruins your teeth, and causes stomach aches and constipation. As such, the tanning from acorns should be leached first before consuming it.
The first thing to do is gather intact acorns. Discard any acorn that has a hole on them. It is a sign that an acorn weevil has burrowed into the nut. Next, the acorns are shelled by setting it on its broadside where the cupule is and hit it with a hammer until it cracks open.
Dried acorns are easier to shell than fresh ones. Using a knife to peel off the shell and remove the nut is also possible. The third step is to leach out the tannin through boiling. It is done by dropping the shelled nuts into a pot of cold water and heating it until it’s boiling.
As the water boils, it will also turn dark due to the released tannins. At this point, the water should be discarded and replaced. The process is repeated up to 5 times. After which, the acorn will be soft and will taste similar to chestnuts.
Edible Parts: Leaves
Habitat: Old fields, sandy soil, roadsides, gravel, in dry sunny woodland.
Distribution: Widespread distribution across the US due to its invasive characteristic.
Description: The sheep sorrel has green arrowhead-shaped leaves with pointed lobes near the petioles (leaf stalk that connects to the stem). Its stem is tinted red, with deep ridges. The flower emerges from a tall, upright stem, which develops into red fruits.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The leaves are edible and can be eaten raw. However, it contains oxalic acid that imparts a sour taste. If consumed in large amounts, it can cause toxicity to the body. Boiling the leaves 1 to 3 times while discarding and replacing the water in between can prevent this.
Edible Parts: Entire plant including flowers.
Habitat: Damp, shaded spots, growing in woodlands, hedgerows.
Distribution: Widespread across the US.
Description: The leaves are trilobed, with each lobe looking like a heart, similar to clover, without the distinctive white pattern at the leaf base as seen in clover leaves. Its flower is small, with 5 purple-veined petals.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The entire plant is edible and can be eaten raw. Like the sheep sorrel, this plant contains oxalic acid that makes it taste sour. It is safe to eat in small, moderate numbers, as part of a varied diet.
Lamb’s quarter, Goosefoot
Edible Parts: Entire plant including leaves
Habitat: Urban lots, roadsides, yards, gardens, agricultural fields as weeds, river bottoms, desert or semi-arid regions.
Distribution: Widespread distribution across the US due to its invasive characteristic.
Description: The leaves are light-green, narrow, with almost parallel sides, and diamond-shaped, while the underside is covered with white powder. The flowers are green and tiny, without petals. This plant grows upright and then droops after flowering.
Cooking Method/Special Preparation: The young plant can be uprooted whole and eaten raw, or used as an ingredient for other recipes. As it matures, only the top part is harvested since it stays tender and non-fibrous. The leaves of mature plants need to be eaten in moderation as it contains saponins (soap-like substance) and oxalic acid.
Its seeds can be harvested, dried, and milled to be used as a grain. The dry seeds are milled by rubbing the grains together and then winnowing the product to remove the chaff.
The best way to identify edible berries is to memorize how they look like or bring an atlas with images of the different edible wild berries.
- Wild Strawberry
As a rule of thumb, most yellow and white berries are poisonous, while blue and blackberries are usually safe to eat. To further expound on this rule:
- 10% of white and yellow berries are edible
- 50% of red berries are edible
- 90% of blue, black, or purple berries are edible
- 99% of aggregated berries (raspberry, blackberry, thimbleberry, salmonberry) are edible
The Universal Edibility Test
As novice foragers, one must accept the fact that you are not yet an expert, and ingesting the wrong kind of foraged plant can lead to disability or death. As such, if one is not a hundred percent sure about the kind of plant they have foraged, it should never be prepared and eaten.
However, in desperate times, when death through starvation is imminent, one can make use of the universal edibility test to ascertain if an unknown plant is safe to eat. This method is best applied to plants of unknown safety that are growing in abundance. The test takes some time to conduct, and doing it for a plant that is only sparsely available is a waste of valuable time.
- Separate, Inspect and Smell
The test requires breaking down the plant into different parts and testing each one over a period of 24 hours. It also requires that the individual has not consumed anything but water in the past 8 hours. It is done to make sure that any untoward effect experienced after eating parts of the plant is due to the plant itself, and not from a portion of food that was eaten hours before.
These tests only apply for checking plants and berries. Do not attempt to do this on unknown mushrooms as they are immediately toxic, and its effect can linger for days until death.
Separate, Inspect, and Smell
The method requires separating the plant into five parts: the roots, stem, leaves, flower, and fruit. Expect that not all plants will have flowers or fruits all the time. One must choose a plant that is fresh and has no worms or insects on it.
Before and after breaking down a plant, it should be thoroughly inspected. A milky sap would often indicate that a plant is toxic. An odorous plant or a plant that smells like almonds is also considered toxic and contains cyanide.
Take the 5 parts of a plant you want to test, and crush them separately making sure to use a different crushing stone each time to prevent cross-contamination. Divide your left and right inner forearm into 3 equal parts using a marker or imaginary lines.
Rub one part of the plant in the middle of the divisions, until all parts are applied. Make sure there is enough space in between the crushed plants to be able to see where the reaction came from. Do this on your other forearm to test the remaining plant parts. Loosely cover with a clean dry cloth for 15 minutes.
Now, wait for 8 hours without eating or drinking anything but water. If there’s a burning sensation, redness, welts, or bumps that developed on your skin where one part was applied, then this plant part may not be edible.
Other sources will tell you to test each part of a plant individually and wait for 8 hours. However, this is inefficient and takes too much waiting time. The method described above is an allergy test that is usually done in the hospital, using the plant parts as the possible allergen.
Some toxic plants are edible when cooked. Even if a part of a plant failed the contact test, it should still be cooked and tested. The goal is to test a part of a plant in the way you want to eat it.
If there’s no way to boil a plant, one can try eating a tiny portion of it raw, but only if it passed the contact test. Anything that failed the contact test, should be boiled or grilled before testing.
After boiling, or if trying a plant raw, pick up a small piece and gently hold it against your lip for 3 minutes. If there’s any tingling, burning, or numbness, then remove the piece and try with a different part.
Only proceed with this step if there was no reaction when touching the plant part with your lips, whether cooked or raw. Take a small part of a plant you want to test, and put it in your mouth, and hold it on your tongue for 15 minutes. If you feel any unpleasant reaction, immediately spit out the plant and wash your mouth with water. If it tastes soapy or extremely bitter, immediately spit it out.
If there’s no reaction to the taste test, then chew the part a little, and note the taste. Wait for 15 minutes for a reaction. However, if it’s soapy and bitter, spit it out and immediately wash your mouth with water.
If there is no reaction to the tests above, then swallow the chewed piece and wait for 8 hours. If there were no untoward effects like stomach ache, hallucination, palpitation, and diarrhea, then that part of the plant is safe. Repeat with the other parts of the plant.
Testing unknown plants should only be done in extreme, desperate situations, as a last resort, when there is no other source of food. It is why one should have a guide book of edible plants as part of a survival or bug-out kit.