It’s often said that the last thing you need to worry about when in a survival situation is what you’re going to eat. The human body is highly resilient, and can go without food for longer than you think. Shelter and water, on the other hand, are pretty much non-negotiable in order to survive.
However, it is possible to familiarize yourself with edible wild plants before you get into a survival situation, in which case you’ll have a good idea of which wild plants you can eat if necessary. In addition, once you learn to identify some of these common edible wild plants, you might be able to add them to your diet while you’re still in the city.
Probably the easiest plant to identify, and one of the most widespread, dandelions (pictured at top) are a great introduction to wild plant foods. The entire dandelion is edible, from the root to the flower, and can be found quite easily in many areas, even in early spring or late fall. The dandelion flower can be eaten straight from the plant, and the taste is sweet and mild. Of the leaves, the young ones tend to taste the best, as they get a little bitter as they mature, but older leaves can be briefly boiled to remove the bitterness. It’s also advised that you boil the root before eating, and the water used to cook them can be drunk as a tea afterward.
The burdock plant sure doesn’t look very appetizing (especially when full of those giant prickly seedheads!), but the whole plant is edible. The leaves can get bitter, just as older dandelion leaves do, and may require boiling. The stem can be peeled and eaten raw, and the root can be boiled and eaten.
In many of the wetter parts of the world, cattails can be a great edible wild food. The large roots, or rhizomes, as well as the lower part of the stem, can be eaten either raw or boiled, and the leaves can be boiled and eaten like any other cooked greens. The flower spike can also be eaten raw, but usually only in the spring, when the growth is still tender and young. Once the flower spike is mature, the pollen can be collected from it and used as a flour or addition to other wild plant dishes.
Plantain is another ubiquitous edible wild plant, found in a wide variety of climates and locations (including most yards and public parks), and favoring wetter areas. The leaves are edible both raw and boiled, and the seeds can be harvested and eaten as well. In addition, plantain is a great plant to know for treating minor wounds and insect bites. Simply chew up several leaves and apply to the wound, repeating as desired.
The humble purslane gets a bad rap from gardeners (along with dandelions and plantain), but this low-growing plant is an excellent edible wild plant and can be found in many wild places. The leaves, stem, and seeds of purslane are edible either raw or boiled, and the leaves also have a thickening or mucilaginous quality which can add to other dishes.
More commonly known as stinging nettle, this is a plant to steer clear of unless you’re foraging for wild foods. Just one brush of your bare skin against a nettle plant will elicit a short-term but intense burning sensation. However, once boiled or steamed, nettles makes a fantastic green food to add to your survival menu. Just be sure to wear gloves or otherwise protect yourself while harvesting it (and if you get “stung,” try rubbing crushed plantain – which tends to favor the same locations – over the area).
Also known as goosefoot, lamb’s quarters grows wild in many places, and the leaves and young stems can be boiled and eaten like spinach (it even has a spinach-y taste). Lamb’s quarters is a relative of quinoa, and its seeds are high in protein, making it another important survival food.
Prickly pear doesn’t appear to be a choice edible wild food, but once the needles are dealt with, both the pads and fruit of this prolific western cactus can end up as a filling and nutritious food. The prickly pear is one of the easiest of the cacti to identify, and because the plants tend to be fairly large, just one of them can provide many meals in the backcountry. The most important things to remember are to keep the needles out of your hands when harvesting them (use a rock or stick to knock pads off), and to either burn or scrape the needles off before cooking or eating it. (Tip: burning the needles off is more reliable than scraping).
Also used as a medicinal plant, shepherd’s purse is a great source for spring and fall greens, and can be found in many of the same places where dandelion and purslane grow. The younger leaves are edible raw and have a very mild taste. Older leaves can be boiled in the same manner as dandelions, to remove bitterness, and the seed pods are also edible.
Sometimes referred to as curly dock, yellow dock, or sour dock, this relative of buckwheat can be harvested of its young leaves (or the leaves on the stalk) to be eaten either raw or lightly boiled. The stalk can be peeled and eaten raw or boiled, and the mature seeds (this plant produces a lot of seeds) can be ground and used as flour or to add to soups.
These are some of the more common edible wild plants, most of which can be found in a wide variety of habitats and climates. Always use caution when trying new wild foods, and be sure that what you’re harvesting is indeed the right plant and not a lookalike.