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How To Test Plants For Edibility 

Some Plants Are Poisonous

To Eat Or Not To Eat

How To Test Plants For Edibility

by Richard Speights

List Of Life’s Priorities

A list of priorities influences our lives. At home with a fridge full of food, survival goes to the bottom of life’s list while the latest film at the Cineplex goes to the top. When lost on a desert island, however, the latest movie is of no concern, while finding the necessities of life occupies all thoughts and motivates all actions.

For the man who has spent his life buying groceries from supermarkets, the amount of energy and activity spent searching for and preparing foodstuffs in the wild can be a bit shocking. It’s not a stroll through the Garden of Eden, picking low hanging fruit at hunger’s convenience. Moreover, if someone finds himself in an area with fewer edible plants, such as the desert, the effort to find food grows more arduous.

A survival situation creates it’s own list of priorities. Finding water is more important than finding food, and finding food more important than finding shelter. However, necessity can reorganize this list. For instance, when someone faces snow, ice, and artic temperatures, finding shelter rises to the top of the list. If lost at sea, then finding food becomes all-important in the form of fish, seaweed, or seabirds, because fresh water does not exist and shelter is limited to whatever supplies are on the boat.

How Long?

In a long-term survival situation, a person can survive without food for much longer than without water, from two to eight weeks, depending upon an individual’s fat stores and other factors like health and injury. A body can go without water for only three to five days at most. There are reports of people having gone without eating for longer than eight weeks, but I tend to discount them. It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect a human body to survive three to five months without at least a little nourishment.

The bible records Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and Aaron fasting forty days, one month and ten days. From all I’ve studied about survival, this is typically the limit of surviving without food.

After a couple of weeks without eating, the body tends to lose performance. A person not consuming nourishment must slow down and rest often. Long-term limited food intake combined with rigorous physical exertion can possibly cause organ failure, blindness, and other life-threatening ailments—depending upon the initial health of the individual. A man or woman hiking his way out of a bad situation travels better and safer with at least a little nourishment. The body and brain simply work better.

And there is nourishment everywhere, if you know where to look. A man starving to death in the wilderness dies surrounded by edibles. He starves, because he doesn’t know food is within arms reach. He does not know, because he did not study during good times. He didn’t study, because he just never figured he would find himself in such a bad spot. A little study today can save your life tomorrow. 

Plants Over Animals

Unlike animals, plants cannot flee the hungry survivalist. As omnivores in a survival situation, dependent upon external sources of vitamins, especially vitamin C, eating only plants is preferable to a meat only diet. Nonetheless, a survivalist eats whatever he can gather or catch, so a good survivalist will dine on both plants and animals; because he has the knowledge and skills to acquire both.

Some plants and berries are poisonous and some are not. Some have chemicals that affect mind and body, like the THC in marijuana and the cocaine alkaloid in coca leaves. Every plant has a good use, but not every plant can be eaten. It benefits the survivalist to know how to discover the difference. Long-term starvation slowly kills, but eating a poisonous plant ends life rather rapidly.

Consider a plant divided into its various parts: root or bulb, stem, leaf, and fruit (berries or nuts or flower). One part of a plant may be poisonous while the rest is not. Or a variation of parts of a plant may be either toxic or edible and the rest not. For instance, apples are nutritious, but the seeds within are poisonous.

Sometimes a toxic can be leached from a plant by boiling or blanching. Many plants, such as tomato leaves, contain alkaloids. Alkaloids by design help deter animals from eating them. Boiling or blanching these can reduce or eliminate the alkaloids. Most flowers, with rare exceptions, are edible. For instance, clover flowers are plentiful, tasty, and nourishing.

If you have a supply of known edible plants in your area, there is little need to risk testing unfamiliar plants for edibility. Leave the unknown alone and eat the familiar.

Test First, Eat Later

The first test for any unfamiliar plant is to crush a bit of the part in question (like a leaf), and then rub the crushed part onto a small patch of sensitive skin, a test patch. The corner of the mouth is a good test patch. Just behind the armpit in the bend of the arm is another (also the wrist and inside bend of the elbow). Rub the bit of crushed plant only on the test patch. Limiting the test patch’s size prevents a possible reaction from causing you too much of a bother.

Test each part of the plant in turn, and keep notes. Be systematic.

If after a reasonable period of time, a half hour or so, the test patch of skin does not burn or suffer a rash, then put a small piece in your mouth and give it a bit of a chew. Then, let is sit in your mouth a while. Some sources say about fifteen minutes, but that seems a long time, so let’s say from five to fifteen minutes.

If your mouth begins to burn or to pucker or feel very strange, spit it out right away and rinse out the mouth.

After the test, spit out the test piece and wait, paying close attention to how your mouth and stomach feels. If your mouth burns or feels odd like eating a green banana, wash out your mouth and don’t eat the plant. If you stomach becomes upset, don’t eat that part of the plant.

If the test plant does not pass these tests, boil a small amount and then retest. Some plants loose their toxicity after boiling and or blanching. If you know a particular part of a plant is intolerable, boil first and then test—always toss the water used to boil out toxins.

Nonetheless, if and when a plant has passed the skin and mouth tests then eat a small bit and pay attention to how you feel. Of course, if you experience an upset stomach or ill feelings or any other odd, strange feelings, don’t eat that plant. This is why you should eat only a small piece. Eating a small piece of poison can make you ill; eating too large a piece of a poisonous plant can kill you.

If after you’ve eaten a small piece of plant you don’t feel any ill affects—any ill affects— over a few hours, then eat a larger portion. But do not eat too much, no more than a quarter-cup.

I’ve read sources that say to wait up to eight hours after consumption of a test batch, but I’m not certain that’s necessary. Poisons take effect rather more quickly than that, but if you want to stay well on the safe side of things, wait eight hours.

If you are starving, it’s hard to wait a long time before consuming the plant to stave off death. Although it’s better to never allow yourself to fall into such a bad spot, if you do, then do try to exercise some discipline.

Always remember the order of survival: water, food, and shelter. Get busy looking for food early, long before hunger drives your decisions, and be diligent in your search.

Let Mikey Eat It

When testing a plant for edibility, allow only one person in your group act as guinea pig. It’s a bad situation when everyone in camp succumbs to mild or severe poisoning. If Mikey becomes ill, then he has someone to help him recover. Moreover, if every plant Mikey has tested turns out to be poisonous, then allow him to test only two or three plants before making him take a break. Repeated exposure to poisonous plants can build in his system. Let another take over so Mikey’s system can recover.


Some people are highly susceptible to allergies. If Mikey has known allergies, then let someone else without known allergies serve as guinea pig. In addition, Mikey should use all caution when eating anything, treating all edibles as if they might be poisonous. He should eat only a small portion of a particular edible and then wait to see if his body will or will not have an allergic reaction.

Looks So Sweet

Some plants look good but are deadly. Some plants look disguising and are not only edible but delicious and nutritious. Like most things in life, looks can be deceiving. The artichoke comes to mind as a horrible looking but tasty plant. The water hemlock looks edible, tender, leafy, and green, but, of course, it’s hemlock.

Good examples of plants both poisonous and non-poisonous: Cherries are sweet and delicious, but the leaves of the tree and the seeds in the fruit are poisonous. Apples are a great food source, but the seeds are poisonous—a few won’t hurt you, but more than a few can kill. Therefore, if feasting in an apple orchard, pick out all the seeds.

With familiar plants, raspberries, wild strawberries, blackberries, huckleberries, and the like, pick, eat, and enjoy. However, don’t guess. Be certain you are familiar with the plant you are about to consume. During two weeks photographing scenes in Utah’s Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest near Bear Lake, for instance, I picked and ate wild raspberries until I nearly popped. The only danger was black bears. They love raspberries too, but they don’t like fine are photographers disturbing their wild raspberry snack breaks.

Is That The Same Plant We Ate Before?

If you find an unfamiliar plant that proves itself edible, keep a record of it. Write a description, take a picture with your cell or digital camera, or keep a sample.

Likewise, keep a record of the unfamiliar poisonous plants you discover. That way Mikey isn’t forced to repeat all those terrible taste tests.

Name That Plant

If you fall out of the sky in a crippled airplane onto some remote, unfamiliar territory, surrounded by plants you’ve never before seen, then you’ll need to test everything. It’s more likely, however, you will experience disaster closer to home and the familiar.

Become familiar with the wild edible and poisonous plants in your area. Look them up and then go out into the field and find them. Read, study, identify, and then cook what you find. If you are running for your life through the woods, it’s easier to find food on the fly if you can identify the edible from the inedible at a glance.

Hey, That Plant Looks Poisonous

Although you cannot always tell which plant is edible by sight, there are some signs a plant may be poisonous. The following list is not necessarily all inclusive:

  1. White berries
  2. Milky sap
  3. Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley-like foliage
  4. An almond scent
  5. Seeds, beans, or bulbs inside pods
  6. Thorns, spines, or hairs
  7. A bitter taste
  8. A soapy taste
  9. It makes your mouth feel like eating a green banana
  10. Grain heads with pink or black spurs
  11. Groups of three leaves

Monkey See, Monkey Eat

In tropical areas, watch to see what a monkey eats, and then shoot and eat the monkey (old survival joke).

Some animals can eat things that would kill a human at first taste, while other animals eat similar foods to humans. Monkeys and humans have similar digestive systems, so eat whatever monkeys eat.

Of course, there aren’t too many monkeys on the North American continent, so their dietary habits don’t do an American’s starving body good. Moreover, I can’t think of a single animal in North America who has similar dietary needs.

Nonetheless, if you notice a rabbit ravaging a particular type of plant, don’t eat that plant—at least not right away. Instead, gather the plant and use it as bait to draw the rabbit into your trap (or set your trap near that plant). Then, after trapping a rabbit, test the plant to see if you can include it in your stewpot with the rabbit.

Don’t Graze The Grasses

Humans eat grass seeds, lots of grass seeds. It’s called wheat. Nonetheless, although grass grows almost everywhere on this planet, it does the human body no good. Grass is full of cellulose, a substance our stomachs just cannot digest well. People suffering starvation have in the past eaten grass out of desperation, but it did them no good. At best, it just passes through the system. At worst, it can make you vomit and lose liquids and any other good foods you may have ingested.

Eat Every Part

Whenever you find an edible plant, eat every edible part, roots, stems, leaves, and all. Don’t waste any part of it. This holds true for animals too. I am not fan of brains, but in a survival situation, I would cook and eat them (unless I intend them to tan leather during long, long-term survival).

Raw vs Cooked

If starvation is a mouthful of food away, eat whatever you can reach, raw or cooked. However, whenever you can and every time you can, cook everything you eat. Cooking helps release the nutrients in foods and aids in digestion. We gain more nutrients from cooked food than we do from raw.

Of course, it really isn’t necessary to cook fruits and flowers and the like unless you are making some sort of dish out of them. Humans digest these things easily. You can survive well eating only fresh picked raspberries; you might even gain weight.

Use this rule of thumb: the tougher the food, the more necessary the cook. The more tender the food, the less necessary the cook. Nonetheless, do try to cook everything you eat in a survival situation, so you can get all the nutrients possible from every mouthful, especially if surviving on limited rations.

In addition, the temperature and texture of cooked food has a positive effect on the human psyche. Cooked food warms the body and soothes the soul, comforting the survivor during times of stress and upheaval. If you are not pressed for time, take the time to transform the product of your harvest into a meal, even if the absence of a fork forces you to eat with your fingers. -end-
Richard Speights
writer / photographer 

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