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How to Identify Edible Plants – An Introduction

One of the requests I receive most often for ‘outdoor skills’ folks would like to learn involves ‘identifying edible plants’.

I typically take a deep breath before letting loose on a barrage of information regarding identification methods, safety, the multiple (beyond edible) uses of plants, and the multiple methods of ‘learning plants’.  As well as the reality of the nutritional value of plants in a modern-day survival situation.  (The only two required nutritional constituents for survival are protein and fat, neither of which are found in any realistic quantity in the (wild) plant kingdom, worldwide.  Hence the Native American Superfood, pemmican.)

Check out our separate article on ‘How To Make Pemmican For Survival Food‘ or take our Pemmican video lesson in a free 14-day trial of our distance-based program THE PACK.

How To Make Pemmican For Survival Food

The idea of solely ‘living off plants’ for any length of time is a bogus one.  There are very few plants that give a complete (or even partial) protein.  Fewer still in any significant quantities in the wild.  (Agriculture was a pretty cool innovation, though some would say that’s where we started to go wrong…)  Sorry.  There’s never been a vegetarian hunter-gatherer (ones who live solely off the land, without infrastructure) culture.  Period.

But if you’re undeterred and want to learn to connect with the plant kingdom, for whatever your purpose, read on.  (Not to mention that plants are worth knowing for far more reasons than just ’cause they taste nice.)

[Deep breath.  And I unleash.]

Safety

I hope it goes without saying, but you stake your life on what you choose to put in your mouth.  That’s not a disclaimer as much as it is a threat.  You need to be 1000% sure of what you choose to consume.  There are plants growing within, likely, 1000 yards of your house that could kill you.  However, the large majority of plants around you are not deadly.  (Far more will make you sick enough to wish you were dead.)  But why take the chance?  Learn to 1000% identify the plants you are working with (don’t stretch what you’re finding to make them match the photo in your field guide).

Some of the most deadly and tastiest wild edibles could be mistaken for one another.  So check out our recommended ID methods below — and even once you’ve 1000% identified the plant, never hesitate to use the taste test:

  • Harvest a small portion (1/4″) of the plant (to be consumed).  Rub it on the soft, inside of your bare wrist.  Wait 20 minutes.  If there’s no reaction, you may continue.
  • Rub a portion of the plant on the gum line of your mouth.  Wait 20 minutes.  If there’s no reaction or poor taste, you may continue.
  • Lay a portion of the plant on your tongue.  Let it sit for a minute.  Discard the plant, without swallowing the juices/saliva.  Wait 1 hour.  If there’s no reaction, you may continue.
  • Chew a small portion of the plant and discard.  Wait 1 hour.  If there’s no reaction, you may continue.
  • Sample (eat) a small portion of the plant.  Wait 1 hour.  If there’s no reaction, you may assume the plant is safe to consume.

Consider dangerous plants you know of.  Would any pass this test?  Poison Ivy wouldn’t pass step one (for most of us); definitely not step two.  Likewise, Poison Hemlock (deadly) would likely cause a contact dermatitis reaction at step one, plus have a HORRIBLE taste and likely make you sick at step two or three.

 

Plant “Uses”

There are five primary properties/uses of plants of which you need to be aware.  Depending on your situation, they may be viewed as pros or cons:

  • Edible – This is the category that gets the most attention.  We receive a wide variety of vitamins and nutrients from consuming plant life.  Hence the awesome 5,000 to 10,000 year old innovation of agriculture.
  • Medicinal – Many plants (edible, poisonous, and benign) have medicinal properties, whether they are eaten, drank, injected, smoked, applied topically, etc.  Just because it’s safe to eat does not mean it’s safe medicinally, and visa versa.  The dosage is also highly important.
  • Practical/Utilitarian – Plants (including trees) have an extraordinarily wide variety of uses in the tool, weapon, shelter, etc. category.
  • Hallucinogenic – Indigenous cultures around the world have used plant constituents for sacred and practical purposes.  Plants are also used recreationally today.  Effects may be benign to deadly, based on species and dosage.  (You could also lump this under the poisonous category, because it includes an adverse reaction.)
  • Poisonous – I view ‘poisonous’ on a spectrum.  ‘Poisonous’ and ‘deadly’ are not the same thing.  If you eat too many bananas, they are poisonous.  Like jalapenos?  I love ’em.  They would fall under the poisonous category, because of the body’s reaction.  (Imagine eating an unknown plant in the wild and getting the burn of a jalapeno!)  Conversely, certain ‘poisonous’ plants are fine if harvested, prepared, and consumed in the appropriate manner.  Think of ‘deadly-poisonous’ plants being at one end of the spectrum and ‘benign poisonous’ at the other.  If you consume too many of anything, they’ll be dangerous.

 

Identification Methods

In my mind, there are three main methods to learn to identify plants.  In increasing order of preference, and with pros and cons, they are:

  • Plant Hike with an ‘Expert’ – You sign on to take an ID hike with a so-called plant expert.  Cool.  You spend 3 to 8 hours walking along a trail (with 30 other people) during which they point out the plants along the way (some ‘experts’ are vastly entertaining in their presentation).  They’ll talk at you with all sorts of details about the plants, ID indicators, uses, ways to prep them and so on.  They obviously know their stuff.  I give you three weeks.  What do you remember?  Retention for this type of learning method is at the bottom.  This, in my opinion, is not the way to learn plants if you’re actually serious about it (beyond bragging to your friends for the next two weeks about what you learned on your ‘plant hike’).
  • Field Guide ID in the Field – You buy one of the top-name field guides off the shelf at the bookstore (or through your favorite online retailer).  You hit the trail with your pack, hiking boots, water bottle, magnifying glass, and first aid kit, excited to learn some plants!  OK, you find your first one.  It’s got leaves.  OK.  That narrows it down.  And then?  Well, that’s it.  It’s got leaves.  OK.  That narrows it to the hundreds of thousands of plants it could be.Field guides also tend to include photographs instead of illustrations.  Photos capture one particular plant, at one particular time of year, in one particular place.  It commodifies your ID to a singular example.  Illustrations allow the illustrator to highlight the main points of ID you should focus on.  I liken it to your best friend.  If your friend cuts their hair or changes their clothes — you still recognize them walking down the street.  But if you could only recognize them in that one outfit, with that one hairstyle, in that one place, you’d miss them every other time.  With this method, you also only learn one specific species of one plant family.Hence the:
  • Patterns-Method of Plant ID – My preferred (and recommended) method of learning plant ID.  It requires something called ‘studying’ and is not the easy answer for the person desiring instant gratification (go take a plant hike with an ‘expert’) – it might feel like work.  But it’s less monotonous than the field guide ID of one species at a time in the field (and far more rewarding).  This method approaches a ‘botanical’ level of study (because it is) and you’ll learn way more than with a trail ‘expert’.The patterns-method is based on the fact that similar plants will have similar patterns or characteristics — because they are related.  Generally, the more closely related two plants are, the more patterns they will have in common.  If we study those characteristics on the Family level (above Species and Genus in the taxonomic classification), we instantly begin to learn to identify plant species by the hundreds or thousands (although only down to the family or genus level, not the specific species).  Fortunately, many members of a common family share the same (or similar) properties, like edibility or medicinal uses.  There are some extreme exceptions to this rule, however, such as members of the parsley family, which includes some of North America’s tastiest wild edibles — and well as our deadliest.

I’m going to get you started with learning six plant families that, combined, include more than 51,000 species of plants worldwide.  Try learning that many plants on a 3-hour hike!

 

Mint Family

I love starting folks off with the mint family, because the mints are easy to find, highly edible, and really exemplify the patterns-method in a clear way.  Members of the mint family:

  1. Have stems that are square in cross-section,  (Roll the stem in your fingers to feel whether it’s round or square.)
  2. Have opposite-branching leaves.  (That means that where one leaf sprouts from the stem/branch, another one sprouts on the direct opposite side.  As opposed to alternate-branching plants, where one leaf sprouts and then a little farther up, another leaf.)  Sets of leaves on the mint family also sprout at 90-degree angles to the set below.
  3. Are often aromatic.  (Sometimes unbelievably strong.)  Most of the mint family members we think of immediately (mint, spearmint, catnip) ring true of this.

So if you find a plant you’d like to ID and all three of the characteristics above are present — you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at a member of the mint family.  Here are some other cool things about the mints:

  • Many of the herbs in your spice rack are members of the mint family:  oregano, sage, thyme, basil, marjoram, lavender, and so on
  • Worldwide, there are about 3,500 species of the mint familyall of which are edible, or at least not poisonous.  (Some mints are so aromatic you’d have a difficult time wanting to put them in your mouth!)
  • The volatile oils in mints are a great antimicrobrial!  You can use them topically, in teas, tinctures, or salves, or even eating a few leaves before or after drinking from a questionable water source.

 

For a quick lesson on tree identification, check out ‘Opposite Branching Tree? You’ve Got it M.A.D.E.’

Opposite Branching Tree? You’ve Got it M.A.D.E.

 

Parsley Family

The parsleys are another fun family — they’re all around us, often pretty, and include some really dangerous plants – so be sure to learn this family early!  Members of the parsley family:

  1. Have compound umbel flowerheads.  That’s a fancy phrase, neh?  You’ve probably seen these but maybe never looked closely.  The overall flowerhead (which could be 1/2″ to 4″ wide!) has a roughly umbrella shape to it, but is composed of many tiny flowers.  White and yellow are common colors in the parsley family, but they come in other colors too.
  2. Typically have hollow stalks.  They may be smooth or hairy, green or purply.  (See below for important warnings.)
  3. Often, but not always, have attractive, compound, fern-like leaves.

The parsley family includes wild carrot, parsnip, celery, anise, cumin, dill, and fennel — but also two of North America’s deadliest plants, Poison Hemlock and Water Hemlock.  The former bearing a strong resemblance to carrot!  I can’t overstate the importance of positively identifying specific members of this family.  You can likely find these growing along roadside and in waste places near your home.  Here are some similarities and differences to tell them apart:

  • Poison Hemlock and Carrot both have those lacy, fern-like leaves I mentioned.  When they ‘bolt’ (send up their stalk), you’ll see those large (white) compound umbel flowerheads.
  • Poison Hemlock will have a smooth stalk with reddish-purple splotches up and down it.  (Water Hemlock tends to have purple ‘stripes’ more so than splotches, and has less lacy leaves – the leaves are still compound, but the leaflets are more lance-shaped, with toothed edges.)
  • Wild Carrot will have a ‘hairy’ stalk, and be green.  (Here’s a tip to remember:  Another common name for Wild Carrot is Queen Anne’s Lace.  Some people find it helpful to use the phrase “The Queen [carrot] has hairy legs [stalk].”)
  • Wild Carrot also tends to have a single, tiny purple flower in the middle of its otherwise white flowerhead.  Poison Hemlock doesn’t have that.  (Although I’ve also found plenty of Wild Carrot plants that don’t have it either.)

I’d strongly recommend learning to positively identify Poison Hemlock and Water Hemlock from a distance.  I recommend not touching them and, if you do, wash your hands as soon as possible.  Ingesting a small piece can be deadly.  Even the oils or contact with the plant can make you sick.  Just a year or so ago, not far from where I write this, a hiker’s dog died after eating trailside Poison Hemlock.

 

Aster/Sunflower Family

The Aster or Sunflower Family is a neighborly, easily recognizable one and includes 19,000 species worldwide.  Asters and sunflowers are, of course, members of this family, but so are dandelions, black-eyed susans, gumweed, and daisies.  What do all of those have in common?

  1. Disc-shaped flowerheads.  (Consider the shape of the daisy or sunflower.)
  2. The flowerheads are composite (made of many flowers).  Often there are more tiny flowers than you could realistically count (consider the dandelion).  Each flower actually produces its own seed.  (Picture a dandelion seedhead or the seeds in a sunflower’s disc.)  Not all members of this family have noticeable petals, as the daisy and sunflower do.  (Sagebrush is one example that doesn’t.)

 

Pea Family

This is a cool one, because it gets into some beautiful, but technical stuff — and includes a huge variety of species, from small plants to huge trees.  A good one to really begin to see that relationship between so many different members of the plant kingdom!

  1. Flowers are very distinct and include 3 noticeable parts, known as the banner, wings, and keel.  Think of the banner as the showy ‘billboard’ trying to get pollinators to make a stop.  Here’s one of those cool parts:  When a pollinator (like a bee) lands on the keel, it adds just enough weight to press down on the keel, opening it up and exposing the stamens/pistils/pollen within.  It’s pretty awesome to watch it happening up close.  (Or you can carefully press open the keel yourself to look inside.)
  2. Seed pods are “pea like”, though there is some wide variation.
  3. Leaves are pinnate, or compound, composed of numerous smaller leaflets.

The Pea Family is made up of 13,000 species worldwide, including small plants like alfalfa and clover but also the locust, mimosa, and bird-of-paradise trees.  And of course the peas themselves.

 

Mustard Family

The Mustards are one of the most common plants I see around town and in parks.  They are widespread, easily recognizable, and highly edible.  The family includes the classic ‘mustards’ of course, as well as the radish and 3,200 other species.  All of which are edible.  I think mustard greens add a nice, ‘peppery’ spice to dishes and salads, but it’s easy to overdue it.  Interestingly, I don’t detect any similarity between the taste of wild mustard greens/seed and the commercial product known as ‘mustard’ (which I can’t stand).

Members of the Mustard Family tend to be small to tiny in size — from a few feet tall down to under an inch.  But they are unmistakable once you learn:

  1. The flowers have 4 petals, typically arranged in a cruciform “X” or “+”.  Size varies considerably, but the arrangement is clear.
  2. The seeds occur in a ‘raceme’, spiraling around the stalk.  Some are thin, some flat, some round, but once you begin to see the pattern of the seeds on the mustards, they become so ridiculously easy to spot, you’ll be pointing them out to friends from across the field.
  3. Technically speaking, mustards include 6 stamens inside each flower, 2 are short and 4 are taller.  If you really want to get up close and personal with mustard, learn to identify these.  For me, I rarely look for them anymore.  The other features are highly indicative of the family.

 

Truly learning plants takes personal devotion and drive to learn.  I go into more detail of my favorite books/methods/resources for learning (including plants) in this article:

Doug’s Top 10 Favorite Outdoor Skills Books

Or, for an even simpler version of the current article, check out ‘5 Edible Plants You Can Find (Almost) Anywhere On The Planet’.

 

Grass Family

Like the pea family, the grasses are a vast family ranging in many ecosystems, with 10,000 species worldwide.  The seeds are vastly edible (although many species contain seeds that are too small or difficult to warrant harvesting).  All ‘grains’ that you can buy commercially are in the grass family — corn, wheat, oats, rice, wild rice, rye, millet, barley, etc.  (Rye grass is a noted exception, which has its medicinal uses, but is considered poisonous in excess.)  Members of the grass family:

  1. Um, well, they look like grasses.  But you may need to broaden your mind’s eye picture of ‘grass’.  Bamboo is a grass.  As is the aforementioned corn.  Picture stalky, grasslike stalks of almost any size.  (Some bamboo grows quite tall and thick!)
  2. They have nodes instead of knots.  On trees and most plants, a knot indicates where a branch or leaf grew from.  On grasses, there are nodes instead.  They appear as a ‘woody’ ring around the whole stalk.  Picture the sections on bamboo.  Those are nodes (on steroids).  Look closely at any grass, though, and you’ll see various versions of the node.  Even your Kentucky Bluegrass lawn, if left to bolt and seed, will show nodes on its stalks.

 

So there’s your primer for learning to get started in plant identification.  Go out for a walk and keep an eye out for some of the indicators I’ve mentioned:  the seed racemes of the Mustard Family, the compound umbels of the Parsleys, or the unmistakable banner, wings, and keel of the Pea Family.  You’ll begin to recognize them like old friends from across the way.  Maybe consider even giving them a wave or a tip of your hat.

Have fun out there.

And if you like this method of learning plants, I highly recommend Tom Elpel’s Botany in a Day.  Tom popularized the patterns-method and this is the book that got me into plants in a big way once I decided I was serious about beginning to see through ‘the wall of green’.

 

All the best,

Doug

 

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