According to the rule of three, you can survive without food for as long as three weeks. “Can survive…” Think what those words really mean though. We’re not talking a fairly comfortable three weeks of living spent under the shade of a desert boulder and then sudden death. This is intense hunger gnawing at your insides, extreme listlessness, irritability, increasing weakness (and no, I’m not talking about the way you feel when you first get up in the morning). We’re talking a miserable death-approaching state. You probably don’t even have three weeks if you’re planning to actively pursue getting out of a survival situation where you are trying to signal for rescue or even rescue yourself. That takes energy, which requires fuel (food)…
So let’s say you are in a survival situation without having brought any food with you. How are you going to feed yourself? Not all of us are experienced hunters. Thankfully, foraging for food – looking for plants to eat – doesn’t require your learning a complex skill like hunting. Don’t get me wrong. You do absolutely need to be careful as well as knowledgeable about the plants that you’re thinking about eating! Some plants contain toxic substances that could turn your bad situation into a worse one, but if you know the general guidelines for foraging and how to test plants for edibility, then you at least have one less thing to worry about.
Rules of thumb for inedible plants:
If you can’t recognize a certain plant, then steer clear of it if the plant has one or more of the following characteristics:
- spines, thorns, or fine hairs
- foliage that looks like dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley
- a milky or discolored sap
- woody stems or leaves that smell like almonds
- a three-leaved growth pattern
- grain heads with spurs that are colored pink, purple, or black
- seeds inside pods, bulbs, or beans
- tastes bitter or like soap
Keep in mind that there are also some edible plants that have some of these characteristics; however, if you’re not familiar with a plant, it’s still better to be safe than sorry.
Universal Edibility Test
If you’re not 100% sure of a plant’s edibility and you can’t find anything else to eat, use the universal edibility test before you even taste a small portion. Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of testing, however, make sure that there are enough plants in the area to make things worth your while. Testing each part of the plant takes hours. You don’t need to waste your time testing a plant that’s not abundantly available – you’re in enough trouble as it is; you don’t need to add to your stress levels. In addition, you’ll need to fast for 8 hours (don’t consume anything but purified water) before you start testing. This ensures that any adverse reaction is caused by the plant and not something else.
Step 1: The dissection.
The first thing you’ll need to do is to separate the plant into its basic parts – leaves, stems, roots, buds, and flowers. Inspect each plant part for parasites. Throw away those that are infected and look for a different sample from the same plant.
Step 2: The skin test.
Check if the plant is contact-poisonous by rubbing a plant part on the inside of your wrist or elbow and letting it touch your skin for 15 minutes. If you see signs of irritation then stop testing that part of the plant and move on to the next. (Sounding a bit labor intensive yet? Just wait till you read the next step.)
Step 3: Baby bites!
Once you’re done with the first phase, prepare a small portion of the plant part for eating. If you can, it’s best to cook the part you are testing as some plants that have toxic substances lose them when boiled.
- Then, place a small amount of the prepared plant part to your lip for 15 minutes.
- If there’s no adverse reaction such as stinging or burning, place that same portion on your tongue, holding it there for another 15 minutes.
- If there’s still no reaction, chew the portion thoroughly and let it stay in your mouth for 15 minutes. Do not swallow it yet.
- If there are no signs of irritation that occur within that time frame, swallow the portion.
- Wait for 8 hours.
- If you don’t experience any adverse reaction, then you can prepare 1/4 cup of that same plant portion and eat it before waiting for an additional 8 hours.
- If there is still no reaction, then this plant part has successfully passed the universal edibility test.
- If at any time after you ate the plant part you start to feel an adverse reaction, induce vomiting so you can remove the toxins from your body and drink lots of water so you don’t get dehydrated.
Now, don’t get cocky just because one part of the plant passed the edibility test. It is vital that you test ALL parts of the plant because some plants have both edible and inedible parts. In addition, never assume (you know what happens when you assume, right?) that a plant that proved to be edible when cooked is also safe to eat when raw. And don’t forget that each person’s body reacts differently to food, so don’t assume that anyone else who might be with you can safely eat the plant parts that are safe for you.
Check out the video below to get more info:
So, what about wild berries? Well, you probably know that not all berries are edible, but there are some guidelines you can follow to help you choose the safe ones. It is very important to keep in mind that there are always exceptions to these guidelines so the truly safe thing to do is to know what it is before you consume it. In an extreme situation though, these guidelines can help you get fed and, more importantly, stay alive.
General guidelines for wild berries:
- 90% of green, white, and yellow wild berries are poisonous.
- 50% of red wild berries are unsafe so test them first if you don’t know the berry.
- 90% of aggregate berries such as blackberries, raspberries, and mulberries as well as blue berries (not aggregates) are edible, so you’re a lot safer eating these than any other kind of wild berry.
Wild Berries Edibility Test
If you can’t find any berries that you recognize, then you can perform a quick (finished in under an hour!) and easy test to check if the ones surrounding you are edible. Once again, there are several phases to this test. And no, you don’t get to skip phases. You can only move on to the next phase if there are no signs of irritation caused by the previous one.
Phase 1: Smash a berry and rub the pulp on the underside of your forearm. Let it lie for 5 minutes then check your skin for signs of irritation.
Phase 2: Rub some of the smashed pulp and juice on your lips. Let it lie for 5 minutes then check if there are any signs of irritation such as numbing, burning, or stinging.
Phase 3: Chew a small amount of the berry in your mouth but don’t swallow it. If there are no signs of irritation that occur after 5 minutes, you can proceed to the next phase.
Phase 4: Eat 1 or 2 berries and wait for 20 minutes. If there are no signs of irritation in your throat or you don’t feel nauseated, then the berries should be safe for eating.
When you find a berry that passes through all four phases, you may very well have the urge to chow throw everything aside and chow down. Resist the urge. It is important that you don’t gorge yourself on the berries once you’ve determined they’re safe to eat. Not only are they quite filling in small amounts, but you also need to take it slow so you can judge how well your system will handle eating the wild fruit.
Hopefully, you’re not going to get yourself into a survival situation without food or an easy means of getting food, but if you ever do find yourself in such an unfortunate situation, these guidelines might just be your salvation. Remember, knowledge is power and preparation is king when it comes to wilderness survival.
About the Author
Leighton Taylor is an outdoor enthusiast, writer, entrepreneur, and expert knife gawker. He occasionally writes something interesting at SurvivalKnifeExperts.com.