Gustatory Guidelines for the Unfortunate Survival Situation: Testing Plant Edibility

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)…


Photos by Nick Savchenko. Used under Creative Commons.

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


Photos by Starr Environmental, jemasmith, Deanster1983 on and off for now, miheco, Jack W. Pearce.
Used under Creative Commons.


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.


Photos by born1945. Used under Creative Commons.

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

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  1. Great info on testing plants. While plants are risky if you don’t know what you are eating, remember that all fresh water fish are safe, as well as small animals. I always keep a small match tube in my pocket with a few matches, needles and a few fishing hooks, line and sinkers. If at all possible, don’t eat plants that you can not positively identify and try to learn what plants in your area are edible ahead of time.

  2. Remember what grows in other countries and is consumed by the local natives, may be safe for them, but outsiders can suffer serious diarrhea and abdominal cramps if not acclimated to their local fauna.

  3. I’ve been teaching Wilderness Survival off/on for 40 years and refuse to teach edible plants. I’ve found that the average person cannot tell the difference between “good plant” and “bad plant” when they look similar. I’ll leave that to someone else that is willing to take responsibility for someone supposedly following his or her teaching and getting sick or worse. There are always other items to eat (grubs, toads, etc.).

  4. Back in the woods where we have a remote property, squirrel are called ‘limb chicken.’ Limb Chicken are a bountiful and seemingly endless staple for many of the locals.

    When I was a lad visiting my grandparents, I’d walk down in the hollow and back up the mountain beyond to visit a great aunt. She was one of the oldest people I had ever met and she must have been about 90 when I was 6. Effie had a great appetite for squirrel and when she saw me working my way up her ‘hill’ she’d get an old and worn out .22 and prop it by the door. I was often greeted with, ‘let’s get some squirrel,’ and as her eyes were weak, probably with cataracts, I’d end up with the rifle. The old lady would whistle up some old mutt that always looked like it had coon dog provenance and off we’d go. Her dogs always knew where the squirrel were – on the opposite side of the tree trunk and knew to chase the squirrels around to where they could be shot. Within minutes we would have several fat squirrels swinging by the tails. While I zipped them out of their skins, the aunt would get her wood stove fired up. She made the very best fried squirrel and gravy. That was a long long time ago and after leaving Texas we bought a place in the mountains not far from where the aunt lived. The wife and I were looking for a lost dog the other day and came across an old trailer house wedged back in the forest with a lad out front. A dog that was with us ran up to greet the lad and made a grab at something he was skinning. It was squirrel. He told the dog, ‘down boy, that’s lunch.’ Did that ever bring back the memories.

    Forests are full of edible wild food both animal and plant. Wild onions and limb chicken are plentiful around these parts and often an abandoned homestead garden will yield an unexpected bounty. Real country boys can survive.

    Thanks for your post,

  5. Something that is very rarely mentioned are allergies. I have extensive allergies to plants. Once they have been processed into food, supplements, etc… I can safely ingest them. If I get a simple scratch from the unprocessed plant, it can last for months. Other symptoms of allergies include itching, sneezing, hives and trouble breathing. These are the most common but not the only symptoms that can be experienced.

    Since everything we eat is processed that doesn’t automatically mean you can eat it in its natural state. With the increase of people becoming allergic to processed foods there is an increased risk of becoming allergic to wild plants. If you or a family member have allergies of any kind, it is a good idea to get tested before SHTF. If the test shows no allergies that will be one less thing to worry about. If the test does show you are sensitive to plants, you can make sure what to avoid when in nature.

    This won’t be a problem for most people but is something you should be aware of not only for yourself but also others weather they are related to you or not. Also as a side note, it wouldn’t hurt to get tested for insects as well. My daughter isn’t allergic to plants but does swell up where an insect bites her. She hasn’t been formally tested but the cause and effect of being bitten has been observed.

    If you do have to deal with allergies make sure to include medications in your first aid kit. Make sure you keep an eye on the expiration dates and rotate them as needed. There are many sources of information if you need to learn about this subject.

  6. Diphenhydramine, Zyrtek, and triamcinolone acetonide should be in every medical chest.

    One side effect of getting older is decreased immune response. This is both bad and good.

    Me, I stock a lot of insect repellent and hang onto the mesh jackets bought for an African hunt where the voracious tsetse fly was prevalent.


  7. Well Kat….u may not survive a shtf situation. I feel bad for anyone with children or special needs reatives or those that need medical attention or help. Ive always said in an real world event 90 percent of north americans would die very quickly.

  8. Katherin,

    I cannot leave this post on such a note by sertis.

    I mentioned some drug countermeasures to allergies. If you can tolerate Benedryl (diphenhydramine), I would certainly stock up on this most worthy of palliatives.

    Most allergists these days can determine food and environmental sensitivities from a blood sample. Know and avoid are the watchwords.

    Again, one of the factors in living long is usually decreased immune response. Once the daughter reaches the other side of 50 I suspect she will be able to tolerate things that for now are intolerable.

    We all have weaknesses be they short of that 160 IQ, physical, medical, financial, the list is endless. Smart people accumulate and develop countermeasures to those weaknesses.

    Noting is as fickle as fate. You and you daughter may indeed the be the last women standing. Perseverance in the face of adversity marks us as human and a corollary is that the only easy day was yesterday. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that all is hopeless.


  9. In support of Panhandle Rancher, one of the 11 principles of leadership is: Know yourself and seek self-improvement. Capitalize on your strengths while improving upon your weaknesses.


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