man hiking in the bushes

Nature Provides: A Simple Guide to Edible Plants You Can Find On The Trails

Camping Hiking
August 20, 2020

If you are an avid hiker, you have probably seen a few tasty looking berries or aromatic herbs while out on the trail but were unsure whether they were safe to eat. There are a lot of tasty plants we can find in the wild that are entirely safe to consume. Then again, there are also a lot of plants that are potentially harmful. Knowing how to spot safe and unsafe plants to consume is paramount to enjoying the wondrous world of vegetation that is at your disposal.

Fortunately, you do not have to be a certified botanist or survival expert to spot edible plants in the wild. Contrary to popular belief, most North American vegetation is safe to consume. The challenge is finding plants that are both tasty and nutritious. In this article, we discuss plants you should avoid; plants that are safe to eat and easy to spot; and a universal test you can use to help determine whether a plant is edible or not.

What To Avoid

When you are venturing through the forest, you may stumble upon a lush leafy plant that looks safe to eat. However, do not be fooled by its appearance. There are a lot of plants that look like familiar edible ones but are potentially harmful. A prime example is a hemlock, which looks just like wild parsley but could be potentially deadly if consumed. Because looks can be deceiving, only bite into a plant that you are sure it is safe to eat.

What Wild Plants Are Edible?

Familiar Looking Berries

red and black berries
A cluster of berries, like blackberries, is easy to spot in the woods. Photo by Loris Tissino.

Wild berries can be a great source of calories. Unfortunately, finding edible fruit is a little bit trickier. There are a lot of wild fruit out there that can make you sick, and there is no definite rule of thumb to determine what is safe. Not to mention, many tasty and delicious wild berries have potentially deadly doppelgangers. However, there is one essential point to remember, avoid consuming any white berries you come across.

For your well-being, only eat wild berries you can recognize with absolute certainty. Aggregate berries, such as raspberries and blackberries, are all delicious and safe to eat. They are easy to spot due to their tightly packed cluster of fruit. Likewise, elderberries are also quite common in the forest and easy to spot due to its purplish color and umbrella shape cluster.

Wild Onion

Wild onion is an abundant and safe plant that grows in forests throughout the country. They usually grow in clumps, so if you stumble upon one, you may have an entire afternoon harvest. Onion bulbs grow in the ground and have long flat green leaves. The best way to tell if the plant is onion is by using your nose. If it smells like onion, then it’s onion. However, if it smells like something or else, or does not have a smell at all, it’s best to discard immediately.

Tree Nuts

Tree nuts are an incredible survival food, as they are one of the most calorie-dense plants you can find in the wild.  They grow in most North American forests. If you are someone who is East of the Great Plains, then you can find an abundance of hickory nuts. Hickory nuts are a protein-packed snack produced by hickory trees. They have an outer husk and inner shell and taste just like pecans. To spot a hickory nut, they are veiny like a pecan.

If you are someone from the Southwest, the pine nut is a tasty tree nut option for you. You can find them in, you guessed, a pine cone. Likewise, they are easy to harvest and taste just like a buttered kernel.

pine seeds on white ceramic plate
You can find edible and tasty pine nuts in a pine cone. Photo by Leila Issa.

But even if you are unable to find hickory nuts or pine nuts, the humble acorn is another edible alternative. Interestingly, the acorn was an essential food source for Native Americans. However, unlike the previous two tree nuts, the acorn requires preparation. To properly prepare an acorn, first, you must crack the shell and remove the nut, then submerge it in a stream of water for a couple of days. The acorn has a high concentration of tannic acid, which gives it a bitter taste.

Aquatic Plants

For anyone hiking near a river, lake, or wetland, there is an abundance of aquatic plant life ripe for the taking. You may scan these water sources and see plant species with leaves poking out of the water. Almost all underwater plant species are edible. Not to mention, their roots are an incredible source of nutrition.

The easy to recognize bulrush and cattail are a great go-to. You can distinguish these plants from their cigar-shaped tip and flower spikes. Likewise, they are high in protein and carbs. However, since they have such high protein, they are unappetizing uncooked. So if you want to eat some, consider roasting them on an open fire.

The Universal Edibility Test

Even if you follow this guide, you may stumble upon a tasty looking plant but be unsure whether it is safe to eat. Fortunately, Backpacker created a Universal Edibility Test to help determine whether a plant is indeed safe to consume. The criteria go as follows:

  1. Use your nose: if it smells rotten, toss it out. 
  2. If not, put the plant on your forearm for a few minutes. If it begins to burn, itch, or have any other effect, toss it out.
  3. If your skin is clear, kiss the plant and wait for 15 minutes.
  4. If the plant passes the previous three steps, take a small bite. If it is bitter or soapy, immediately spit it out.
  5. After eating a small amount, wait a few hours. If you are not sick, then the plant is probably safe to eat.

When venturing out in the forest, always dress adequately – especially in the summer season. Check out our top-notch outdoor clothing for men and women, and pick something with pockets for all those tasty nuts and berries along the trail!

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