I have noted that most of the very common “weeds” can now be found worldwide. These are typically found in the disturbed soils of farms, backyards, and throughout urban areas. This means, among other things, that you could learn a dozen or so of these very common urban weeds, and use them in your meals as you travel the world.
But what about the poisonous plants, I am often asked. Shouldn’t I be able to identify all the poisonous plants? Certainly, the more you know the better. On the other hand, if you know that you have positively identified the plant you are about to eat as an known edible species, then it really doesn’t matter if you can identify any poisonous plants. Just know what you are eating, and “if in doubt, do without.”
In his book “Participating in Nature,” Thomas Elpel has created a unique chart [above] to give a perspective on the sheer numbers of edible, medicinal, and poisonous plants.
First, almost every plant with known ethno-botanical uses can be used medicinally, even some otherwise toxic plants can be used medicinally if you know the right doses and proper application. So, yes, medicine is everywhere. But nearly two-thirds of these plants are neither poisonous, nor used for food for various reasons.
The extremely poisonous plants that will outright kill you are rare. And since there are so few of these deadly plants, it is not all that difficult to learn to identify them. In Southern California, for example, there is poison hemlock, and castor bean which are readily recognizable. Others that could cause death are various mushrooms, oleander, and tree tobacco, though we rarely hear about this happening.
Though there are only a few that are deadly poisonous, there are many more – perhaps five times as many plants as the very deadly ones – that would make you very sick, but would not normally kill you.
Still, all the poisonous and toxic plants combined are perhaps 1/20th (if that) of all the known ethnobotanicals.
Edible plants comprise about ¼ of the known edible-medicinal-poisonous plants.
Of the plants that we normally think of as “food plants,” the overwhelming majority – maybe 70% or so – is primarily providing us with greens. That is, throughout most of the year, most of the food that you’ll obtain from wild foods consists of greens, food to make salads, and stir fries, and add to soups and vegetable dishes. These are plants which will not by themselves create a filling and balanced meal, but which will add vitamins and minerals to your dried beans, MREs, freeze-dried camping food, and your other foods. In general, greens are not high sources of protein, or fats, or carbohyrdrates.
Berries and fruits comprise another category of wild foods. Maybe 10 to 15% of the wild foods you find will provide you with berries or fruits, but timing is everything. Unlike greens, which you can usually find year-round, fruits and berries are typically available only seasonally, so if you want some during other parts of the years,you’ll need to dry them, or make jams or preserves. This includes blackberries, elderberries, toyon, mulberries, and many others. They provide sugar and flavor, but like greens, you would not make a meal entirely from fruits and berries.
Then, an even smaller category of wild foods,. Perhaps 5 to 7%, consists of starchy roots, such as cattails, Jerusalem artichokes, and others. These are great for energy, though they may not be available year round. This is why these foods have traditionally been dried, and even powdered, and stored for use later in the years.
Another small category of wild foods consists of the seeds and nuts. This includes grass seeds, pine nuts, mesquite, screwbean, carob, acorns, and many others. It is in this small category, maybe 5% of wild foods, where you obtain the carbohydrates, oils, and sometimes proteins that constitute the “staff of life.” Though these are not available all year, some have a longer harvest time than others. Some may have a harvest period of as short as two weeks. Many grass seeds simply fall to the ground and are eaten by animals. Fortunately, most of these can be harvested in season and stored for later use.
Tom’s chart is based on years of observation and analysis, and can be found in his “Participating in Nature” book, available from Hops Press, www.hopspress.com. Elpel is also the author of “Botany in a Day,” now in color, available from the Store at the School of Self-reliance, www.ChristopherNyerges.com.