One of the aspects of wilderness training that seems to peak a lot of interest among people is knowing what you can and cannot eat outside. My wife and I teach edible and medicinal plant classes all over the state of Kentucky and have found a few things that we think we can tell you to help you get started. We have spent a great deal of time learning edibles in our area, and have spent about as much time trying our best to figure out the best ways to go about teaching people how to do it on their own. So this blog you are reading now is a distillation of that process. So hang with me for a while and we will get you on your way as well.
First things first, lets get this out of the way now. Taking one or two classes and picking up a book or two is not going to get you where you need to be. You need to develop a mindset now that this is one of those subjects that you will do over the long haul. It will take you a very short while to understand HOW to go about your study. It will take a much longer time to get adequate skill in identifying, harvesting, and preparing edible plants. Here are some real simple reasons why this is true.
- Plants look very different across seasons. So knowing what they look like in one season vs. another may take a whole year of observation.
- Plant study guides give you the “ideal” view of a species, often times the actual species look different.
- Very few things of value are ever achieved with little effort and time dedicated to them.
Secondly, and this is really important, so please pay close attention. When going out to identify plants, plan on trying to identify one or two at best. The biggest mistake that people make is that they go out with a guide and try to identify everything they come in contact with. Don’t make that mistake. What we recommend is getting your book, ipad, or android app ready. Find something in it that you are fairly certain grows in your area and then go try and find it by looking in the areas that the guide says it grows. Once you find it, then keep finding it. After that, find it some more. The repetition of finding one species many times, rather than several species one time is incredibly helpful to being able to see it once you are away from it. It help imprints it into your memory.
Third, you need to get a minimum of three resources (I will share my favorites with you in a moment). There is not a lot of solid hard data on edible plants, and a lot of information we do have is simply information that is passed down from others, or parroted from internet couch potatoes. I say that because there are very few people who invest the time and energy into doing hard research on the subject matter and sometime those people still write books on the subject. Often times books will disagree with one another on certain plants (i.e. one book I have says sassafrass is poisonous, another says it is great stuff, and I have used it since I was a kid). So get three resources and cross reference them as you study the plants.
Last but not least, study with some one who has experience in edibles and medicinals. It is my personal opinion that plants are not able to cure all diseases, nor is modern medicine able to do it either. So we would suggest a balanced approach to the medicinals in particular and make sure you communicate to your physician about the things you are working with. For example Vitamin K which is found at higher concentrations in green veggies such as spinach, and cucumber skin is not a good thing to be eating if you are blood thinning medications. So be careful, respect both.
There are some places you can get more information. First off check out my videos over at the Dan’s Depot youtube channel. I have some edible plant videos there that are helpful. As for guides, the following are my favorites. All of these books have illustrations rather than photographs. It is my recommendation that you get guides that have illustrations. Virtually all organic matter will have slight variances to it and it is therefore hard to get a photo of any one plant and say it is standard. Artists can do that for you and give you a better idea of a “standard” in the species you are considering.
Steve Brill’s book is my all time favorite. Brill is a fanatic (in a good way) about edible and medicinal plants. I have corresponded with Mr. Brill on several occasions and I have found him to be incredibly genuine in his his desire to want to teach people about edible plants. You will find this book to be nicely illustrated by Evelyn Dean. What you will also find is Mr. Brill’s wit and humor coming through on most of the pages. He loves the subject and he wants you to love it too. This book makes it educational and fun to take to the field and help identify plants. Mr. Brill has excellent apps for the ipad and iphone as well. I prefer books personally, but I also have those apps and will use them at times as well. I highly recommmend this reference tool.
The Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants is my next choice for go to books. The Peterson series of nature guides are excellent resources and I highly recommend all of them to all my students. The only reason I do not have this one at the top is because it does not also include the humorous quips and such. As far as technical books are concerned this book is it. It includes fantastic drawings of the various plants and details them very well in both the makeup and usability. The Peterson guides also do a great job of grouping similar species of plants so that if you come across something you can find its group and then pinpoint exactly which it is a bit easier. This book is also compact and is the easiest to put in a backpack and carry with you. It is also a bit hardier to the weather and will take some moisture abuse and keep running for a long while. Steve Brill’s book above, is not made in that way. We have had about 3 copies of it that we have wore out.
Thomas Elpel’s book is also another fantastic resource on the subject at hand. It too has fantastic drawings. What makes this book stand out is the method by which it teaches you plant identification. In this book you will find it organized by plant families. Which much like the Peterson guides help you to distinguish the multitude of things you will see on a good edibles walk. By grouping them in families, you do not have to have a real detailed eye in the beginning to get a lot of benefit from your study. Once you continue to study and get a better eye for things you can then start to see the details and pick them out of a larger group of plants.
So if you like the subject drop us a line and tell us how you got started in this subject. We love hearing about other people’s choices for resources and methods. If you are in our area and want to host us at your garden club, public library for a class on the subject of “Eatin’ Weeds” then please give us a call or email. Also you can a subscription to Self-Reliance Illustrated, in that magazine my wife and I have a monthly column on edible plants.
Come on, join in, let’s learn together!