Survival 101: Foraging for Edible Plants

· Reading Time: 6 minutes

Collecting mushrooms in the woods

Learning to forage for edible plants is just as important to your survival as knowing how to build a snare or trap. If you’re lost in the wild without an emergency food supply, foraging can act as a temporary solution to give you the energy and strength you need to survive as you wait for rescuers.

Why foraging? We obviously think food storage is important, and you can really get a balanced, nutritious, and awesome menu just from food storage. But hey, if you’re up for the adventure and you’re careful to look for the right foods, you can use foraging to bring some new, different flavors to the table—not to mention some lettuce, which simply doesn’t do well as a food storage item (spinach and cabbage being the obvious—and delicious—exceptions).

Foraging Rules

If you’re new to foraging, you’ll want to establish some rules before you start looking for edible plants. For example, most people know that some mushrooms can be poisonous, so one of your rules might be to stay away  from all mushrooms if you don’t know what’s poisonous and what’s not.

Foraging rules will keep you healthy and safe if you have to find wild plants to eat. Here are a couple of rules to get you started. Once you start foraging, you can add more of your own.

  1. Never eat anything if you’re not 100% sure of what it is.
  2. Be careful of where you forage (make sure you know the landscape, holes, threats, rivers, etc.).
  3. Stick with a few items you’re familiar with rather than spending hours searching for new plant species that might be dangerous.
  4. Memorize a few different types of edible plants common to your area (grasses are common enough plants to most areas, so if you get lost in the woods out of your home state, you know that grass is one plant you can count on.)
  5. Consult a field guide for preparation and cooking instructions for the plants (what if there’s a part of the plant that is inedible? You’ll want to know what to cut off and what to keep).
  6. Watch out for animals.
  7. Let someone know where you’re going before you go out foraging.

Some of these rules might apply more once you know what to look for, but it’s good to have a couple of rules in mind before you go.

Areas to Look for Edible Plants

Since many edible plants are classified as weeds you can start looking for plants in your lawn or other areas that are regularly cleared like parks and fields. Also, depending on the region of the United States you live in, edible plants will grow in different areas of the landscape.

Generally, in humid regions, most of your edible plants will be found in a sunny area or clearing. In drier climates, your wild plants will be found near water sources.

Also, if you’re out in the woods or an unknown place, look for plants that are growing in abundance. Stay away from plants that you may only see one or two of in the area. If a plant is growing in large abundance, it is more likely to be non-toxic and edible. However, before eating that plant, always perform the universal edibility test (a test to determine if a plant will make you sick or not) on any plants you are not 100% sure of.

For a more detailed guide of where to find plants, you can purchase a plant guide specific to your state. Also, The Sense of Survival gives great tips about finding and preparing edible plants.

How to Avoid Deadly Plants

The Art of Manliness gives eight features of poisonous plants to watch out for:

  1. Milky or discolored sap
  2. Spines, fine hairs, or thorns
  3. Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods
  4. Bitter or soapy taste
  5. Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley-like foliage
  6. “Almond” scent in the woody parts and leaves
  7. Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs
  8. Three-leaved growth pattern

Warning: The tricky thing about edible plants is that a lot of them have similar characteristics to poisonous ones, but they are still edible. Some plants even have parts that are ok to eat and other parts that are toxic. This is why it’s important to have a field guide to identify plants.

If you find a plant you think is edible but aren’t sure, you can test whether it’s poisonous or not by performing the Universal Edibility Test.

5 Edible Plants to Know

Dandelion: Flower, leaves, stem, and root are all edible. Flowers taste best as a bud or at a barely-open stage in salads or sautéed in butter. The leaves (best young, in early spring) are highly nutritious, good in salads or stir-fry. The root (best in winter) needs to be  parboiled (partially cooked in boiling water), then drained and boiled again until tender.

Edible dandelions and dandelion jam

Grasses: all grasses are edible, but it’s best to chew the leaves, swallow the juice, and spit out the tough fibers. Where the base of the leaves meets the root, there’s a small, white part called the corm, which can be roasted and eaten like potatoes.

Survival 101: Foraging for Edible Plants

Cattails: the roots, shoots, and pollen heads are edible. For tips on eating cattail pollen, check out these great tips from the “Hunger and Thirst” Blog.

Survival 101: Foraging for Edible Plants

GooseFoot: belongs to the same family as spinach, chard, and beets. The leaves of such varieties as “Lamb’s Quarters” are gathered and cooked as a vegetable.  The seeds are called “quinoa,” a gluten-free grain-alternative quickly increasing in popularity as a cereal, side dish, or bread ingredient.

Goosefoot--an edible plant for survival situations


Prickly Pear: this cactus-like plant grows from one to eight feet in height, and needs warm, dry, rocky soil. The pads resemble thick leaves and bear tufts of tiny, barbed bristles that are hard to see and harder to remove from the skin, so approach this plant with gloves and tongs! Using tongs, swish the fruit in water to remove the spines, and then carefully remove any remaining ones with a knife or peeler. The pads can be sliced and cooked for a vegetable (Nopalitos). The nutritious fruit can be used to make nectar, juice, jelly, candy, or pie. The branches can be roasted and peeled to get to edible pulp inside, and the seeds, parched and pulverized, are a good thickening agent.

 Prickly Pear--an edible plant for survival

These are just five edible plants you can find in the wild to get you started. Happy foraging!


What are some other edible plants you’ve found? Any other safety tips you’d like to share?



Universal Edibility test:

The Fantastic Four – 4 Essential Wild Edible Plants that May Just Save Your Life

16 Responses

  • Ramps are delish. Greens like spinich with a small onion like bulb.
    Autumn Olive berries are everywhere. They take over old fields and seem to surround every commuter parking lot I see. They make great jam, juice, and fruit leathers.

  • I am concerned that. You used a picture of a mushroom being cut with your foraging article. When I was in college I went on a mushroom foraging outing with a university professor who informed us that there are some poisonous mushrooms that are so similar to safe ones that the only way to know which was which was to harvest the entire thing down to the base, not cutting it like in the picture. And while many poisonous mushrooms have a peppery taste indicating they are toxic, according to this professor (who was well known for being an expert) he said there are some poisonous mushrooms that are reportedly absolutely delicious. I think you do a serious disservice by implying that mushrooms can be included in foraging by using that picture. Unless one is truly an expert on mushrooms, they should be left alone.

    • Yvonne,
      Great point to bring up. In the article, under the section about foraging rules, it stresses the fact that if you don’t know if something is 100% not poisonous (the example of mushrooms is used) to not eat them at all. The article suggests that if you do not know if a plant is poisonous, you should shy away from it completely. We also stress the fact that some plants that are poisonous do look the same as the non-poisonous versions. So if you don’t know which is good to eat, it’s best to shy away from that plant completely. Our goal is to help people learn a few common plants within their area that they can stick with and identify 100% instead of looking for completely new items.

  • Here in the Pacific Northwest, stinging nettles are quite plentiful. The raw plants irritate the skin (use gloves to pick them) – but once cooked, they are quite edible. The same goes for young fern "fiddle heads". During summer and autumn, we have blackberries, salmon berries, thimble berries, huckleberries, blueberries, salal, and Oregon grape. Of course, the ever present dandelions are available throughout the year.

  • So far this spring, I’ve had lovely dishes of cooked nettles, plus dock with wild garlic. Lamb’s quarters are always good, and the morel mushrooms provide delicious food and hours of exercise looking for them.

  • I started looking into foraging a few years ago and it’s been great, wonderfully rewarding. But, it’s hard! Just about all plants have very specific annual cycles and you’ve got to know what’s ready when. It’s very unlikely that you can wander around and put together a meal. Much more likely is that you’ve got spots where you know good things grow, and you go there when you know the good things are ready and stock up (and, if it’s not an emergency scenario, being mindful of sharing the edibles with wildlife, others, and keeping the plants healthy and flourishing). Also, foraging is extremely location dependent. There’s no all-inclusive field manual. The BEST source is a local guide (person not book), with whom a few hours is infinitely more valuable than every foraging book written.

  • Know the few fungi that grow in the woods all over America that has no poison relatives such as "hen of the woods", "sulfur shelf," "Chaga", which grows on birch trees and makes a great Tea and has more cancer fighting properties then any other plant, thousands more times. The "Black trumpet" and Morels. If you know of an Old Italian, ask him, most Italians can tell you what to pick. Puff Balls are another, and easy to identify once you cut it open. There are 100 varieties of safe mushrooms, just learn 6 of the easy ones. Hens, puff balls, Sulfur shelf, Chaga, and a couple more. I once cut a 50 lb. Hen that grow under a dead Oak tree; most of these grow near hard woods. And, after Sandy hundreds are now growing from fallen trees. Best time is in Sept. & Oct. for Hens, and spring for Morels and others, Sulfur shelf, all year.

  • If you are interested in foraging do yourself a favor and pick up an edible plant guide. They can be found in many sporting goods stores and online and a proper printed one can have over 100 types. This will give you variety and options over the course of the year .

  • Great articles, great comments. We forage for fun and preparedness and have gotten a solid foundational education for foraging from a great starter’s book: Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas, PhD. Focusing on 16 plants, most of which are in all 50 states; and many in our own backyards, literally. Foundation greens, tarts, pungent, and bitters are all covered from seedling to overwintering, full of clear close ups at various stages of growth.

    You learn the first four or five in such great detail and reasonings behind the details. Certain patterns in foraging then become easier to think through… I would almost say that you learn to think in the processes of wild plants.

    Beyond that, the easy reading book takes you to the table with what you’ve gotten.

    Okay, enough about that.

    Keep up the blogs BePrepared. Love it, love it, love it!

  • A lot of weeds are edible. Purslane, for example, is something you’ve probably pulled out of your lawn. In many areas it’s grown as a crop. Lambs quarters is another that you probably step over without even seeing it. While I wouldn’t suggest cultivating these, your own yard may be your first stop for foraging.

  • Since I fall under the heading Herbalist I am probably the only one that actually orders some of these plants considered weeds, via the internet. I want to be absolutely sure of what I am picking so I have begun growing them from seed. Horizon Herbs .com offers medicinal seeds and all herbalist know that a lot of those weeds are medicinal as well as being used for food. I planted Mullein in my garden so that I can make cough syrup from the blossoms. Mullein has many many uses. Plantain is a safe edible and also one of the best drawling agents. I make mine into a salve and my family uses this for scraps, bites and stings. I didn’t have any Nettles so I planted them this spring. Nettles can be eaten, but also the dried leaves can be made into a tea which is beneficial for allergies. My kids LOVE fried Dandelion flowers, but the dried roots detoxifies and supports the liver. If a poisonous mushroom has been ingested accidentally, of course get help, but in an event as TEOTWAWKI run to the dandelion root. Do some research, the other plant for this situation is Milk Thistle. Milk Thistle supports the liver even more and might save you if consumed in time. Most of us know that White Oak can be used too. You are able to use the seeds/acorns as flour after removing all or most of the tannins, but the powdered oak bark helps dry up excess mucus in the system. Another plant is the May Apple. The entire plant is poisonous, but the fruit or apple can be eaten when ripe, just absolutely leave the rest of it alone! Poke is another one you can eat the young shoots, but nothing else. Especially do NOT eat the berries. These have poisoned children over the years. Other wild plants that I can think of to use is Yarrow, Wild Mulberry (Only eat the ripe fruit. Leaves are somewhat toxic), Jerusalem artichoke or Sun-chokes their tubers are better than potatoes, Bee Balm aka Monarda didyma . This plant has medicinal properties and the leaves can be used as tea. It is also called Oswego tea named after the Oswego Indians that utilized it. I agree with the others about getting some books to help identify wild edibles. I have two of those and about 50 or more books on herbs and herbal plants, but a nature walk with an experienced guide won’t hurt either. Check into the local Conservation Centers in your areas. We homeschool and I know that our local center is having a "walk through the woods" class on identifying mushrooms in the next week or so and it free! Hope this info helps someone…

  • Pine needles can be gently simmered to make a decent flavored tea. Don’t turn your nose up at wild or ornamental crab apples, either- the fruit, once cooked tends to sweeten up and is very nutritious.

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