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When SHTF, Know What Plants You Can Eat…and Shouldn’t

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Whether lost in the woods or fallen out of the sky, you can still survive off the land by knowing what’s edible

You’re lost and alone. It’s been four days since you last ate. And you can’t get over the gut-wrenching reality that a main road could be 50 feet away…or 50 miles away. In every survival situation, desperation plays an important role. Perhaps on day four, a dead lizard still looks like a dead lizard, but by day 11, the same dead lizard looks like filet mignon. The reality is if you don’t replace the lost calories expended while in full-tilt survival mode, there will be very little left of you to rescue.

Fortunately, Mother Nature’s got your back, and if you have ample water, there is enough food in any average American forest to keep you in relatively good shape — provided you know what to look for. “Just like the old adage that every dog bites, every plant in nature is poisonous until you know that it isn’t,” says survival instructor and author Christopher Nyerges. “Identification is key to any survival situation.”

Nyerges has taught practical survival skills to more than 30,000 people since 1974, with the core of his School of Self-Reliance centered on the belief that these basic skills “build inherent strength into every community when the individuals are strong and self-reliant.” He is the author of 10 books, including How to Survive Anywhere, Enter the Forest, and Guide to Wild Foods. “Put into an unusual situation, a person will soon discover than an inner strength is developed by forcing yourself to deal with your own needs. But it doesn’t come easy. It is earned by choosing to deal with a situation where your limits are tested, where you’re forced to rely on your own resources, skills and knowledge.”

After shelter and personal safety are secured, immediately next on the list is food and water. Nearly all animals — insects, larvae, fish, snakes, birds, and large game — can be eaten, but you cannot randomly eat any plant. “Intimate knowledge of a dozen edible plants — intimate meaning you can spot them while driving by in a car in any season — can mean all the difference between life and death,” Nyerges says.

Finding and identifying any combination of the following plants will make for a nutritious and even delicious salad, one that will give you a great source of vitamins, minerals, and the energy to not only survive but to thrive.

1. Pink Meadow Onion
(Allium unifolium)

Also known as the One-Leaf Onion because of its single stalk leaves, this completely edible plant grows near stream beds in moist clay soils. They can be eaten raw or cooked, similar to store-bought onions in every way and are a great source of Vitamin A.

2. Lamb’s Quarter

This is a wild spinach and is one of the most popularly eaten wild plant, due to its mild flavor and high calcium content, significant sources of thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. The leaves are 80- to 90-percent water, and the ample seeds can be ground into a flour for cakes or eaten as a cereal. The entire plant is edible.

3. Orach

Also known as Goosefoot, Orach is related to Lamb’s Quarter and amaranth, and can be found on salt marshes, beaches, and moist alkaline land. The seeds, leaves, and stems can be eaten. The leaves are mild but can be somewhat salty, and the seeds contain a lot of starch.

 4. Green Amaranth

Although it is easy to mistake Amaranth with Lamb’s Quarter, Amaranth is arguably much better for you, as it is packed with vitamins A, B and C, as well as plenty of calcium, iron, and potassium. Amaranth grows in abundance all over North America, and is completely edible. After the small flowers blossom, the leaves take on a bitter flavor, but the seeds can be made into a flour for dough or eaten raw (after removing the husks).

5. Valley Oak Acorn

Found in massive numbers, the acorn tops the list of edible plants found in nature, as it has been feeding humans around the world for thousands of years. All acorns are good to eat, though some have more tannins that will give them a bitter taste. Eat acorns raw or roasted. They can be easily ground into a meal for baking. Tannins can be leached from the acorns by boiling them and changing out the water when it turns yellow.

6. Redstem Filaree
(Erodium cicutarium)

Considered an invasive weed and a danger to domesticated crops in the United States, the young leaves and stems are edible, either raw or cooked. This is the desert variety and has flavors similar to parsley. However, the filaree can accumulate high levels of nitrate from the soil, so eat sparingly.

7. Mesquite Pod

Not all of the mesquite pod is edible, as most of the brittle outside shell is indigestible fiber.  Crack open the shell and scrap out the pulp between the shell and the rock-hard seeds. This will have a sweet flavor (think brown sugar) and can be ground into meal for baking. If you are able to crack open the hard seeds (good luck), you’ll be rewarded by a very protein-rich seed embryo.

8. London Rocket
(Sisymbrium irio)

Commonly known as Hedge Mustard, the leaves, stems and seeds are all edible and have a muted spicy flavor. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and the seeds can be dried and ground into a meal or mixed with water to be used as a tea (Native Americans used it as a cough medicine). Its nutritional value is limited and should be considered more of a spice.


9. Carob
(Ceratonia siliqua)

The pulp seedpods of the Carob tree are rich in sugars and protein, which can be made into a flour for baking and as a chocolate substitute. They can be eaten both green and dried, but do contain a lot of fiber. A ripe pod will smell like Limburger cheese, and too much will have a mild laxative affect.

10. Prickly Lettuce
(Lactuca serriola)

Like a tough serrated version of regular lettuce, the young leaves of the prickly lettuce are mild in flavor and go great in a salad, but the mature plant is slightly toxic as the taste changes to bitter. One of its other names is Opium Lettuce as it has been used historically as a sleep inducer, pain reliever, and calmer of nerves. Use the mature leaves sparingly.

11. Oriental (Common) Mustard
(Brassica juncea)

The leaves, stem, flowers and seeds are all edible and have a slight mustard/horseradish taste. Originally from the Himalayas, they grow naturally all over North America. Because of their spicy flavor and limited nutritional value, use them sparingly with other edibles.

12. Prickly Pear Cactus

The Prickly Pear Cactus has been feeding the populations of North America for thousands of years. The pads, flowers, stems and fruit can all be eaten, and since the pads are nearly 100-percent water, it is a great source of liquid, not to mention antioxidants, carotenoids and Vitamin C. Scrape off the spines; they can be eaten raw, boiled or even grilled. Peel the pears from the spiny exterior and eat raw (the more purple, the sweeter).

13. Elderberry
(Sambucus caerulea)

These are nearly the most common wild berry you will find and the closest thing you’re going to get to a candy bar in the wild. Shown is a cluster of unripe berries that will soon (early autumn) turn into juicy dark purple fruits. The ripe berries contain Vitamins A and B and more Vitamin C than an orange. Not only can you eat the berries, but also the large blossoms too.

14. Chickweed
(Stellaria media)

The Chickweed is a readily abundant plant found most anywhere because of its adaptability and drought tolerance. The Chickweed leaves and stems can be eaten raw, but in cooked form, it becomes chewy and stringy. It has a mild, lettuce flavor and plays host to a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, including beta carotene and calcium. Beware its two poisonous lookalikes, spurge and scarlet pimpernel. Chickweed has a tiny line of hairs running down the stem, whereas spurge and pimpernel do not.

15. Curly Dock
(Rumex crispus)

Also known as Coffee Weed, the seeds can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute, but when green the leaves are served as a raw vegetable in salads, a cooked vegetable or added to soups. They have a slightly sour flavor, and be sure to wash the very young leaves before eating them because they contain chrysophanic acid that can irritate and numb your tongue. Curly Dock is high in fiber and has more Vitamin A in its leaves than an equal amount of carrots. When compared to spinach, curly dock has 1/3 more protein, iron, calcium, potassium, beta carotene and phosphorus. When dried (as shown), the seeds can be collected and ground for flour, which has a flavor like buckwheat.

16. California Buckwheat
(Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum)

Thriving in arid regions, wild buckwheat is present in the western U.S. states in a variety of species. A somewhat medicinal tea can be made from its leaves (for stomach pains and coughs), and the small seeds and roots can be ground up and either eaten raw or made into a cake. The green leaves and stems of most buckwheat can be eaten raw or cooked.

17. White Sage
(Salvia apiana)

This silvery plant is a member of the mint family; the seeds can be eaten raw or cooked. They can be ground into a powder or mixed with other cereals. The mature leaves, tops of the stems and the young stalks can be eaten raw but have a mild chalky flavor similar to a mint leaf.

18. Golden Currant
(Ribes aureum)

The bark can be dried and powdered to be used as an anti-inflammatory topical on wounds, while the small round fruits and yellow flowers can be eaten raw or cooked and possess a semi-sweet flavor. The ripe fruits can range from yellow to dark purple in color and contain a high level of pectin, which helps in making jam.

19. Acacia
(Acacia aneura)

Though the Acacia tree (known also as the mulga) is native to Australia, it can be found in parts of California and other western states. The leaves are edible and contain a fair amount of protein. The aborigines were known to crush the seeds into a meal and make “seedcake,” also known as “black wattle.” They are a great source of nutrition from protein, fat and carbohydrates.

20. Passion Flower
(Passiflora incarnate)

The flowers have a lemon scent and the large green fruits have a tart apricot and pineapple flavor (make sure they are “fall into your hand” ripe, as a few species’ unripe fruits are very toxic). The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked in small amounts, although the Native Americans made a tea from them that was used to treat insomnia.

21. Barberry
(Berberis vulgaris)

When ripe in late summer, the fruit is oblong shaped and red. Though it is rich in Vitamin C the very sour taste isn’t agreeable to everyone. The thorns make harvesting the fruits a challenge, and except for the fruits and seeds, the rest of the plant is mildly poisonous.

22. Horehound
(Marrubium vulgare)

Bitter and pungent, Horehound leaves can be eaten raw and used as a seasoning on other dishes (meats particularly). Made from fresh or dried leaves, a mildly pleasant tea can be made (and horehound has been used in making beer for hundreds of years).

23. Sierra Gooseberry
(Ribes roezlii)

Despite the menacingly barbed exterior, the insides of the Sierra Gooseberry—found mostly in the Sierra Nevada—is especially delicious. Related to the Currant family of berries, the Gooseberries are sharp and very sweet. Dealing with the spines is as simple as boiling them, mashing them into a pulp and letting the spines and pulp settle to the bottom. Gently pour off the juice.

24. Watercress
(Nasturtium officinale)

Watercress is found growing in dense mats throughout North America near shallow running water. It is related to the mustard family and is one of the forest’s most nutritious wild foods, rich in calcium, beta carotene and iron.  It also contains a variety of vitamins and minerals including Vitamins C, B1, B2 and E. It can be enjoyed raw, but make sure the water it comes from is very clean. Otherwise, boil the leaves and stems.

25. Dandelion
(Taraxacum officinale)

The scourge of your lawn, right? The entire plant is edible, from the flower to the roots, but given the commonality of the dandelion, only pick them when they are away from house foundations, roads, railroad beds. Picked before the sap turns milky, dandelions taste similar to spinach, but will get bitter as they mature. Watch out for dandelion lookalikes, as catsear grows in similar environments but instead has fuzzy fat leaves and multiple flowers per plant.

Toxic Plants

After SHTF is not the time to start learning about plant identification. “Testing whether a plant is poisonous or not by tasting it, rubbing it on your wrist, or anything else the Internet has taught us, is a recipe for disaster,” Nyerges warns. “The only effective way to identify edible plants in nature is by education. Know your plants. Spurge and chickweed are very similar looking. Chickweed is edible; spurge is not.” You must study the plants; here are three examples to stay clear of as if your life depended on it (which it just might).

Moth Leaf Mullein
(Verbascum blattaria)

Though the flower is usually a beautiful yellow, slightly pink or white, the spike-toothed leaves are toxic. In fact, the name blattaria is derived from the Latin word for cockroach, “blatta,” as the methanol extracted from it is used as a cockroach repellent. The leaves and seeds contain a mild narcotic and will induce sleep if eaten in large quantities.

Poison Hemlock
(Conium maculatum)

Sometimes confused with wild carrots, Hemlock grows all across North America as large three- to six-foot plants. Ingesting small quantities of this plant—flowers, stems, and/or the seeds of a mature example—can cause death in a couple of hours, thanks to the levels of coniine and pyridine alkaloids.

Jimson Weed
(Datura stramonium)

The Latin word “datura” says it all, as that translates to “send to die.” The entire plant has an unpleasant taste and the leaves smell exactly like peanut butter. However, most poisonings occur when they are brewed as a tea or smoked for their hallucinogenic effects. In 1679 Jamestown, Robert Beverly wrote about soldiers who ate leaves in a salad experiencing “a very pleasant comedy.” Confusion, delirium, and hallucinations are the principal effects, with sleep and/or a coma generally following.

Christopher Nyerges’ School of Self-Reliance

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