Survival expert Christopher Nyerges tells how he learned about edible wild plants and how they can help you survive in the field.
By Christopher Nyerges
During the many field trips and classes that I have conducted, I have often been asked how I got interested in the subject of edible wild plants.
I grew up in Pasadena, close to the San Gabriel mountain range and the Angeles National Forest. Going to the mountains was often an after-school or weekend choice of recreation. When my brother and various friends would go out on backpacking trips, carrying heavy loads — the bulk of the weight was typically canned goods. The most unpleasant aspect of those trips was carrying all that weight. But back then, I was not aware of alternatives. Gradually, I learned that there was a lot you didn’t need to bring, and I learned that you could carry dried goods from the supermarket which cost a lot less than the freeze-dried food at the backpacking shops. That helped a little bit.
One day (probably 1968 or so) when I was resting with a friend at a place called Inspiration Point, a hiker came by and we got to talking about backpacking things, and about Native American skills. The man told us that he’d studied with some Indians in Northern California who’d taught him some of the edible wild plants that people ate in the “old days.” He said that most of those plants are still with us. We looked around at our high elevation locale, and he pointed to the mustard plants and the pine trees as two examples of foods. Though those examples didn’t seem all that appealing, something clicked inside my mind.
“That’s it”, I thought. “I’d like to learn how to do that. I’d be able to survive wilderness situations, and I could carry less weight in my pack.”
I thought about it all day, and gradually began buying books, checking out library books, taking botany classes, going on field trips, and getting to know anyone who knew anything about the usefulness of plants.
At that time, there were also a lot of fear-mongers talking about “the end of the world,” (just like today), and I must admit that that also stimulated my interest in botany, and knowing how to make a meal from what can be found in the wild.
But fear did not continue to fuel the fire of my excitement. I had been generally interested in Native American craftways since childhood, though it was always vague, faraway, untouchable. Suddenly, when I began to identify and sample and use these plants, the skills of my ancestors came alive. Amazingly, I learned that I could create meals that were probably identical to meals that people who lived in the Pasadena area thousands of years earlier would have eaten.
I always knew and felt that the knowledge of edible wild plants was a key to outdoor survival skills and a key to unlocking the secrets of how people lived in the past.
There are no shortcuts to what is necessary: You must study, and you will need field experience.
By January of 1974, I began to lead wild food outings that were organized by members of a non-profit organization. I led half-day walks where we’d go into a small area, identify and collect plants, and make a salad and maybe soup and tea on the spot.
In time, the more I researched the uses of plants, it was obvious that peoples in the past were concerned about much more than only eating. Certain plants provided materials for fire making, for soap, for fiber and weaving materials, for shelter, for stunning fish, for clothing, for medicine. As you begin to learn the plants that grow around you, you will find that food is only one benefit from nature’s bounty. Plant knowledge will assist you in making fire, medicine, fiber, soap, shelter, and more.
When trying to determine if a plant is edible, it is to your advantage to completely disregard any of the “rules of thumb” you’ve ever been taught about plant identification — you know, the shortcuts for determining whether or not a plant is edible. The shortcuts are such things like if a plant has a milky sap, it is not edible. If the animals eat the plants or berries, they are safe to eat. If the berries are white they are poisonous. And on and on. Disregard all these shortcuts since — although often based in some fact — they all have exceptions. There are no shortcuts to what is necessary: You must study, and you will need field experience.
If there is any sort of “shortcut” to the study of plants, it is to learn to recognize plant families, and learn to know which families are entirely safe for consumption. Beyond that, you must learn plants one by one for absolute safety.
One benefit you’ll see in my “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants” book is the appendix that I created with my mentor, Dr. Leonid Enari, which describes entirely safe plant families.
Nyerges is the author of the newly-released second edition of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants. He has conducted Wild Food Outings and other wilderness trips since 1974. For more information, visit his website.