Editor’s note: Whether for survival purposes or the desire simply to be able to forage and live off the land, knowing how to find and identify wild edible plants is an incredibly valuable skill. One of the very best guidebooks for studying up on this skill is the 1969 edition of FM 21-76, the Army’s field manual on Survival Evasion and Escape. The manual contains easy-to-understand descriptions and colorful, instructive illustrations for how to identify dozens of edible plants found in the wilds around the world, and even tips on how to cook them not only for safety, but tastiness. We’ve recreated this rich resource below; take a look through from time to time and try to commit some of these to memory.
WILD PLANT FOOD
Experts estimate that about 300,000 classified plants grow on the earth’s surface, including many which grow on mountain tops and ocean floors. Of these, 120,000 varieties are edible. Obviously, it is not possible to learn about all of these plants from reading this manual. If you are stranded, can identify the plant, and know how to prepare it properly, you should derive enough food substance to keep you alive.
For study purposes and future use, this manual gives descriptions and pictures of certain edible plants that can be eaten. Become familiar with these “pilot plants”; they will enable you to evaluate the food possibilities of other plants of the same variety.
Do not limit your study to the illustrations and descriptions of plant food in this manual. Take every opportunity to see these plants in their natural habitat: then, if forced into a survival situation in any area of the world, you will know where the best plant food of a region is.
Plant food will sustain you, although it may not provide a balanced diet, even in the arctic where the heat producing qualities of meat are normally essential. Many plant foods like nuts and seeds will give enough protein for normal efficiency. Suitable plants provide calorie-giving carbohydrates.
It is generally safe to try wild plant food you see being eaten by birds and animals; however, you will find few plants of which every part is edible. Many have one or more identifiable parts that have considerable food or thirst-quenching value
B–1. Roots and Other Underground Parts
(1) Wild potato. This is an example of an edible tuber. The plant is small and found throughout the world, especially in the tropics (fig. B–1). This type of potato is poisonous when eaten uncooked.
(2) Soloman’s-seal. Tubers of Soloman’s-seal grow on small plants and are found in North America, Europe, Northern Asia, and Jamaica. Boiled or roasted, they taste much like parsnips (fig. B–2).
(3) Water chestnut. The water chestnut is a native of Asia, but it has spread to both tropical and temperate areas of the world, including North America, Africa, and Australia. It is found as a free-floating plant on rivers, lakes, and ponds. The plant covers large areas wherever it grows and has two kinds of leaves—the submerged leaf, which is long, root-like, and feathery; and the floating leaves, which form a rosette on the surface of the water. The nuts borne beneath the water are an inch or two broad with strong spines that give them the appearance of a horned steer. The seed within the horny structure may be roasted or boiled (fig. B–3).
(4) Nut grass. Nut grass is widespread in many parts of the world. Look for it in moist sandy places along the margins of streams, ponds, and ditches. It grows in both tropical and temperate climates. Nut grass differs from true grass in that it has a three-angle stem and thick underground tubers that grow one-half to one inch in diameter. These tubers are sweet and nutty. Boil, peel, and grind them into flour. This flour can be used as a coffee substitute (fig. B–4).
(5) Taro. The taro grows in moist, forested regions of nearly all tropical countries. This large, smooth skinned ground plant has long, wide (heart shaped), single pointed, light green leaves which grow singly from the main trunk. The flower is 4 inches in diameter, tulip shaped, and yellow-orange in color. It has an edible tuber growing slightly below ground level. This tuber must be boiled to destroy irritating crystals. After boiling, eat the tuber like a potato (fig. B–5).
(3) Water plantain. This white flowered plant is found most frequently around fresh water lakes, ponds, and streams where it is often partly submerged in a few inches of water. It is usually abundant in marshy areas throughout the north temperate zone and has long-stalked, smooth, heart-shaped leaves with 3 to 9 parallel ribs. Thick, bulblike rootstalks which grow below the ground lose their acrid taste after being dried. Cook them like potatoes (fig. B–8).
(4) Flowering rush. The flowering rush grows along river banks, on the margins of lakes and ponds, and in marshy meadows over much of Europe and temperate Asia. It grows in Russia and much of temperate Siberia. The mature plant, usually found growing in a few inches of water, reaches a height of three or more feet and has loose clusters of rose-colored and green flowers. The thick, fleshy underground rootstalk should be peeled and boiled like potatoes (fig. B–9).
(5) Tapioca. The tapioca or manioc plant is found in all tropical climates, especially in wet areas. It grows to a height of 3 to 9 feet and has jointed stems and finger-like leaves. There are two kinds of manioc that have edible rootstalks—bitter and sweet. The bitter manioc is the common variety in many areas and is poisonous unless cooked. If a rootstalk of bitter manioc is found, grind the root into a pulp and cook it for at least one hour. Flatten the wet pulp into cakes and bake. Another method of cooking this bitter variety is to cook the roots in large pieces for one hour, then peel and grate them. Press the pulp and knead it with water to remove the milky juice. Steam it; then pour it into a plastic mass. Roll the paste into small balls and flatten them into thin cakes. Dry these cakes in the sun, and eat them baked or roasted. Sweet manioc rootstalks are not bitter and can be eaten raw, roasted as a vegetable, or made into flour. You can use this flour to make dumplings or the cakes described above (fig. B–10).
(6) Cattail. The cattail is found along lakes, ponds, and rivers throughout the world, except in the tundra and forested regions of the far north. It grows to a height of 6 to 15 feet with erect, tape-like, pale-green leaves one-quarter to one inch broad. Its edible rootstalk grows up to one inch thick. To prepare these rootstalks, peel off the outer covering and grate the white inner portion. Eat them boiled or raw. The yellow pollen from the flowers can be mixed with water and steamed as bread. In addition, the young growing shoots are excellent when boiled like asparagus (fig. B–11).
c. Bulbs. All bulbs are high in starch content and, with the exception of the wild onion ((1) below), are more palatable if they are cooked.
(1) Wild onion. This is the most common edible bulb and is a close relative of the cultivated onion. It is found throughout the north temperate zones of North America, Europe, and Asia. The plant grows from a bulb buried 3 to 10 inches below the ground. The leaves vary from narrow to several inches wide. The plant grows a flower that may be white, blue, or a shade of red. No matter what variety of onion is found, it can be detected by its characteristic “onion” odor. All bulbs are edible (fig. B– 12).
(2) Wild tulip. The wild tulip is found in Asia Minor and Central Asia. The bulb of the plant can be cooked and eaten as a substitute for potatoes. The plant bears flowers for a short time in the spring and these resemble the common garden tulip except they are smaller. When red, yellow, or orange flowers are absent, a seed pod can be found as an identifying characteristic (fig. B–13).
B–2. Shoots and Stems
Edible shoots grow very similarly to asparagus. The young shoots of ferns and bamboo, for example, make excellent food. Although some can be eaten uncooked, most shoots are better if they are panboiled for 10 minutes, the water drained off, and reboiled until they are sufficiently tender for eating. Following are a few of the plants that may be found with edible shoots and stems:
a. Mescal. This plant exists in Europe, Africa, Asia, Mexico, and the West Indies. It is a typical desert plant, but also grows in moist tropical areas. The mescal, when fully grown, has thick, tough leaves with stout, sharp tips borne in a rosette. In the center is a stalk that rises like a candle to produce a flowering head. This stalk or shoot is the edible part. Select plants having flowers not fully developed; roast the shoot. It contains fibrous, molasses-colored layers that taste sweet (fig. B–14).
b. Wild Gourd or Luffa Sponge. This plant is a member of the squash family and grows similarly to watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumber. It is widely cultivated in tropical areas, and it might be found in a wild state in old gardens or clearings. The vine has leaves 3 to 8 inches across and the fruit is cylindrical, smooth, and seedy. Boil and eat the fruit when it is half ripe; eat the tender shoots, flowers, and young leaves after cooking them. The seeds can be roasted and eaten like peanuts (fig. B–15).
c. Wild Desert Gourd. Also a member of the squash family, this creeping plant grows abundantly in the Sahara Desert, Arabia, and on the southeastern coast of India. It produces a vine 8 to 10 feet long that runs over the ground and a gourd that grows to about the size of an orange. The seeds are edible roasted or boiled. The flowers also can be eaten, and the water-filled stem shoots may be chewed (fig. B–16).
d. Bamboo. This plant grows in the moist areas of warm temperate and tropical zones. It is found in clearings, around abandoned gardens, in the forest, and along rivers and streams. Bamboo resembles corn and sugar cane plants and can be easily remembered for its popularity for making fishing poles. The mature stems are very hard and woody, whereas the young shoots are tender and succulent. Cut these young shoots as you would asparagus, and eat the soft tip ends after boiling. Freshly cut shoots are bitter, but a second change of water eliminates the bitterness. Remove the tough protective sheath around the shoot before eating. Also edible is the seed grain of the flowering bamboo. Pulverize this, add water, and press it into cakes or boil it like rice (fig. B–17).
e. Edible Ferns. Ferns are abundant in moist areas of all climates, especially in forested areas, gullies, along streams, and on the edge of woods. They may be mistaken for flowering plants, but by careful observation, you should be able to distinguish them from all other green plants. The under surface of the leaves is usually covered with masses of brown dots which are covered with yellow, brown, or black dust. These dots are filled with spores and their presence makes them easily distinguishable from plants with flowers.
(1) Bracken is one of the most widely distributed ferns. It grows through the world, except the Arctic, in open, dry woods, recently burned clearings, and pastures. It is a coarse fern with solitary or scattered young stalks, often one-half inch thick at the base, nearly cylindrical, and covered with rusty felt; the uncoiling frond is distinctly three-forked with a purplish spot at each angle. This spot secretes a sweet juice. Old fronds are conspicuously three-forked, and the rootstalk is about one-quarter inch thick, creeping, branching, and woody (fig. B–18).
(2) On all ferns, select young stalks (fiddleheads) not more than 6 to 8 inches high. Break them off as low as they remain tender; then close your hand over the stalk and draw it through to remove the wool. Wash and boil in salted water or steam until tender (fig. B–19).
Plants which produce edible leaves are probably the most numerous of all plant foods. They can be eaten raw or cooked; however, overcooking destroys many of the valuable vitamins. Following are some plants with edible leaves:
a. Baobab. This tree is found in open bush country throughout tropical Africa. It can be spotted by its enormous girth and swollen trunk, and the relatively low stature of the tree. A mature tree 60 feet high may have a trunk 30 feet in diameter. It produces large white flowers about three inches across that hang loosely from the tree. The tree also bears a mealy pulpy fruit with numerous seeds. These are edible and the leaves can be used as a soup vegetable (fig. 3–19).
b. Ti Plant. See paragraph B–1b (2).
c. Water Lettuce. This plant grows throughout the Old World tropics in both Africa and Asia and in the New World tropics from Florida to South America. It is found only in very wet places, usually as a floating water plant. Look for it in still lakes, ponds, and backwaters, and for the little plantlets growing from the margins of the leaves. These are rosette-shaped, and they often cover large areas in the regions in which they are found. The plant’s leaves look much like lettuce and are very tender. Boil the leaves before eating (fig. B–20).
d. Spreading Wood Fern. This plant, especially abundant in Alaska and Siberia, is found in the mountains and woodlands. It sprouts from stout underground stems which are covered with old leafstalks that resemble a bunch of small bananas. Roast these leafstalks and remove the shiny brown covering. Eat the inner portion of the fern. In the early spring, collect the young fronds or fiddleheads, boil or steam them, and eat them like asparagus (fig. B–21).
e. Horseradish Tree. This tropical plant is native to India but is widespread in other tropical countries throughout Southern Asia, Africa, and America. Look in abandoned fields and gardens and on the edges of forests for a rather low tree from 15 to 45 feet high. The leaves have a fern-like appearance and can be eaten old or young, fresh or cooked, depending on their state of hardness. At the ends of the branches are flowers and long pendulous fruit that resemble a giant bean. Cut the long, young seed pod into short lengths and cook them like string beans. Young seed pods can be chewed when they are fresh. The roots of this plant are pungent and can be ground for seasoning much as you do true horseradish (fig. B–22).
f. Wild Dock and Wild Sorrel. Although these plants are native to the Middle East, they are often abundant in both temperate and tropical countries and in areas having high and low rate of rainfall. Look for them in fields, along roadsides, and in waste places. Wild dock is a stout plant with most of its leaves at the base of its 6 to 12-inch stem. It produces a very small, green to purplish, plume-like cluster of flowers. Wild sorrel is smaller than dock, but similar in appearance. Many of its basal leaves are arrow-shaped and contain a sour juice. The leaves of both plants are tender and can be eaten fresh or slightly cooked. To eliminate the strong taste, change the water once or twice while cooking (fig. B–23).
g. Wild Chicory. Originally a native of Europe and Asia, chicory is now generally distributed throughout the United States and the world as a weed along roadsides and in fields. Its leaves are clustered at ground level at the top of a strong, underground, carrot-like root. The leaves look much like dandelion leaves, but are thicker and rougher. The stems rise 2 to 4 feet and are covered in summer with numerous bright blue heads of flowers, also resembling a dandelion, except for color. The tender young leaves can be eaten as a salad without cooking. Grind the roots as a coffee substitute (fig. B–24).
h. Arctic Willow. This shrub never exceeds 1 or 2 feet in height and is common on all tundra areas in North America, Europe, and Asia. It grows in clumps which form dense mats on the tundra. Collect young shoots in the early spring and eat the inner portion raw after stripping off the outer bark. The young leaves are a rich source of vitamin C, containing 7 to 10 times more than oranges (fig. B–25).
i. Lotus Lily. This plant grows in fresh water lakes, ponds, and slow streams from the Nile basin through Asia to China and Japan, and southward to India. It also grows in the Philippines, Indonesia, northern Australia, and eastern United States. The leaves of the lotus lily are shield-shaped, 1 to 3 feet across. They stand 5 to 6 feet above the surface of the water and grow either pink, white, or yellow flowers 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Eat the young stems and leaves after cooking, but remove the rough, outer layer of the young stems before cooking or eating. The seeds are also edible when ripe. Remove the bitter embryo from the seeds, then boil or roast them. Also edible are the rootstalks, which become 50 feet long with tuberous enlargements. Boil these and eat them like potatoes (fig. B–26).
j. Papaya. This tree grows in all tropical countries, especially in moist areas. It is found around clearings and former habitations, and also in open sunny places in uninhabited jungle areas. The papaya tree is 6 to 20 feet tall with a soft hollow trunk that will break under your weight if you try to climb it. This trunk is rough and the leaves are crowded at the top. The yellow or greenish fruit grows among and below the leaves directly from the trunk and is squash-shaped. It is high in vitamin C and can be eaten cooked or raw. The milky sap of the unripe fruit is a good meat tenderizer if rubbed into the meat. Avoid getting this juice into the eyes—it will cause intense pain and temporary or even permanent blindness. The young papaya leaves, flowers, and stems are also edible. Cook them carefully and change the water at least twice (fig. B–27).
k. Wild Rhubarb. This plant grows from southeastern Europe to Asia Minor through the mountainous regions of Central Asia to China, and can be found in open places, along the borders of woods and streams, and on mountain slopes. The large leaves grow from the base of long stout stalks. These stalks flower and rise above the large leaves, and may be boiled and eaten as a vegetable (fig. B–28).
l. Prickly Pear. This plant is native to America, but grows in many desert and seacoast areas of the world except in the Arctic. It is found in the southwestern United States, Mexico, South America, and along the shores of the Mediterranean. It has a thickened stem about an inch in diameter which is full of water. The outside is covered with clusters of very sharp spines spaced at intervals, and the plant grows yellow or red flowers. This plant can be mistaken for other kinds of thick, fleshy cactus-like plants, especially those in Africa. The spurges of Africa look like cacti, but contain a milky poisonous juice. The prickly pear never produces a milky juice. The egg-shaped fruit growing at the top of the cactus is edible. Slice off the top of the fruit, peel back the outer layer, and eat the entire contents. Also edible are the prickly pear pads. Cut away the spines and slice the pad lengthwise into strips like string beans. Eat them raw or boiled (fig. B–29).
Nuts are among the most nutritious of all plant foods and contain valuable protein. Plants bearing edible nuts grow in all climatic zones and continents of the world except the Arctic. Some nuts of the temperate zones are walnuts, filberts or hazelnuts, almonds, hickory nuts, acorns, beechnuts, and pine nuts. Tropical zone nuts include coconuts, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, and macadamia nuts. Following are some edible nuts:
a. English Walnut. In the wild state, this nut is found from southeastern Europe cross Asia to China. It is abundant in the Himalayas and grows on a tree that sometimes reaches 60 feet tall. The leaves of the tree are divided, which is a characteristic of all walnut species. The walnut itself is enclosed by a thick outer husk which must be removed to reach the hard inner shell of the nut. The nut kernel ripens in autumn (fig. B–30).
b. Hazelnut (Filbert). Hazelnuts are found over wide areas of the United States, especially in the eastern half of the country. They also grow in Europe and eastern Asia from the Himalayas to China and Japan. Growing mostly on bushes 6 to 12 feet tall, hazelnuts exist in dense thickets along stream banks and open places. The nut is enveloped by a bristly long-necked husk; it ripens in the fall. It can be eaten either in the dried or fresh unripe stage, and great food value can be derived from its oil content (fig. B–31).
c. Chestnut. Wild chestnuts are highly useful as a survival food. They grow in central and southern Europe, from central Asia to China and Japan. The European chestnut is the most common variety; it grows along the edge of meadows and is a forest tree some 60 feet in height. The ripe or unripe nut can be prepared either by roasting it in embers or by boiling the kernel that lies within the shell. If the nut is boiled, mash it like potatoes before eating it (fig. B–32).
d. Almond. Wild almonds grows in the semidesert areas of southern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean area, Iran, Arabia, China, Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands. The almond tree resembles a peach tree and sometimes grows 40 feet tall. The fruit, found in clusters all over the tree, looks somewhat like a gnarled, unripened peach with its stone (the almond) covered with a thick, dry wooly skin. To extract the almond nut, split the fruit down the side, and crush open the hard stone. Gather and shell them in large quantities as a food reserve (fig. B–33).
e. Acorns (English Oak). There are many varieties of oak, but the English oak is typical of those found in the north temperate zone. It often grows 60 feet tall and the leaves are deeply lobed. The acorns grow out of a cut and are not edible raw because of the bitter tannin properties of the kernel. Boil the acorns for two hours, pour out the water, and soak the nut in cold water. Change the water occasionally, and after 3 to 4 days, grind the acorns into paste. Make the paste into mush by mixing it with water and cooking it. You can make flour out of this paste by spreading and drying it (fig. B–34).
f. Beechnut. Beechnut trees grow wild in moist areas of the eastern United States, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. They are common throughout southeastern Europe and across temperate Asia but do not grow in tropical or subarctic areas. The beechnut is a large tree, sometimes reaching 80 feet in height, with smooth, light-gray bark and dark green foliage. Mature beechnuts fall out of their husk-like seed pods, and the nut can be broken with your fingernail. Roast and pulverize the kernel; then boil the powder for a satisfactory coffee substitute (fig. B–35).
g. Swiss Stone Pine. Swiss stone pine is distributed widely in Europe and northern Siberia. The needles are typically in bunches, and the edible seeds or nuts (fig. B–36) grow in woody cones which hang either separately or in clusters near the tips of the branches. The nuts grow at the base of the cone scales and, when mature, will fall out of the ripe cone. Eat these raw or roasted.
h. Water Chestnut. See paragraph B–1a(3).
i. Tropical Almond. The Indian or tropical almond tree is widely dispersed in all tropical countries and is found in abandoned fields, gardens, along roadsides, and upon sandy Seacoasts. The edible seeds or kernels growing at the tips of the branches are surrounded by a spongy, husklike covering from 1 to 3 inches long. These kernels have an almond-like flavor and consistency (fig. B–37).
(1) The coconut palm is widely cultivated but grows wild throughout much of the moist tropics. It exists mainly near the seashore, but it sometimes grows some distance inland. This tall, unbranched tree sometimes reaches 90 feet. The nuts grow in large clusters and hang downward among the leaves.
(2) The two most valuable parts of the coconut palm are the cabbage and the nut. The cabbage is the snow-white heart at the top of the tree. Eat it cooked, raw, or mixed with vegetables. The nut is most useful in the drinking and mature stage. In the drinking stage, split the nut and scoop out the the meat with a spoon fashioned from the outside husk. In the mature stage, crack the nut, loosen the meat, and eat it fresh, grated, or dried to copra. Let the milk stand for a short time so that the oil will separate from it, making it useful for food and drink.
(3) Sprouting coconuts can also be eaten. Husk and split them open or simply crack them in half. Eat the white spongy material inside. To remove the purgative or physic qualities of this meat, cook it before eating (fig. B–38).
k. Wild Pistachio Nut. About seven types of wild pistachio nuts grow in desert or semi-desert areas surrounding the Mediterranean, in Asia Minor, and in Afghanistan. Some plants are evergreen while others lose their leaves during the dry season. The leaves alternate on the stem and have either three large leaves or a number of leaflets. The nuts are hard and dry when mature. Eat them after parching over coals (fig. B–39).
l. Cashew Nut. This nut grows in all tropical climates, on a spreading evergreen tree that reaches a height of 40 feet. The leaves are normally 8 inches long and 4 inches wide; the flowers are yellowish pink. The fruit is thick, pear-shaped, pulpy, and red or yellow when ripe, with a kidney-shaped nut growing at the tip. This nut encloses one seed and is edible roasted. The green hull surrounding the nut contains an irritant poison that will blister your eyes and tongue like poison ivy. This poison is destroyed when the nuts are roasted. Caution, however, must be taken when roasting or boiling the cashew nut because the steam or smoke can cause temporary or permanent blindness (fig. B–40).
B-5. Seeds and Grains
The seeds of many plants such as buckwheat, ragweed, amaranth, goosefoot, and the beans and peas from beanlike plants contain oils rich in protein. The grains of all cereals and many other grasses are also rich in plant protein. They may be ground between stones, mixed with water and cooked to make porridge, or parched. Grains like corn can also be preserved for future use when parched. Following are some plants with edible seeds and grains:
a. Baobab. See paragraph B–3a.
b. Sorrel. See paragraph B–3f.
c. Sea Orach. This plant is found along seashores from the Mediterranean countries to inland areas in North Africa and eastward to Asia Minor and central Siberia. It is thinly branched with small, edible, gray-colored leaves about an inch long. The flowers grow in narrow, densely compacted spikes at the tips of the branches