Monday, September 28, 2009

Edible Plants

Foraging Facts

Way to often it seems, I’m asked about foraging and in particular, being able to live off the land by eating edible plants. Lots of people have read one or more Survival Manuals and from those manuals somehow ascertained that all they have to do is learn how to identify the plants pictured in those manuals and they can eat like kings. And honestly, that’s sort of the way some of those books read, especially if you take everything in them literally.

I recently read that there are as many as 365 thousand different plants on the N. American Continent. That number includes trees, vines, bushes, weeds, mosses etc. but even so, that’s a lot of plants. That article also stated that at least three quarters of those plants were edible. Seeing those numbers one could easily come to the conclusion that finding plants to eat should be an easy task. They should be growing everywhere – right?

Not necessarily - the thing that a lot of these manuals fail to emphasize or fully explain is that most all plants, no matter where in the world they grow, are very seasonal. Most produce berries, seeds, nuts, roots or fruit only once a year and sometimes for a very short time. That vine that is loaded with big sweet grapes today may be  totally barren next week.

Foraging over a large range that contains different and varied habitat can greatly increase your odds of filling your basket. Even so – although these territories may have a large variety of edible plants, a lot of these plants produce edibles at totally different times of the year and you could easily find yourself completely stumped and going to bed on an empty stomach.

History shows us that many early peoples were  nomadic and often on the move following the growing seasons of plants so as to maximize harvest. Keep in mind also, other than dealing with wars, foraging for food was a full time occupation for these people. If you had to do nothing each day but hunt animals, dig roots and harvest berries, nuts and other edibles – you’d soon become expert - or very hungry.

During the cold winter months even the experts would have a difficult, maybe even impossible, task of keeping their bellies full. There just isn’t enough plant food out there to even consider living off the land eating just plants.  Now you might ask – how did the Native Americans manage to survive the winters?

They learned to store a supply of food for the long winter months when little other food could be found. They learned to dry roots and berries and how to grind maze into flour for long term storage. They sometimes stored the food by digging holes into the floor of their homes or lodges where it was cool and protected from animals.  Even though these early natives were truly experts when it comes to foraging for plants, hunger and even death from starvation was a common occurrence, especially during some of the longer and harsher winters

Also, don’t forget - prehistoric Indians weren’t just foragers of plants - they were also hunters.  It’s doubtful that food from plants alone could sustain a tribe through the many long, cold months of winter in the Northern Regions. Much needed protein was obtained by hunting of animals. And - unlike our present day wasteful practice, early hunters used just about every part of any animal harvested. Even the bones and skin were used either as a source of food or for clothing to ward off the cold.

Could any of us back-to-nature types conceivable live totally off the land for extended periods of time? I’d say the answer is – maybe. If the area you are foraging in has a real abundance and variety of edibles. If you have the training and knowledge to recognize the edibles and, if you have the time it will take to keep your larder full. Even so – you’d still have a hard time finding a well balanced diet eating plants alone - one that could properly fuel the body – especially through a winter. Remember – the longer and harder you must forage – the more energy and calories you’ll need. Even in nature - nothing is free.

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