Monday, January 11, 2010

Simple Plant Identification

Taste Testing Plants

I’m hoping that everyone one had a great holiday and also that each and everyone has a great, safe and prosperous new year. And just as important, I’m hoping that everyone finds the time to get outdoors and experience the rewards and the joy of nature.

We just completed our first “ winter” weekend Basic Survival Workshop. I placed the word winter in parentheses because any of you reading this that lives anywhere North of Florida would probably laugh at the thought of 30 degrees at night being a cold winter night. Our workshop was attended by a very wonderful, light hearted and close knit group from Tampa that, like most of us residing in Florida, were not accustomed to sleeping under the stars in below freezing weather. They had to brave a cold drizzling rain for almost all of the first day and even colder temperatures and a bone chilling wind during the night. Luckily the skies cleared for the second day and even with a cold breeze blowing most of the day, we were relatively comfortable.

While doing our nature /edible plant walk one of the ladies in the group asked how someone could determine which plants were edible if they didn’t know anything about the plant. She asked that question probably because she had just observed me doing a taste test of some berries that we had just found and I had just declared to the group that I did not know what the plant was. (This was the first time I’d spotted that particular plant and I only noticed it  because it was loaded with small, plump, juicy looking berries.)

The answer to her question isn’t that simple and there is no straight forward, do it exactly like this, steps or rules to follow. Knowledge, research and learning to identify as many plants as possible will be a great help and there are a few steps that you can take that should prevent you from popping something into your mouth that will kill you. Actually, to ease that fear – there are very few plants, especially plants that look like they would be good to eat, that will kill you or even ones that will make you very ill. That’s not to say that is not something to be concerned with and that’s especially true for anyone that may be prone to allergic reactions.

Identification will become much easier if you understand the basic parts of a plant.. Most all plants have one or more of the following basic parts: leaves, stem, root, buds, flowers, fruit and seeds. Quite often plants that are in the same family have one common and easily recognizable feature.

A very good example is the common Pine tree family. Just about anyone can recognize a pine tree at a glance simply because all pine trees have needles. The same goes for the cacti plant. All cacti have very distinctive and common looking features that are easily recognized. Those were very obvious and somewhat extreme examples but they can be applied to most all plants. For instance - Oak trees come in many shapes and sizes. The most familiar and easiest for most people to recognize are those like the Live Oaks, especially when they are full grown. But there are also many Oaks that barely resemble those huge and stately Live Oaks. Several varieties of Oaks grow barely a few feet high. Regardless of the size and shape - what they all have in common and what makes it easy to identify an Oak is that they all have acorns. If you spot a tree or bush with acorns - you've found yourself a Oak tree.

Let's apply that same principle to some edible plants that are a little less identifiable, the Vitis species, or wild grapes. Wild grapes are very common with at least a dozen different varieties growing throughout N. America. Of those, the Fox Grape and the Muscadine are the standouts. All of the Vitis species are vines and are easily recognized as such. But here's where it gets tricky. There are several different species of vines and for the most part they all look quite a bit alike. Some are even posionious. That's when the devil is in the details and one must know what to look for to prevent a mishap.

Once you learn and start using the distinctive characteristic of a plant you are well on your way. That being said – you should never identify a plant by a single characteristic. Every feature of a plant can vary from what would be considered it’s normal look. The accepted steps to identify a edible plant are as follows:

1. Locate a plant that you think is a certain edible plant. This is called Initial or Tentative Identification.

2. Carefully compare your plant to a reliable reference using several, not just one, of it’s characteristics.

3. Try to locate several other specimens and compare their common characteristics and features. Do they all look the same?

4. Triple check everything. I’d say this is a critical step before you take that first bite. Are you willing to risk your life on a “maybe it’s edible" guess?

Use all the tools and techniques at your disposal. What does the plant smell like. Does it smell like something you’ve eaten before? Does it smell edible? Try a simple touch test. Put it on your wrist and check for any sign of a skin reaction. Don’t rush this test. It’s possible for even violent reactions to take as long as an hour to show up.

Consider placing a tiny bit of the plant on your tongue. Does it taste overly bitter or have an objectable taste? Be very cautious here and do not swallow or ingest any of the plant or it’s juices. If the taste test goes well try chewing just a small amount. Again, you are just testing for taste. Don’t swallow any of the plant.

After all that – are you ready to actually eat the plant? That’s a hard question and one I can’t answer for you. Personally, I’m probably not as cautious as I should be. So far I’ve never had any bad reactions or suffered any ill effects from trying different plants. You may not be as lucky.

I really enjoy learning about and trying new edible plants both for possible survival needs and to supplement regular meals. I attend every edible plant workshop I can find and love doing nature /plant identification walks with other knowledgeable naturalists. It’s become sort of an obsession. I’m a long, long way from being any kind of an expert but I am starting to become more comfortable and secure in my ability to at least supplement, if not actually survive on plants.

For those of you that are interested, my advise, and first choice, is to find someone that’s very knowledgeable and willing to teach you how to identify plants. Read and study as many books about edible plants as you can find. Here’s two books that I use and recommend: “ Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants” by “Wildman” Steve Brill and “ The Forager’s Harvest” by Samuel Thayer. There are many other good books out there and that good old world wide web has some very good information also. Take those reference books to the field and practice "hands-on" identification every chance you get. The more you study, examine and learn the easier it becomes.

By the way – that plant I found and taste tested. The day after I returned home I pulled out some books and identified that plant as being a very edible member of the Hackberry species. I was definitely putting the cart before the horse, but in this case it worked for me and I’ve added another edible plant to my list.