EAT THIS | NOT THAT
Edible Plants and Their Dangerous Doppelgängers
Most of our readers already know that our preference is for fresh meat in the wild during a bug-out or backcountry hiking scenario. And as Green Beret Mykel Hawke noted in Issue 23 of RECOIL OFFGRID, it’s much easier to get life-saving nutrients and energy from animals than it is from plants.
That being said, animals aren’t always available to us.
And in a true survival situation we may need to end up for- aging for plants in order to scrape by. The problem is that foraging for plants, although easier because they can’t run away from you, is complicated by the fact that some plants can harm you and others can kill you. The second issue is that some plants that resemble edible options and look familiar to us can actually be quite harmful if ingested. If you’ve ever seen the movie Into the Wild, this situation was depicted to reflect one of the theories about how Christopher McCandless died.
To help us sort things out, we tracked down professional backpacking and climbing guide Lee Vartanian. These days, besides guiding in his “spare time,” he works as the founder and head of Modern Icon, which handcrafts K9 leashes and harnesses for high-end law enforcement and military applications. He also helps train U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) agencies in “the art of vertical access in nonpermissive environments.” In other words, using ropes and climbing skills to gain passage to areas that bad guys don’t want you to access.
Lee earned his bachelor’s degree in outdoor education, with a minor in environmental science, and has been guiding professionally for 18 years. As a kid, he practiced by foraging for food in his neighborhood and constructing homemade snares. Besides reading every book on edible plants he could find, he also hoarded magazine clippings from survivalists, including wild food proponent Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, who some readers may recognize from circa-1970s Grape Nuts commercials.
“Everyone thinks about clubbing a wild rabbit and cooking it over a fire when they think of survival experiences,” Lee told us. “But they forget the importance of being able to eat on the move. Killing and prepping wild game with primitive tools is a challenge even on a good day. Doing that while you’re malnourished, cold, and sleep deprived can be close to impossible and potentially hazardous to your physical safety.”
If unexpectedly stranded in the backcountry, Lee’s recommendation for most people, most of the time, is to shelter in place and wait for rescue. Hiking out, however, may sometimes be necessary. “In either scenario,” Lee said, “you may have to rely on both hunting and gathering depending on how long you are lost. So don’t miss out on the benefits of gathering plants that are plentiful and won’t run away when you’re on the move.”
First of all, don’t just randomly chow down on the first thing that looks like a tomato or a berry. Follow a series of protocols to help make eating in the wild less hazardous (note that we never used the word “safe.”)
Crush the plant’s leaves and take a whiff. If it smells unpleasant, or like almonds, discard it.
Rub the juice of the crushed leaf on the inside of your arm, and wait for 15 minutes. If no irritation develops, place a small piece on your lips, then in the corner of your mouth, then the tip of your tongue, and finally under your tongue, holding each for three minutes before moving.
If the plant irritates your skin or mouth, treat it as you would an acid. Pour water over your skin to remove toxins, and use alcohol or dish soap to clean off the residue. Contaminated clothing must be washed or thoroughly discarded.
If no negative side effects are observed, swallow a small amount and wait for five hours, consuming nothing else in the meantime. Assuming nothing bad happens, the plant can be considered less hazardous to eat.
“The part a lot of people miss,” Lee said, “is ensuring that whatever they’re testing is plentiful. Don’t let your curiosity override your logic, and always consider boiling the plant to make it more easily digestible.”
If the sample you ate starts to give you a bad ride, or if you or someone else inadvertently ate something that’s turning out to be toxic, there aren’t a lot of great options. An unpleasant reaction can turn deadly in a short amount of time. The best thing to do is to make a note (or take a sample) of the plant or plants ingested, then evacuate immediately to a hospital. However, if you’re in such a bad situation that you’re forced to eat plants in the first place, it’s likely that immediate evacuation isn’t feasible.
If you can’t get your victim to a hospital, place them into the recovery position (¾ prone) and prepare to wait it out. Rest will give their body the best chance at fighting the toxins in the event you’ve exhausted all other options.
Many people assume that the easy solution at this point is to induce vomiting, but that’s really not the answer. First, a toxic plant may cause vomiting on its own, so if it’s going to happen, it’s probably already happening. Second, induced vomiting can cause caustic substances to create more damage on the way up, especially if the vomiting is projectile and goes through the nose. Last, there’s also a chance to inadvertently inhale the vomit accidentally, further complicating an already bad situation.
Because your self-treatment options are so limited, it’s critical to avoid eating anything that you can’t 100-percent positively identify in the first place. The mess you don’t make is the mess you don’t need to clean up.
So now that you know how to test items, and just how dangerous it can be to accidentally eat the wrong thing, watch out for the following deadly doppelgängers — though keep in mind that this is just a small sampling of harmful plants. Our hope is that this listing will help you more safely stalk your own wild asparagus and get more nutrition with less nausea. Good luck out there, and happy “hunting!”
WARNING! This article is meant to be an overview and not a detailed guide on identifying and consuming edible plants. Seek guidance from a trained botanist before attempting to eat any plants. Any attempt to consume plants shall solely be at the...