Ru­ral Re­fresh­ments

The Myth of Not Get­ting Wa­ter from Plants in North Amer­ica

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Debunked - By Tim Mac Welch

For those fa­mil­iar with trop­i­cal sur­vival tech­niques, you al­ready know that wa­ter-rich jun­gle cli­mates are home to many species of vines and plants that yield safe drink­ing wa­ter. But what hap­pens if you find your­self in North Amer­ica, star­ing down the bar­rel of de­hy­dra­tion? With only your sur­round­ings as a re­source, can you stay hy­drated from plant wa­ter sources?

The Myth

You’ve seen the car­toons. Just chop the top off a cac­tus and it will be full of drink­able wa­ter. The only prob­lem is, we’re not in a comic book and that cac­tus is full of bit­ter, gelati­nous pulp. There’s a myth in the sur­vival com­mu­nity (likely started by dis­il­lu­sioned cac­tus chop­pers), that you can only ex­tract drink­ing wa­ter from plants in trop­ics. But that’s not true.

The Re­al­ity

Tap a Tree: In late win­ter and early spring, nu­mer­ous trees pro­duce drink­able wa­ter. Tree tap­ping is a sim­ple oper­a­tion, if you get the tim­ing and the species iden­ti­fi­ca­tion right. With a knife, drill, or sim­i­lar tool, bore a hole into the tree trunk. It should go through the bark and a few inches into the wood. Insert a tube or some other item to chan­nel the sap flow into a wait­ing con­tainer, and wait for the sap to start drip­ping. It typ­i­cally flows best on days that are above freez­ing that fol­low a sub-freez­ing night. Try dif­fer­ent tree sizes and lo­ca­tions of your cho­sen tree species.

A young strong tree may pro­duce more sap than an older tree.

It’s also best to tap the sunny side of the tree, above a large root or be­low a large limb. In mid to late win­ter, sycamore trees (Pla­tanus spp.) will have a very ir­reg­u­lar sap run. Th­ese trees are found in the east, as well as Cal­i­for­nia and Ari­zona. In late win­ter, you can also tap maple trees (Acer spp.), which are found through­out the coun­try. Maples can pro­duce heav­ily; up to a gal­lon per day per tap dur­ing the peak of the sap run.

Wal­nut (Juglans spp.) and hick­ory (Carya spp.) will pro­duce around the same time as maple. Birch (Be­tula spp.) is typ­i­cally the last tree to have a sap run. Wal­nut, hick­ory, and birch species are found through­out the con­ti­nent. But a word of cau­tion, don’t drink any sap from un­fa­mil­iar trees. There are more than a few toxic trees in North Amer­ica. Use a field guide!

Slice a Vine: Af­ter the sap run ends in us­able trees, you have an­other chance to col­lect sap for drink­ing wa­ter. Grape vines (the genus Vi­tis) can be used on warm spring days. Chop the vine on an an­gle, place the pointed end into a con­tainer and col­lect the wa­ter. Due to the higher tan­nic acid level and low sugar con­tent, grape sap will taste a lit­tle bit­ter and as­trin­gent, but it is per­fectly drink­able. Vines less than a ½ inch in di­am­e­ter will drip for a few hours be­fore they stop, while larger vines will gush wa­ter like a faucet. Like tree tap­ping, this is all about tim­ing. There’ll be days when the wa­ter will flow, and days when it won’t.

You’ll only know for sure when you try. Again, make cer­tain that the vine re­ally is a grape, as there are some toxic vines with sap that wouldn’t be safe to drink.

The Al­ter­na­tives

Boil Down Syrup: If you’re lucky enough to have trees pro­duc­ing sug­ary sap you can boil off the wa­ter to make your own syrup. All of the trees men­tioned in this ar­ti­cle can pro­duce sweet syrup (ex­cept the grape vine). Maple has the taste you al­ready know and love. Hick­ory is sim­i­lar, with a hint of pe­can. Wal­nut is sweet, with wal­nut essence. Birch and sycamore have their own spe­cial fla­vors. One quart of sap will boil down to a spoon­ful of de­li­cious syrup.

This is well worth the trou­ble, es­pe­cially if you have a fire go­ing any­way for warmth.

Berries as a Bev­er­age: One fre­quently over­looked source of hy­dra­tion is the juice from edi­ble berries. Black­ber­ries, rasp­ber­ries, blue­ber­ries, mul­ber­ries, and other edi­ble berries are found through­out North Amer­ica. Th­ese ed­i­bles are at their most plen­ti­ful in the sum­mer­time and ripe ones have a high wa­ter con­tent. You could, of course, eat them for solid food and mois­ture. But when you lack wa­ter, it’s not wise to eat any­thing. Digest­ing food and pass­ing waste are both pro­cesses that re­quire wa­ter. Your best op­tion is to pos­i­tively iden­tify the edi­ble berries, wrap them in a piece of clean cloth, crush them and wring out the juice. This juice will pro­vide much needed hy­dra­tion, with ac­com­pa­ny­ing sugar, vi­ta­mins, and min­er­als.

Claim the Cac­tus: Re­mem­ber the cac­tus pulp we dis­cussed ear­lier? It’s not com­pletely worth­less. If you’re able to im­pro­vise some dis­til­la­tion equip­ment, the cac­tus pulp can be added to your other raw wa­ter sources. Whether you’ve built a still from a ves­sel and some con­den­sa­tion coil, or you’ve dug a so­lar still pit in the ground, cac­tus pulp will in­crease your wa­ter out­put. Use a lo­cal plant ID guide to en­sure that you’re not us­ing any toxic green­ery.

Pick-up­path/is­tock­photo.com

DIS­CLAIMER: This ar­ti­cle is meant to be a quick 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...

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