For this week’s Wild Edible Wednesday, we’re going to do something a little different. Normally we cover a different edible or medicinal plant and go over its description, habitat, edible uses, medicinal uses, and cultural history, but I think it’s time to start throwing in some broader principles of plant foraging, harvesting, and use from time to time. Sound good? Great.
Today, we’re going to cover one of the most fundamental rules of foraging plants. And really, it’s one of the most useful pieces of wilderness survival knowledge you can have, period. Because regardless of where you find yourself, you can use this process to determine what’s safe to eat, even if you have no prior knowledge of the area’s flora. What we’re talking about, of course, is the Universal Edibility Test. This is the test you use to determine the edibility of any plant, regardless of habitat. While it’s time consuming and not entirely foolproof, it’s a great guide to go by when you have nothing else.
Separate the plant into its various parts—roots, stems, leaves, buds, and flowers. Focus on only one piece of the plant at a time.
Smell it. A strong, unpleasant odor is a bad sign.
Test for contact poisoning by placing a piece of the plant on your inner elbow or wrist for a few minutes. If your skin burns, itches, feels numb, or breaks out in a rash, don’t eat the plant.
If the plant passes the skin test, prepare a small portion the way you plan to eat it (boiling is always a good bet – it leaches out many potential toxins).
Before taking a bite, touch the plant to your lips to test for burning or itching. If there’s no reaction after 15 minutes, take a small bite, chew it, and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. If the plant tastes very bitter or soapy, spit it out.
If there’s no reaction in your mouth, swallow the bite and wait 12 hours. If there’s no ill effect, you can assume this part of the plant is edible. Repeat the test for other parts of the plant; some plants have both edible and inedible parts. (Yucca, for instance)
There are some caveats to the Universal Edibility Test. For one, the time commitment. By the time you evaluate a whole plant, you’re going to be suffering from some serious hunger. Hopefully you’re setting snares and deadfalls and hunting while you’re waiting your 12 hours. If not, you may starve. Another is that some plants are toxic in large quantities, but not small ones. I would add one more step – eat a serving-size portion of this plant and wait another 12 hours before going all in.
If nothing else, this should emphasize the importance of having a working knowledge of the wild edible and medicinal plants in whatever area you plan to be in. Knowing even just a few common, safe plants can save you a tremendous amount of time and risk. For instance, the leaves in the photo are Narrowleaf Plantain… common in all temperate areas of the world, entirely safe, no deadly mimics, nutritious, and highly medicinal. It and its close cousin Broadleaf Plantain are two to know if you’re only gonna know two.
If I were you, I’d copy and paste the steps of this test, shrink it to quarter page size, laminate it, and put one in all your kits. Just a thought. One day, you might wish you had.