Trail Nibbles – How Do I Know What Wild Plants Are Safe to Eat?

It’s only a matter of time before all the baby spring greens will be available for wild salad. But how do you know what’s safe to put in your mouth? Here are a few steps to guide the inquisitive naturalist when exploring the plant world.

Before you set out, understand the basic parts of a plant – root, stem, leaves, buds, flowers, fruit and seed.

Day hikes are a good time to explore and learn, since you are close to help if you have a reaction. I’ve spent years roaming the woods and over time I have learned what to do to minimize risk.

As someone prone to allergic reactions, I do not take this subject lightly.

When on the trail, Study the plant. Does it have a strong smell? What kind of smell?

Do you have a reaction to the plant when you touch it? What happens when you put it on your wrist? If you don’t have a skin reaction in 15-20 minutes, you’re likely OK, but I’ve had skin reactions after one hour.

Decide which part of the plant you want to try, prepare it the way you intend to eat it, and place a tiny bit to your outer lip.

If you have no burning or itching after 5-15 minutes, place a tiny bit of it on your tongue. I cannot keep something in my mouth for 15 minutes, so if you want to be cautious, hold it in your mouth for a short time and spit it out. Wait to see if you have a reaction.

Once the food is on my tongue for a few seconds, I go ahead and chew. I will spit it out right away if I don’t intend to swallow.

By the time I’ve explored the food this far I know if I want to ingest it.

One important cautionary note. Even with cultivated plants, some parts of the same plant are edible, while others are not. Ever wonder why tomato leaves are not sold?

It is very important to repeat the above process with each and every part of the plant. Don’t assume anything.

Finally, many wild foods are turning up in stores. Fiddlehead ferns are an example of a perfectly edible food that causes an allergic reaction in some people.

If you know someone who is an expert, that’s a bonus. Nothing beats a wild gathering trek with a knowledgeable guide. However, even if you’re exploring solo, you will soon develop a sense of what you do and do not want to put in your mouth.

JJ Murphy has been eating wild plants since her farmer parents pulled the weeds from their garden and she ate the weeds. She now hikes, writes and forages in Harriman, NY. For wild recipes, wilderness survival knowledge, nature education and an exhaustive booklist, please visit Creative Content for Your Nature Endeavors

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