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Realities of Harvesting Plants for Food

Caleb Musgrave
Canadian Bushcraft (www.canadianbushcraft.ca)


There are many schools of thought regarding the harvesting, preparation and consuming of plants found outdoors. This article is not meant to discredit wild plants as a viable food source -which they definitely are- but to help the reader understand some inherent risks and help them gather safely. Wild plants are definitely of great value to the outdoors person, as a food staple, a tea, an herbal remedy or as a functional piece of their tools. But unsafe practices could jeopardize an otherwise enjoyable pastime or even the safety of the survivor. So to make our outdoor skills more enjoyable, some realistic outlook must be involved.

Flora versus Fauna

There are very few animals in the forests that cannot be eaten. The majority of mammals, reptiles and birds are safe to consume, as are most fish and some amphibians and insects. On the other hand, there are many plants that have to either be prepared to make them safe to eat, or are not safe to eat at all. Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a good example, where the root is a good meal if dried thoroughly or cooked for a long period. Otherwise the painful burning sensation caused by the oxalic acid can lead to more serious complications (due to the poisoning).

Even animals that are suspect of disease can in most circumstances be cooked well enough to kill any parasites or pathogens (this is not always the case, so please research and use educated judgement). Whereas an unripe Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum )could cause an excruciatingly painful experience, cooked or uncooked.

It is believed the Inuit had (past tense due to modern diet) one of the healthiest lifestyles when it came down to diet. Their diet consisted of very little plant-life except during the summer months. Being mostly carnivorous, they consumed great quantities of protein, fat, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium (via marrow and bones), and many fatty acids and other important nutrients. On the other hand there is great argument now that grains and other plants have such cellulose that the digestive tract of the human being is not made to break them down enough to gain full nutritional value. This explains how a raw vegetable diet helps the dieter lose so much weight!

Does this mean plants are useless as food? Of course not, but be aware that you must have very good identification of the plant before harvesting it. In summer the amount of blueberries (Vaccinum myrtilloides) that can be harvested from a single field is astounding. On the other hand anyone that has tried hunting moose (Alces alces) can attest that it is rare to find a large enough population to take your pick as to which one you will take home for dinner. Obviously the argument could be held that a moose feeds more people then a basket of blueberries, but the point is that the berries were much easier to find and harvest.

Dangerous Lookalikes

As previously stated, several plants are dangerous to consume. What is more dangerous is the fact that several look like very safe to eat plants. Some call these “Good Twin” and “Evil Twin” plants. If Cattail (Typha) is the good twin, with all of its’ useful and edible values, then Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) would have to be the evil twin, due to iridin and glycoside toxins in it . Such toxins would quickly leave the consumer in severe pain. As evidence; a case of confusion between Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus) and Blue flag lead to several poisonings of First Nations powwow singers, who use the root of Sweet Flag to soothe their throats after long periods of singing.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) has often been confused with Sarsaparilla (Smilax regelii) due to similarly shaped leaves (though Sarsaparilla usually has five leaves, unlike Poison ivy which has three). While Wild rhubarb (Rumex hymenosepalus) has been often confused with Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa) due to similar growing habitats and leaves. What causes even greater confusion is many people referring to the greater burdock as “wild rhubarb”, which it is not even related to.

The only means of lessening the dangers of such misidentifications is to thoroughly learn the differences. Wild plant classes are better than books or videos, because the instructor/teacher can answer questions the student may have. As well, hands on practice beats words written by another person any day of the week when it comes to memory retention.

What lies beneath

Not all of the readers of this article reside in wild or rural regions. Most likely a good many will be from urban environments like Toronto or Buffalo. Due to this, any wild plant harvesting may only happen in town parks or when weeding the garden of dandelions (Taraxacum) and plantain (Plantago major). In the past few years, many types of pesticides and herbicides have been banned. One reason is due to the toxic chemicals found in them, such as DDT.

However, such chemicals can reside in an area for years, sometimes decades. Many urban plant gatherers will not harvest from an area that has been sprayed in the past thirty years. When I was younger and not as wise, I once became extremely ill due to harvesting cattail roots from a ditch near a town park. All chemicals ever sprayed on the fields and flowers in the park eventually washed off and leached into the ditch. Cattails being a filter plant absorbed and stored the chemicals. I had a concentrated dose of chemicals that could have potentially killed me.

So research the history of where you are harvesting, and avoid any wild plants near roads (no matter how temptingly large they may be). Petroleum by-products can contaminate a plant and not ever be known until when they are treating you in the hospital. This being said, research all wilderness areas that you may be harvesting from as well, seeing as how many mines exist in the north country, who knows how many plants may be contaminated.


Many people boast that they know plants so well that they could survive indefinitely on them. This may be true to an extent, but do such people ever take into consideration the fact that famine is not that unheard of in the wilds? Consider the early springs of 2008 and 2010 in Ontario. Both were very poor years for harvesting maple sap. 2008 was just too cold, and 2010 was too warm. Add the invasive species (insects, fungi, plants, etc) that may arrive and wipe out the native plants. Or a sudden frost, an early winter, a long summer drought, or simply the plants dying off in a certain area for untold of reasons, and suddenly the ability to thrive off of nothing but the wild plants becomes more difficult.

Think logically and research. Study how the wild plants respond to different stresses. Understanding the climates and terrain each plant requires to survive will help in the near future as much as it will in the long run.

Moral Issues

The wild plants we love to harvest seem to be endless. So much that I know several people that proudly announce that they picked over twenty pounds of blueberries in a single weekend. I also notice many signs stating Wild Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) for sale when driving through Central Ontario. Such harvesting can cause many issues.

Firstly is the fact that throughout history, the over-harvesting of any species has almost always lead to the demise and/or extinction of that species. Ask the beaver, and I’m sure they will argue that their pelts weren’t worth their almost complete destruction.

Secondly, many animals depend heavily on these plants, and taking more then we need at one time is dangerous for them. What may seem like a nice addition to a few meals to us is the only choice for survival to others.

Thirdly is the fact that what you eat now may not be there tomorrow. If we eat all the plants around our shelter, then what will we depend upon when after two weeks in the wilderness we are too weak to do more than crawl out of the debris hut?

Harvest conservatively, and only harvest large quantities when you have no choice, and can guarantee preserving whatever you harvest. Leave at least one out of five things that you harvest. That means if you find thirty leeks, leave at least six leeks. If you could harvest five hundred blueberries, leave one hundred still on the stem. This means the animals, the plants and you have a chance to survive another year.


There are many reasons to be full of caution now when gathering plants. However, this article was not written to scare the reader away from harvesting Nature’s bounty! Wild plants are rated by many nutritionists as being better for you than farmed fruits and vegetables. It is also a great way to enjoy the wilderness, or even your own backyard of “weeds”. But the better you know the plants around you, the better off you will be. Always try to use three of more different references when identifying plants, and if possible, contact local nature clubs to see if they know any people nearby that would be offering plant walks. Such an education can increase the safety and therefore enjoyment of any plant gathering.