Field Testing Plants for Edibility

by Green Deane

in Blog

To Field Test or Not To Field Test

I ruffle some foraging feathers with this position but I am dead set against field testing of edibility because it can kill you.

“Field testing” is running through a procedure to purportedly learn if a wild plant is edible. It’s found on a lot of survival sites and is popular with young men who don’t want to bother to learn how to forage for wild plants. In their survivalist scenario they will head for the hills with all the guns and ammo they can carry and after shooting a zoo full of animals will field test plants for edibility should they want to eat greenery now and then.

You can live a month without food, easily two weeks with little threat to life or health even under harsh conditions. That’s part of our design. Under good conditions, if you have water, you should be able to easily live three or even four weeks without food. Under medical care you can go twice as long without food.

Food is good while in the field but it is not an immediate necessity. Why after only one day or three would you risk your life over a plant you know nothing about? Several fatal plants taste great: Hemlock (leaf and root)  the rosary pea get thumbs up from the deceased. Yew nuts are described as extremely delicious, just before they stop your heart. And we all know of some tasty mushrooms that will liquefy your liver. I know of at least one plant that readily passes the “field test of edibility” yet can make you permanently sick and or kill you. As they say, pick your poison. Taste is not a good indicator of toxicity. Some of these plants can kill you in 15 minutes, some will take a week, others longer. It would be ironic to survive the crisis only to die later from eating a plant you really didn’t need to eat. Some of these plants can be eaten in the emergency room and you will still die. Some have no antidote. You’re on  your way out and it will not be pleasant.  One mushroom makes you deathly ill then cruelly make you feel almost as good as new just before you die. In fact the clinical sign of impending death via that mushroom is after several days of illness the victim is suddenly feeling let-me-go-home better.

Even if we take death off the field testing table, you can still get sick from field testing. More so, since one can go quite a while without food why introduce illness into a situation? Plant poisoning can range from a mild headache to having your stomach ache for months, or having bloody diarrhea for weeks, or burning your throat and mouth which will make you give up food. Pick the wrong berry and your kidneys will fail and you will be on dialysis the rest of your life, if you survive. Field testing in the field is the last resort after cannibalism. You should know every plant you put in your mouth. No exceptions. Now, is there a small argument for field testing? Yes.

I did field test the controversial S. americanum, which had professional reports of edibility and toxicity. But it would be more accurate to say I kitchen tested it, and not over a few days but a few weeks. After extensive research and positive identification of the plant (and having health insurance, a hospital nearby, and no emergency to contend with) I consumed one quarter of one ripe berry. The berries are slightly bigger than a BB. The next day it was one-half a berry and so forth. I knew the plant  well, had absolute identification, and over an extended period consumed incrementally larger amounts. The plant is edible and I had to prove it to myself. That is far different than eating a leaf off a plant you don’t know out in the middle of no where. That is exactly how a forest ranger in Idaho died in 1975. He sat down for a lunch with a homemade sandwich. He saw a nice looking plant nearby and put a leaf of it in his sandwich. He was dead in just over two hours. Socrates was executed by a member of the same plant family.

Plants are very powerful chemical factories. A quarter square inch piece of some flower petals can make you sick for weeks. A grain, read a speck no bigger than this asterisk   *  of the rosary pea can kill you. It is 1,000 times more toxic than arsenic.  If you field test, never field test a plant you do not know absolutely, as well as all the warnings.

I had a reader write me and say his method of deciding if a plant was edible or not was if it tasted good he ate it and if it didn’t he didn’t. He asked me what I thought of that. I said I hoped he had good life insurance. If you do field testing in the field I hope you not only have life insurance at the time but are also not responsible for others as well.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Douglas September 12, 2014 at 18:07

It looks like every edition of the Army’s UET gets more and more caveats in the preamble:
http://pdf.textfiles.com/manuals/MILITARY/united_states_army_fm_21-76%20-%205_june_1992%20-%20part05.pdf

“To avoid potentially poisonous plants, stay away from any wild or
unknown plants that have: Milky or discolored sap; Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods; Bitter or soapy taste. .Spines, fine hairs, or thorns; Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsleylike foliage; ‘Almond’ scent in woody parts and leaves; Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs; Three-leaved growth pattern.” That just screens out plants that can’t be tested with the basic steps…

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Kyle March 5, 2012 at 09:12

IF you were to do it, would another professional forager say to stick to green, sapless leaves as a general rule of thumb?

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Green Deane March 5, 2012 at 10:49

If they were to say that they would be 1) not professional and or 2) dead. HMMMM…. poison ivy is green and sapless…

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Robert M. November 16, 2011 at 10:39

I do this because the BSA failed to teach me this stuff when I was younger. The civic action movement (occurring around the time of the Vietnam War) has pretty much destroyed the bushcraft or primitive skills movement in the BSA except where good leadership has taken charge. This was due to some misguided parents not wanting their children taught dangerous things but unwittingly those dangerous things can save their children’s lives. The word scout leader became synonymous with the name pervert so this was a good way to get rid of the old primitive skills leadership. Add to the mix are all the militant political organizations at war with the core family principles and faith of the BSA. The Powells who founded the BSA and the GSA on core family principles, faith, and primitive skills would be appalled. The goal of the Powells was to teach young men how to stay alive in the woods because so many were dying in the woods from lack of knowledge. It was intended to teach and prepare young men in these skills before military service so the military would not have to shoulder that burden.

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Green Deane November 16, 2011 at 14:03

I have an editorial on this with a slightly different take. You can read it here.

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Robert M. November 16, 2011 at 10:18

[quote]The problem is “field testing” has been embraced by the survivalist community which is truly ironic. Here is a group of people who want to survive post modern society yet they embrace a process of food identification that assures sickness if not death. It is truly stupid. They use “field testing” as an excuse not to learn about any wild edibles. The rambos think that as long as they have the “field test” memorized they don’t need to know anything more about wild foods. It is stupidity in its purest form. I turned down a lucrative speaking engagement at a survivalist convention because they wanted field testing taught. I told them to find someone else to teach them about how to die with plant in the field.[/quote]

I agree and good for you. We have discussed this a number of times on the boards that I am on in a negative light. There are many “survival” type boards I will not take part in for various reasons, this being one of them where the board does not have “warnings” posted somewhere about the dangers of wild edibles. Others reasons include censorship because of faith in violation of 1st Amendment Speech and Religion. I tend to go to the primitive skills or bushcraft sites and sites of practical skills rather than survival. I don’t practice survival, I practice skills. Some don’t practice skills at all. I do it to be prepared in the hope that I don’t have to use it. Prepare for the worse, hope for the best. I am not in the survivalist community. I am in the primitive skills or bushcraft community. There is a difference.

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Robert M. November 15, 2011 at 23:58

First I agree totally with you, Deane. There should be no exceptions if a plant is unknown. I think field testing (as you have performed it with a small amount in stages) started in the military as a survival means of expediency. Meaning it was easier to show a soldier how to field test than to spend all the time necessary for proper identification and cataloging in the soldier’s brain which may not have been able to digest that much info anyway given the average soldier (some of whom may be conscripts or draftees). This does not mean field testing is alright. Far from it. But I believe that the military implies that it should only be used in extreme circumstances of dire necessity when death may be the result for not field testing anyway. Not as a common practice. This is what they call “extreme” survival. Meaning that you are to the point of extreme methods that normally would not be taken. But as you point out, field testing has been abused, distorted, and is now used far from its original intent and even far from its original method. I do not agree with it either nor do I subscribe to it. But I do understand it in its context as the military originally intended.

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Green Deane November 16, 2011 at 06:24

The history of this nonsense is rather vague. Dr. Julia Morton was the unnamed author of the edible plant section of the Military Survival Manual. The 1970 version does not have “field testing.” At least she had enough sense not to include that folly. According to a recent reprint “field testing” appeared in the 1985 version of the military manual, one of their most stupid decision should that be true. “Field testing” is woefully ill-conceived and would be meaningless if it were ignored. The problem is “field testing” has been embraced by the survivalist community which is truly ironic. Here is a group of people who want to survive post modern society yet they embrace a process of food identification that assures sickness if not death. It is truly stupid. They use “field testing” as an excuse not to learn about any wild edibles. The rambos think that as long as they have the “field test” memorized they don’t need to know anything more about wild foods. It is stupidity in its purest form. I turned down a lucrative speaking engagement at a survivalist convention because they wanted field testing taught. I told them to find someone else to teach them about how to die with plant in the field.

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