I was asked to write a short piece for a survivalist blog on getting started in foraging:
How are a Musician and a Botanist Alike?
As a professional musician I often meet other musicians who teach at the college level. What you may not know is most of them cannot play something as simple as Happy Birthday without music. Yet there are thousands, perhaps millions of non-degreed musicians who play very well without music, and often at the highest level of performance.
I have read many times that the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti could not read music, and that is quite reasonable. He wanted to be the best lyric tenor of Italian opera, which is a limited amount of music, perhaps just a few dozen well-known tunes. He did not need to play piano or read music to remember thirty or forty songs which were also popular where he grew up.
Like college pianists who can’t play by ear, most of the degreed botanists would starve tomorrow if the grocery stores closed. Most of the people who have foraged and who do forage are not botanists. And like Pavarotti, foragers really only need to learn a few prime edibles in their local area.
What Do I Need To Know?
While there are thousands of wild edibles, in most places there really are only a half a dozen or so species really worth knowing, from a survival point of view.
Indeed, if you can learn six prime food plants and say three medicinal plants you can survive quite well.
You don’t need a degree in botany.
You don’t need to know the Latin names.
You don’t need to know all the plants that are out there.
You only need to learn just a few edibles, a few medicinals, and it also wouldn’t hurt to know if you have any deadly plants nearby, which are usually just a few as well. That may total a dozen plants. You can learn a dozen plants. With a teacher this can be done in a season. Without a teacher it can still be done, it just takes more time.
Cattails and Blackberries and Hemlocks, Oh My!
To get you started I will list an edible, a medicinal, and a poisonous pair that are found just about everywhere in North America. The edible is the cattail.
The cattail is nearly impossible to misidentify. Tall, strap-like with horizontal roots it grows in water or where it is very damp. It has the famous fuzzy “cattail” on top (you should always look for last year’s cattails to be sure.) Nothing grows more starch per acre than cattails, and you don’t have to tend it. While one can eat various green parts of the plant at different times of the year the root is always full of starch. Roast it to a crisp next to a fire, open, and then pull the starch off the fibers with your teeth, kind of like eating taffy.
The medicinal (and edible) is the blackberry. A cane or a vine with spines and five petaled white blossoms that turn into an aggregate, edible purple/black fruit. The leaves can be dried to make a tasty tea which is also good for various digestive disorders including diarrhea. That tea can also be a marinade or the leaves used to stuff fish or fowl. Young shoots are edible if peeled and boiled. Indians whipped blackberries and fish eggs together to make a cream-like froth which they then froze and enjoyed.
The poisonous plant is the hemlock and its close relative the water hemlock. (Not the tree.) Large and leafy, they can grow to six feet or so on dry land or in water. The stem is smooth, often splotched with purple, often has vertical ridges. The flower looks like a fireworks explosion as does the seed head. But they both have one prime identifying characteristic: On the surface of the leaf, most of the veins clearly end in the notches between the teeth. In most plants the veins peter out or end at the tips of the teeth. Veins on the hemlocks clearly end between the teeth. They are a poison you should know because they can kill you in two hours. If you get to the hospital within 40 minutes of eating you might survive. The toxicity increases as you go down the plant, the seeds the least, the root the most. According to those who have consumed said, it is supposed to be very tasty raw or cooked (thus remember, taste does NOT indicate edibility.)
You Can Do It!
In every area there are a limited number of prime edibles, a limited number of really useful medicinals, and a limited number of deadly plants. You can learn to identify them, and ignore the rest. You can tell the difference between a horse and a cow, a cow and a buffalo, a dog and a fox, a fox and a cat. You can tell plants apart. You can do it. You don’ t need to learn the whole green world out there or be a botanist. You just need to learn a few “tunes.”