True North Blog

Wild Edibles: An Introduction

In his wilderness survival courses at True North, Erik doesn’t teach about plants as a primary food source.  Instead, he typically discusses a long list of what he calls the “myth of wild edibles.”  This is a slight overstatement, Erik soon admits to students, but he makes it to emphasize two important points.  Primarily, he wants them to begin re-thinking, and re-shaping, the world around them so that they are better prepared for an emergency situation, and not rely on preconceived notions from silly television shows or third-hand sources.  Just as importantly, wild edibles are not Erik’s speciality, and he refuses to pretend that he is an expert where he is not.  After all, our overarching focus at True North is all about giving students the information and training that will help keep them, and their loved ones, safe in the wilderness.

So, it is our pleasure to introduce Jake Griebe, founder and lead instructor at the School of Wilderness Medicine and Survival based in Wisconsin.  The mission of SOWMAS is to combine certification level wilderness medicine courses with wilderness survival skills.  After serving in the Marine Corps, Jake became a career paramedic and later a wilderness medicine instructor.  Besides being one hellava great guy, Jake is one of the few people that Erik completely trusts when it comes to wildlife and botanical education.

And there are even fewer people truly more cool under fire than Jake.  Proof?  Erik was there in the wilds of southern Virginia one dark night, when a very large, very copperhead-looking snake decided to cozy up to Jake as he lay in his shelter.  While the rest of us “tough” guys would have screeched like little girls in his predicament, Jake remained completely in control!

True North is extremely pleased, therefore, that Jake has been gracious enough to provide us with an ongoing series of blogs focusing on his various outdoor interests and specialities.

Here is Jake’s first installment …

… While finding something to eat is not going to be your top priority in a survival situation, foraging for edible plants can be a very rewarding experience. Foraging takes you outside, forces you to try new things, and ends up being more educational than most people realize when they first attempt to find a tasty snack out in the woods.

Many people disregard foraging because they feel that it is unsafe to eat things that they find growing wild. It’s true that some plants can cause health problems. Many people can’t accurately identify poison ivy, but they know that it can cause skin irritation. Some plants, if eaten, can cause serious medical complications and even death.

If you are going to forage for wild edibles, it is important to do it safely. Using common sense, reading a few books, and following some simple rules will help you in your task. Here are the rules that I follow:

RULE 1:  Don’t put something in your mouth if you are not 100% sure of what it is.

Plants that contain toxic chemicals are not out there in the woods, crouching in the shadows and ready to jump into the mouth of the first person who happens to walk by. Rule number one is common sense in its purest form.

RULE 2:  Don’t force the plant to fit the description in some book.

This one can be a little tricky. When you first begin your foraging adventures, you’ll WANT the plant your staring at to be the one in your field guide. I’ve been in that position. It will be easy to tell yourself, “The book says that the leaves are oval shaped. These sort of look like oval shaped leaves on this plant, it must be Plant X.” Don’t fall into this trap. Remember rule number one.

RULE 3:  Do the research.

You don’t need a degree in botany in order to accurately identify plants, although I’m sure it helps. You will need to read a few books though. You’ll need to know what terms are used to describe plants. You’ll need to know what opposite versus alternate leaf attachment is. You’ll need to know how to identify a raceme, a petiole, a pome, a compound drupe, and many other things. All of this new information can be intimidating, but don’t be discouraged; it gets a lot easier as you practice.

RULE 4:  Respect the plant and the things that surround it.

Remember that these plants often grow in wild places. Biting or stinging insects may be present on or around the plant. The lowbush blueberries that you’ve found might be growing next to a patch of poison ivy. Try to look at the whole area and not focus on the plant that you are trying to identify as edible.

RULE 5:  Understand that just because something is edible doesn’t mean that you will like eating it or are not potentially allergic to it or that it will not cause gastrointestinal upset. 

These risks exist with any food, not just wild edibles. You might not like the taste or texture of something or it might give you a stomachache. You may be allergic to something that is edible, just as many people are allergic to peanuts. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a game of Russian-Roulette where every bite you take could cause anaphylactic shock. As with any activity, foraging carries its own set of inherent risks.

The plant in the picture is a white trout lily. It derives its name from the mottled coloring of its leaves, which looked like a brook trout to the person that named it. The corm of the trout lily is the edible part. A corm is a swollen piece of the plants stem that grows underground. It looks very much like a bulb, except that a corm is solid, whereas a bulb is made up of many layers.

Until the next time,


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To learn more about foraging, be sure to check out the resources and plants page at SOWMAS.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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