FM 21-76 | Chapter 9 - Survival Use of Plants
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CHAPTER 9 - SURVIVAL USE OF PLANTS
After having solved the problems of finding water,
shelter, and animal food, you will have to consider the use of plants you can
eat. In a survival situation you should always be on the lookout for familiar
wild foods and live off the land whenever possible.
You must not count on being able to go for days
without food as some sources would suggest. Even in the most static survival
situation, maintaining health through a complete and nutritious diet is
essential to maintaining strength and peace of mind.
Nature can provide you with food that will let you
survive any ordeal, if you don't eat the wrong plant. You must therefore learn
as much as possible beforehand about the flora of the region where you will be
operating. Plants can provide you with medicines in a survival situation.
Plants can supply you with weapons and raw materials to construct shelters and
build fires. Plants can even provide you with chemicals for poisoning fish,
preserving animal hides, and for camouflaging yourself and your equipment.
Note: You will find illustrations of the plants
described in this chapter in Appendixes B and C.
Plants are valuable sources of food because they are
widely available, easily procured, and, in the proper combinations, can meet all
your nutritional needs.
The critical factor in using plants for
food is to avoid accidental poisoning. Eat only those plants you can
positively identify and you know are safe to eat.
Absolutely identify plants before using them as
food. Poison hemlock has killed people who mistook it for its relatives, wild
carrots and wild parsnips.
At times you may find yourself in a situation for
which you could not plan. In this instance you may not have had the chance to
learn the plant life of the region in which you must survive. In this case you
can use the Universal Edibility Test to determine which
plants you can eat and those to avoid.
It is important to be able to recognize both
cultivated and wild edible plants in a survival situation. Most of the
information in this chapter is directed towards identifying wild plants because
information relating to cultivated plants is more readily available.
Remember the following when collecting wild
plants for food:
- Plants growing near homes and occupied
buildings or along roadsides may have been sprayed with pesticides. Wash
them thoroughly. In more highly developed countries with many automobiles,
avoid roadside plants, if possible, due to contamination from exhaust
- Plants growing in contaminated water or in
water containing Giardia lamblia and other parasites are contaminated
themselves. Boil or disinfect them.
- Some plants develop extremely dangerous fungal
toxins. To lessen the chance of accidental poisoning, do not eat any fruit
that is starting to spoil or showing signs of mildew or fungus.
- Plants of the same species may differ in their
toxic or subtoxic compounds content because of genetic or environmental
factors. One example of this is the foliage of the common chokecherry. Some
chokecherry plants have high concentrations of deadly cyanide compounds
while others have low concentrations or none. Horses have died from eating
wilted wild cherry leaves. Avoid any weed, leaves, or seeds with an
almondlike scent, a characteristic of the cyanide compounds.
- Some people are more susceptible to gastric
distress (from plants) than others. If you are sensitive in this way, avoid
unknown wild plants. If you are extremely sensitive to poison ivy, avoid
products from this family, including any parts from sumacs, mangoes, and
- Some edible wild plants, such as acorns and
water lily rhizomes, are bitter. These bitter substances, usually tannin
compounds, make them unpalatable. Boiling them in several changes of water
will usually remove these bitter properties.
- Many valuable wild plants have high
concentrations of oxalate compounds, also known as oxalic acid. Oxalates
produce a sharp burning sensation in your mouth and throat and damage the
kidneys. Baking, roasting, or drying usually destroys these oxalate
crystals. The corm (bulb) of the jack-in-the-pulpit is known as the
"Indian turnip," but you can eat it only after removing these
crystals by slow baking or by drying.
Do not eat mushrooms in a survival
situation! The only way to tell if a mushroom is edible is by positive
identification. There is no room for experimentation. Symptoms of the
most dangerous mushrooms affecting the central nervous system may show
up after several days have passed when it is too late to reverse their
You identify plants, other than by memorizing
particular varieties through familiarity, by using such factors as leaf shape
and margin, leaf arrangements, and root structure.
The basic leaf margins (Figure
9-1) are toothed, lobed, and toothless or smooth.
These leaves may be lance-shaped, elliptical,
egg-shaped, oblong, wedge-shaped, triangular, long-pointed, or top-shaped (Figure
The basic types of leaf arrangements (Figure
9-3) are opposite, alternate, compound, simple, and basal rosette.
The basic types of root structures (Figure
9-4) are the bulb, clove, taproot, tuber, rhizome, corm, and crown. Bulbs
are familiar to us as onions and, when sliced in half, will show concentric
rings. Cloves are those bulblike structures that remind us of garlic and will
separate into small pieces when broken apart. This characteristic separates wild
onions from wild garlic. Taproots resemble carrots and may be single-rooted or
branched, but usually only one plant stalk arises from each root. Tubers are
like potatoes and daylilies and you will find these structures either on strings
or in clusters underneath the parent plants. Rhizomes are large creeping
rootstock or underground stems and many plants arise from the "eyes"
of these roots. Corms are similar to bulbs but are solid when cut rather than
possessing rings. A crown is the type of root structure found on plants such as
asparagus and looks much like a mophead under the soil's surface.
Learn as much as possible about plants you intend
to use for food and their unique characteristics. Some plants have both edible
and poisonous parts. Many are edible only at certain times of the year. Others
may have poisonous relatives that look very similar to the ones you can eat or
use for medicine.
Universal Edibility Test
There are many plants throughout the world.
Tasting or swallowing even a small portion of some can cause severe discomfort,
extreme internal disorders, and even death. Therefore, if you have the slightest
doubt about a plant's edibility, apply the Universal Edibility Test (Figure
9-5) before eating any portion of it.
Before testing a plant for edibility, make sure
there are enough plants to make the testing worth your time and effort. Each
part of a plant (roots, leaves, flowers, and so on) requires more than 24 hours
to test. Do not waste time testing a plant that is not relatively abundant in
Remember, eating large portions of plant food on
an empty stomach may cause diarrhea, nausea, or cramps. Two good examples of
this are such familiar foods as green apples and wild onions. Even after testing
plant food and finding it safe, eat it in moderation.
You can see from the steps and time involved in
testing for edibility just how important it is to be able to identify edible
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
- Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black
- Three-leaved growth pattern.
Using the above criteria
as eliminators when choosing plants for the Universal Edibility Test will cause
you to avoid some edible plants. More important, these criteria will often help
you avoid plants that are potentially toxic to eat or touch.
An entire encyclopedia of edible wild plants
could be written, but space limits the number of plants presented here. Learn as
much as possible about the plant life of the areas where you train regularly and
where you expect to be traveling or working. Listed below
and later in this chapter are some of the most common edible and medicinal
plants. Detailed descriptions and photographs of these and other common
plants are at Appendix B.
ZONE FOOD PLANTS
- Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus and
- Arrowroot (Sagittaria species)
- Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
- Beechnut (Fagus species)
- Blackberries (Rubus species)
- Blueberries (Vaccinium species)
- Burdock (Arctium lappa)
- Cattail (Typha species)
- Chestnut (Castanea species)
- Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
- Chufa (Cyperus esculentus)
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
- Nettle (Urtica species)
- Oaks (Quercus species)
- Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
- Plantain (Plantago species)
- Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
- Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species)
- Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
- Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
- Strawberries (Fragaria species)
- Thistle (Cirsium species)
- Water lily and lotus (Nuphar, Nelumbo,
and other species)
- Wild onion and garlic (Allium species)
- Wild rose (Rosa species)
- Wood sorrel (Oxalis species)
ZONE FOOD PLANTS
- Bamboo (Bambusa and other species)
- Bananas (Musa species)
- Breadfruit (Artocarpus incisa)
- Cashew nut (Anacardium occidental)
- Coconut (Cocos nucifera)
- Mango (Mangifera indica)
- Palms (various species)
- Papaya (Carica species)
- Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)
- Taro (Colocasia species)
Acacia (Acacia farnesiana)
Agave (Agave species)
Cactus (various species)
Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)
Desert amaranth (Amaranths palmeri)
One plant you should never overlook is seaweed.
It is a form of marine algae found on or near ocean shores. There are also some
edible freshwater varieties. Seaweed is a valuable source of iodine, other
minerals, and vitamin C. Large quantities of seaweed in an unaccustomed stomach
can produce a severe laxative effect.
When gathering seaweeds for food, find living
plants attached to rocks or floating free. Seaweed washed onshore any length of
time may be spoiled or decayed. You can dry freshly harvested seaweeds for later
Its preparation for eating depends on the type of
seaweed. You can dry thin and tender varieties in the sun or over a fire until
crisp. Crush and add these to soups or broths. Boil thick, leathery seaweeds for
a short time to soften them. Eat them as a vegetable or with other foods. You
can eat some varieties raw after testing for edibility.
Dulse (Rhodymenia palmata)
Green seaweed (Ulva lactuca)
Irish moss (Chondrus crispus)
Kelp (Alaria esculenta)
Laver (Porphyra species)
Mojaban (Sargassum fulvellum)
Sugar wrack (Laminaria saccharina)
Preparation of Plant Food
Although some plants or plant parts are edible
raw, you must cook others to be edible or palatable. Edible means that a plant
or food will provide you with necessary nutrients, while palatable means that it
actually is pleasing to eat. Many wild plants are edible but barely palatable.
It is a good idea to learn to identify, prepare, and eat wild foods.
Methods used to improve the taste of plant food
include soaking, boiling, cooking, or leaching. Leaching is done by crushing the
food (for example, acorns), placing it in a strainer, and pouring boiling water
through it or immersing it in running water.
Boil leaves, stems, and buds until tender,
changing the water, if necessary, to remove any bitterness.
Boil, bake, or roast tubers and roots. Drying
helps to remove caustic oxalates from some roots like those in the Arum
Leach acorns in water, if necessary, to remove
the bitterness. Some nuts, such as chestnuts, are good raw, but taste better
You can eat many grains and seeds raw until they
mature. When hard or dry, you may have to boil or grind them into meal or flour.
The sap from many trees, such as maples, birches,
walnuts, and sycamores, contains sugar. You may boil these saps down to a syrup
for sweetening. It takes about 35 liters of maple sap to make one liter of maple
In a survival situation you will have to use what
is available. In using plants and other natural remedies, positive
identification of the plants involved is as critical as in using them for food.
Proper use of these plants is equally important.
Terms and Definitions
The following terms, and their definitions, are
associated with medicinal plant use:
The name given to crushed leaves or other plant parts, possibly heated, that
you apply to a wound or sore either directly or wrapped in cloth or paper.
Infusion or tisane or tea.
The preparation of medicinal herbs for internal or external application. You
place a small quantity of a herb in a container, pour hot water over it, and
let it steep (covered or uncovered) before use.
The extract of a boiled down or simmered herb leaf or root. You add herb leaf
or root to water. You bring them to a sustained boil or simmer to draw their
chemicals into the water. The average ratio is about 28 to 56 grams (1 to 2
ounces) of herb to 0.5 liter of water.
Liquids or saps squeezed from plant material and either applied to the wound
or made into another medicine.
Many natural remedies work slower than the
medicines you know. Therefore, start with smaller doses and allow more time for
them to take effect. Naturally, some will act more rapidly than others.
The following remedies are for use only in a
survival situation, not for routine use:
- Diarrhea. Drink tea made from the roots
of blackberries and their relatives to stop diarrhea. White oak bark and
other barks containing tannin are also effective. However, use them with
caution when nothing else is available because of possible negative effects
on the kidneys. You can also stop diarrhea by eating white clay or campfire
ashes. Tea made from cowberry or cranberry or hazel leaves works too.
Make medications to stop bleeding from a poultice of the puffball mushroom,
from plantain leaves, or most effectively from the leaves of the common
yarrow or woundwort (Achillea
Use to cleanse wounds, sores, or rashes. You can make them from the
expressed juice from wild onion or garlic, or expressed juice from chickweed
leaves or the crushed leaves of dock. You can also make antiseptics from a
decoction of burdock root, mallow leaves or roots, or white oak bark. All
these medications are for external use only.
Treat a fever with a tea made from willow bark, an infusion of elder flowers
or fruit, linden flower tea, or elm bark decoction.
- Colds and sore throats.
Treat these illnesses with a decoction made from either plantain leaves or
willow bark. You can also use a tea made from burdock roots, mallow or
mullein flowers or roots, or mint leaves.
- Aches, pains, and sprains.
Treat with externally applied poultices of dock, plantain, chickweed, willow
bark, garlic, or sorrel. You can also use salves made by mixing the
expressed juices of these plants in animal fat or vegetable oils.
Relieve the itch from insect bites, sunburn, or plant poisoning rashes by
applying a poultice of jewelweed (Impatiens biflora) or witch hazel
leaves (Hamamelis virginiana). The jewelweed juice will help when
applied to poison ivy rashes or insect stings. It works on sunburn as well
as aloe vera.
Get help in falling asleep by brewing a tea made from mint leaves or
Treat them with external washes from elm bark or oak bark tea, from the
expressed juice of plantain leaves, or from a Solomon's seal root decoction.
Relieve constipation by drinking decoctions from dandelion leaves, rose
hips, or walnut bark. Eating raw daylily flowers will also help.
- Worms or intestinal parasites.
Using moderation, treat with tea made from tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
or from wild carrot leaves.
- Gas and cramps.
Use a tea made from carrot seeds as an antiflatulent; use tea made from mint
leaves to settle the stomach.
- Antifungal washes.
Make a decoction of walnut leaves or oak bark or acorns to treat ringworm
and athlete's foot. Apply frequently to the site, alternating with exposure
to direct sunlight.
USES OF PLANTS
Make dyes from various plants to color clothing or
to camouflage your skin. Usually, you will have to boil the plants to get the
best results. Onion skins produce yellow, walnut hulls produce brown, and
pokeberries provide a purple dye.
Make fibers and cordage from plant fibers. Most
commonly used are the stems from nettles and milkweeds, yucca plants, and the
inner bark of trees like the linden.
Make fish poison by immersing walnut hulls in a
small area of quiet water. This poison makes it impossible for the fish to
breathe but doesn't adversely affect their edibility.
Make tinder for starting fires from cattail fluff,
cedar bark, lighter knot wood from pine trees, or hardened sap from resinous
Make insulation by fluffing up female cattail
heads or milkweed down.
Make insect repellents by applying the expressed
juice of wild garlic or onion to the skin, by placing sassafras leaves in your
shelter, or by burning or smudging cattail seed hair fibers.
Plants can be your ally as long as you use them
cautiously. The key to the safe use of plants is positive identification
whether you use them as food or medicine or in constructing shelters or