Whether it is out of need or plain curiosity, there may come a time when you are out in the woods and ask, “Can I eat that plant?” There are thousands of plants in the wilderness, and it’s hard to know what is safe to eat and what is not. In these situations, knowing the difference between safe and unsafe plants can spare you from serious illness and even save your life.
Plants to Avoid
All plants should be treated with caution upon first contact. Touching or ingesting the wrong plant could turn your night of fun in the woods into a trip to the emergency room. While many plants are harmless, there are a few that can have dangerous effects. Knowing which plants are unsafe is the first step to preventing poisoning. Being able to identify them if ingested or touched is key to getting proper treatment.
Do not touch
Brushing up against these plants can give you side effects bad enough to ruin your day. So, watch out for them when you are hiking the trails and setting up your campsite.
A common plant that most of us are familiar with is Poison Ivy. It’s characterized by its three jagged leaves and fuzzy vine. When touched, the plant’s oils can cause hikers to develop a red, itchy rash in the affected area. Try your best not to scratch, or you risk it spreading. Instead, use calamine lotion to soothe the irritated skin.
You can identify it by its bright green leaves with round serrated edges. Poison oak has similar effects to poison ivy. You are more likely to run into poison oak in the Midwest United States. Whereas, poison ivy is usually in the East. The treatment for each is the same. Do not irritate the rash, and use a soothing anti-itch cream until it subsides.
Unlike the first two plants, the effects of poison sumac are not so mild. Coming in contact with poison sumac can ruin your camping trip and leave you in intense pain. Poison Sumac is commonly found in swampy areas in the Eastern United States. It typically looks like a small tree with smooth leaves and gray (or cream) colored berries. Touching poison sumac can leave you with a painful rash with blisters and skin eruptions. If you think you touched poison sumac, stop what you are doing and wash your hands with soap and warm water. This will help reduce the effects of the oils. If a rash starts to form, avoid agitating the affected area further. Treat it with an anti-itch cream or an astringent to dry out the oils.
Luckily, these plants look just as mean as they are, which makes them easy to identify. They have pointed leaves covered in tiny spines. These spines act like poison darts when touched. They’ll release small amounts of toxins into your skin. The nasty toxins can cause you to break out in an itchy rash if you do not wash your skin immediately after touching. This plant isn’t entirely bad as its leaves can be dried and brewed into a tasty tea!
Do not eat
Touching poisonous plants often result in mild symptoms that are easy to treat. However, ingesting poisonous plants may bring dire consequences to your health. You’re likely not going to walk around the forest and casually nibble on random plants. But, it’s important to be able to distinguish what is safe to consume.
With their brightly colored flowers and delicate vines, they look good enough to eat. However, looks are deceiving. Morning Glories contain hallucinogenic chemicals similar to LSD. They can make you a danger to yourself and others if eaten. If you accidentally ingest this plant, get medical help immediately. If hallucinations occur, stay calm, do not stray from your location, and warn others in your party.
Mostly found in the south, Pokeweed can be safe to eat if it’s properly cooked. It’s usually a great addition to southern dishes. However, if you eat this plant raw, it can cause horrible side effects. Some of these include vomiting, seizures, and difficulty breathing. If ingested, seek immediate medical help and do not induce vomiting.
It has woody vines and clusters of black-purple berries. Moonseed is found in the Northeastern regions of the United States, and parts of Canada. The appetizing look of the berries makes this plant particularly deceiving. The berries have a foul taste, and the toxins they contain can cause muscle paralysis. Like the other poisonous plants, seek medical help if you think you have eaten these berries.
Oleander is loved by many gardeners for its charming flowers and easy maintenance. It’s is an evergreen bush that has become a popular choice for home landscaping. Unfortunately, this plant is as poisonous as it is beautiful. All parts of Oleander are poisonous if ingested. Symptoms range from blurred vision and vomiting to dangerously low blood pressure and fainting. Poisoning from this plant is severe and possibly fatal. Call Poison Control or go to your local hospital immediately if poisoned.
If you only take the time to inform yourself about one dangerous plant, please make it this one. Water Hemlock is the most poisonous plant in North America. It can be fatal from ingesting even a single mouthful. To avoid consuming residual juices from the plant, you should avoid handling it as well. Water Hemlock can be found in wet areas and has spear-shaped leaves with serrated edges. Its stem is smooth and often purple, while the leaves are bright green. Delicate white flower bloom from the plant in an umbrella formation. Symptoms of poisoning include seizures and fatal respiratory failure. Some of these symptoms can occur within a matter of hours. The best chance of recovery from Water Hemlock poisoning is immediate medical action.
Plants you can eat
Luckily, not all of nature is out to harm you. In fact, there are plenty of plants you can find while camping that makes a delicious (and healthy!) snack. If you are short on food or just want to munch on something natural, these plants will satisfy your cravings.
Blackberries can be found growing throughout the woods (or the grocery store). They grow on a bush covered in thorns and serrated leaves. They’ll bloom tiny white flowers before bearing their dark fruit. The berries bloom from August to September and freeze well when sealed in a plastic bag. You can eat them right off the branch, or blend them with some yogurt for a delicious smoothie!
Who knew those pesky yellow weeds that litter your yard in the spring are actually edible? Well, not only are they edible, but they are also highly nutritious. These little wonders can be eaten raw. However, they are slightly bitter. To get rid of the bitterness they can be cooked by steaming or roasting. Better yet, make some dandelion tea packed with beta-carotene by picking the yellow petals off the greens and letting them steep in warm water for a few hours. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can make some dandelion jelly by combining your dandelion tea with sugar and plain gelatin. Refrigerate your mixture until firm for a sweet treat that mimics the flavor of honey.
They’re commonly found growing in the woods of Missouri. Gooseberries are dark red in color and grow on a bush with bright green leaves that look like maple leaves. The berries appear in spring and early summer. They have a tart taste that sweetens as they ripen. You can eat them raw, or bake them into a gooseberry pie. Combine the fresh berries in a stovetop pot with some sugar and cook until they begin to break down and thicken. Place the filling into a store-bought pie crust and bake until golden.
These look like blackberries but grow on a small tree covered in spade-shaped leaves. Mulberries are pale green and tart when they are young. They’ll turn dark purple and sweet when fully ripened. They make an excellent filling for pies and tarts, but can also be fermented into a lovely wine.
You may know it as the beautiful orange and yellow lily that seems to pop up in the spring. While the fully bloomed flower is not all that tasty, the young flower bud is the real treat. It can be eaten raw or cooked, similar to a squash blossom. It has a delicate, bright flavor that is perfect for a spring meal out in the woods.
Walnut trees are some of the most common species of tree you will run into while out camping or hiking. The edible nuts grow in clusters on the branches, but their height can make them difficult to harvest. Walnuts ripen in the fall and can be eaten raw or toasted for some added flavor. They are rich in protein and fats that can provide vital energy if you’re running low on food.
Easily recognized out in the wilderness, clover can be a delightfully fresh snack. You can mix the leaves with some of your other favorite greens for a nice salad, or boil it to take away the bitterness. The red blossoms are delicious raw and can be brewed into a refreshing floral tea.
Cattails can be found growing on tall stalks on the edges of most freshwater wetlands in the USA. They were frequently eaten by Native Americans. Most of the plant is edible, but each part requires special care to be enjoyed properly. The leaves are like spinach. So, wilting them with heat brings out their flavor and takes away the bitterness. The stem is best near the bottom where it is pale in color and tender. You can eat it raw or boil it for a more delicate flavor. If you find some in the early summer, the brown hotdog-shaped spike on top can be eaten raw and tastes like corn.
You can spot their white flowers with four petals and spear-shaped serrated leaves from a mile away. The garlic mustard plant changes flavors depending on the season. In the summer the leaves can be fairly bitter, while in the winter they have a more mild taste. Their flavor is very distinct and can be quite spicy. They make an excellent addition to a boring salad.
This common weed has smooth leaves with seeds contained in long, yellow-green clusters at the center. These seeds are called Amaranth and can be harvested and used to make flour. They can also be roasted and sprinkled on top of a salad for a nutty flavor. While fully grown, the leaves can be too bitter to eat. The young leaves have an appealing flavor and can be cooked or eaten raw in a salad. The leaves can also be dried and brewed into an earthy tea.
Prickly Pear Cactus
While you’re on your next desert outing, keep an eye out for this beauty. It can provide you with food if you find yourself stranded or hungry. The colorful fruit is deliciously sweet and can be made into a tasty jelly when harvested. Just make sure to remove the spines before you take a bite!
When we go camping, we are bonding with nature. It’s only natural for us to want to consume the freshest food it has to offer. While most plants you will run into are perfectly safe, it is still important to be educated to prevent a medical emergency. Now that you have all the necessary information, go out there and dig in!