The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild - Dave Canterbury (2016)

Part III. Living Off the Land

Chapter 18. Foraging

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”


Trapping game, catching fish, and scrounging for grubs aren’t your only options for finding food in the wild. You can also forage for nuts, berries, and other edible plants. Many of these food items also serve a medicinal purpose.

Common Edible Plants

A lot of common plants that grow in many front yards are edible. Clover, dandelion, plantain, burdock, and violets are not uncommon in rural areas, and they are quite tasty. However, gaining an understanding of the multitude of wild edibles takes study and several reference guides at a minimum to make sure what we are consuming is what we think it is. We must be careful as some plants are highly toxic.

9781440598524 Clove

Clover (edible)

9781440598524 Plantai

Plantain (edible)

9781440598524 Viole

Violets (edible)

Bushcraft Tip

Fungi is another story all together as many more of them are dangerous than are plant species. I don’t recommend eating mushrooms.

Choosing the Right Plants

A good rule of thumb taught by a popular forager know as Green Deane is to ITEMize plants.

·        Identification. Identify them positively with several sources. If you misidentify a plant and eat it, you may get sick.

·        Time of year. Are they growing in the proper time of year according to references? If a plant that you think is rhubarb (for example) looks ready to pick in September, you may have the wrong plant; in the Northern Hemisphere, rhubarb is harvested in early spring.

·        Environment. Make sure they are growing in the proper environment. If a plant is supposed to like growing in dry areas and you find it in a wet, boggy spot, you may have the wrong plant.

·        Methods. Understand the proper methods of harvest and preparation before consuming. In some cases you can eat the leaves but not the stem, or vice versa. Sometimes the berries are poisonous but the foliage is not, or vice versa. Some plants can be eaten raw but others must be cooked before consuming.

9781440598524 May Appl

May apples (poisonous)

9781440598524 Purslan

Purslane (edible)

Spend time with someone else who has this knowledge as you are learning.

Wild Edibles

Here are some common plants that can be valuable resources in the wild:

·        Cattails are nature’s supermarket and pharmacy. The young shoots are edible raw or boiled; you can boil and eat the rootstock tubers as well. The pollen collected from the seed heads can be used as flour, and you can eat the young seed heads like corn on the cob.

9781440598524 Cattai

Cattails (edible)

·        Field parsnip was used as a staple food for centuries but is now forgotten by most; the root of this plant is a great starch and can be baked like a potato. Warning: contact dermatitis can occur when handling this plant.

·        Dandelions are a great green for a salad or can be eaten on the fly; they are full of vitamin A, and the flower tops are edible as well. Dandelion root is a good coffee substitute when dried and ground.

9781440598524 Dandelio

Dandelions (edible)

·        Young leaves of the burdock plant are especially good for salad greens, and the large taproot is fine starch.

9781440598524 Burdoc

Burdock (edible)

·        Arrowhead is another water plant with an edible tuber that has high starch content.

·        Bulbs can be stored in a cool, dry place for a whole season. Some great plants with edible bulbs include wild garlic or onion garlic. Ramps and leeks also contain edible and delicious bulbs.

·        Yellow nut grass is another edible root plant native around areas of water where cattails and arrowhead are found.

9781440598524 Onion Garli

Onion garlic (edible)

9781440598524 Wild Onio

Wild onion (edible)

Wild Onion and Wild Garlic Sausage Patties

Use wild onion and wild garlic to spice up your sausage patties.

Finely mince fresh-picked wild onion and wild garlic. Mix into ground sausage and fry as normal in a pan over medium heat.

Herbs to the Rescue

What if you’re having a bit of tummy trouble but you don’t have any Tums on hand? You know that coriander can help with digestive issues, but you didn’t pack any in. What can you do? Sometimes the best herb is the herb you have! You may not always have the specific herb you want in a given situation so sometimes you just have to wing it. That is where understanding a bit more about herbal properties comes in to play.

Be as proactive with herbs as you are with other resources, like fire-building materials. Collect them as you go—especially if you haven’t packed in something to care for an issue that may arise.

One thing I tell my students is to learn to positively identify the harmful plants first. There are far fewer of these, and then you know beyond that you are safe to consume or use what you find. What harmful plants you are likely to encounter depends on where you are, but some common ones are jimson weed (thorn apple), oleander, larkspur, and the twigs and foliage of wild cherries. The color insert in this section will help you identify some of these more common toxic plants.

9781440598524 Dogban

Dogbane (lookalike—avoid)

9781440598524 Queen Annes Lac

Queen Anne’s Lace (lookalike—avoid)

9781440598524 Hemloc

Hemlock (lookalike—avoid)

Bushcraft Tip

Charcoal isn’t, of course, a plant, but I mention it here as it can be an indispensable resource in case of accidental food or plant poisoning. Ground in water, it will immediately induce vomiting and has absorbent qualities to remove leftover toxins from the stomach.

Plant Properties

Once we have assured ourselves through proper education that a plant is safe to use and consume, we should begin to experiment and learn to not only identify the plant in all seasons but we should experiment with it as a tea, as a wash, as a poultice, and so on. We can research what the plant is good for. Remember that many plants act differently on different people and getting to know what works well for you is important. To me it is very important to understand certain things about a plant, since that gives me lots of clues as to its uses beyond a food source.

Medicinal Properties of Plants





Tooth and gum care

Cattail has a very good gel that is present at the base of the sheath when the shoots are pulled out. This gel is anesthetic and antiseptic; you can liken it to aloe, as it is great for local pain relief from burns or stings. The young shoots of this plant make great toothbrushes as well.


Cold/congestion, female cycle needs

Mullein has been used for centuries as a decongestant and is great for cough and cold remedies; the large, soft leaves of this plant can be used as wound dressings and are absorbent for female needs.


Contact dermatitis

Jewelweed plant has chemicals within its juices that help alleviate the symptoms of contact dermatitis from poison ivy and other plants. The freshly picked plant can be rubbed on the skin. It is important to use this plant as soon as possible after contact from a problem plant.



Plantain can be used as a poultice by chewing the plant and then placing the macerated leaves on a sting or bite. It helps to draw out foreign objects such as splinters and thorns as well as the poison from a sting.



Mint has many excellent properties for general and medical use. Fresh mint leaves rubbed on the temples will help ease minor headaches. A decoction of mint can also be gargled for sore throats.

Mint and dandelion

Upset stomach

Dried mint and dandelion infusions are good for an upset stomach and will help relieve diarrhea.

Mint and yarrow

Cold and flu symptoms

An infusion or tea can be made with mint and yarrow to relieve cold and flu symptoms.


Blood coagulant/cold and flu care/insect repellent

Yarrow has been known throughout history for its abilities to clot blood from deep wounds; it also has anti-inflammatory properties. It will induce sweating when consumed as a tea and helps to break fevers. Recent studies have also shown that it’s a great insect repellent.


Deep bruises, breaks, fevers

Boneset as an infusion will help break a fever, while a poultice of the green leaves will help with deep bruises and even bone repair.

Application of Medicinal Plants

Medicinal plants are mostly used in four ways:

1.    Poultice: By gathering the plant leaves and flowers raw and macerating (crushing) them, you can form a poultice. This can then be steeped in boiled water or even chewed in the mouth (spit poultice) if it’s an emergency, then placed directly on the affected area and wrapped with a bandanna or bandaging.

2.    Infusion tea: To make a tea or an infusion, steep as you would a poultice for approximately 10–15 minutes, and then consume the liquid after straining.

3.    Decoction: A decoction is much like an infusion but requires the material to be boiled, not steeped. This method is used for any bark material or roots. The liquid is then strained and consumed after boiling away half the liquid.

4.    Wash: A wash is an infusion used to clean the affected area. In this case, the plant is not eaten at all.

9781440598524 Poke Wee

Poke weed (poisonous)

Using Your Senses

Tasting and feeling plants can give us lots of clues about their uses (once we are sure they are safe to eat). The sensations plants give us on the palate are very indicative of what they will do within our body as well. Generally to aid in an issue we look for plants that produce the opposite of existing conditions. So, for example, a hot or pungent herb will warm up the chills. A citrusy plant will cool down a warm body.

Put it in your mouth, chew it up, roll it around; feel what it is doing on the palate and how it tastes. Based on taste, you’ll be able to divide it into one of four categories:

1.    Biters: Plants that have a bitter or acrid taste are generally good medicine for colds and flu. They will generally be both antiseptic and antiviral in nature.

2.    Mucilaginous: Plants that make the mouth water or are slimy will be good for constipation, as they will “grease the pipes,” so to speak. They will be good for dry irritated sinuses, as well as burns.

3.    Astringents: Plants that are astringent will pucker your mouth or dry out your palate and will do the same thing in the body or on the skin. They will dry poison ivy, help dry up diarrhea,

and cure a runny nose.

1.    Carminatives: These plants will feel warming or spicy, and will be great for stomach upset and general relief of gas and discomfort in the digestive tract.

Bushcraft Tip

Most wild herbs can be air-dried for later use. You can grind these dried herbs into flavorings for food and teas. A few of my favorites are mustard seed, garlic mustard, mint, shepherd’s purse, and dock seeds.


Rich in protein, nuts are some of the easiest plant-based food resources to harvest.

Pine Nuts

All pine nut seeds are edible so you do not need to worry about identifying different species. Some do, however, have larger seeds than others and, even though you can eat them green, the older ones taste better. The trick is to catch them just at the right time before they drop from the pinecones. Look for cones that are turning brown but have not yet opened. Arrange them around a fire and the warmth will force the cones open so that you can collect the seeds.

Hickory Nuts

Hickory nuts are delicious and especially valuable because their shells efficiently lock out moisture and insects so they keep for a very long time. Most folks do not care to fool with hickory nuts because they can be so difficult to open. And after all that work, oftentimes you will end up with small pieces of shell everywhere and only a tiny bit of meat.

Let me share a secret with you. You have to take advantage of the internal structure of the hull itself to break it cleanly. I prefer to use an axe, but any hammering device—even just a stone—will work. Turn the nut so that it is lying sideways and the sharp, raised edge is on top. Basically, turn it to the spot where it wobbles and will not stand on its own. Then strike the seam in a spot about one-third of the way from the base of the stem. If you follow these steps, you should easily pop the nut into three pieces every time with plenty of exposed meat for the picking.

9781440598524 Hickory Nu

Hickory nuts (edible)


Walnuts, specifically black walnuts, are a totally different animal from hickory nuts and must be treated differently. If possible, collect them before they fall from the tree and then store them until they turn black. If you do collect any from the ground, inspect them very closely for worm holes.

9781440598524 Black Walnu

Black walnuts (edible)

Remove the outer skins from the shells when they turn black and use the skins for dyes and medicines. Once you have revealed the nut shells themselves you can then break them open and eat the meat inside. Walnuts do not store in the shell as well as hickory nuts. If you decide to save them for future use, dry them before storing. Leave them in the shell and crack open just before eating.

Fruit, Vegetables, and Herbs

Fruit like raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries can be found in many parts of the country. Berries are energizing to eat and add vitamins and fiber to your diet.

Foraging for Berries

Take extra care to make certain you can positively identify any berries before eating them. When in doubt, do not eat!

When looking for berries, scan the area from ground level to eye level. Look for low fruit trees and bushes. A lot of species are creepers so scan the ground very well. Remember that berry plants are biologically constructed to protect themselves from birds, so they are often hiding under greenery or surrounded with thorns. Keep a close eye out for poison ivy too.

Fruit Foraging


Where to Look



Blueberries grow in bush form. They flourish in acidic soil so you can sometimes find them in dried-up beaver ponds or near oak trees. They grow particularly well in sunny meadows.

Flowers in spring, berries in summer.


Moist forest soil along trails and around open fields.

Bloom June to July; fruits appear in late summer into fall.


Grow in bushes, usually found in areas that receive full sun.

Blossom in spring, fruit in summer.


Grow in small patches of brambly-looking vines. Look in areas near drainage ditches or trails.

Bloom in midsummer, eat in late summer.

Wild cherries

Grow rapidly from seeds dropped by birds so they are usually found as colonies of trees in clearings.

Blossoms in spring, fruits in summer; often hold until fall.


Grow best in acidic soil and bogs.

Ripen in the fall and usually stay a plant through the winter.


Grow close to the ground anywhere.

Blossom in spring; fruit in early summer.


Can be white, red, or black.

Very hardy, can survive in extremely cold temperatures.

Wild grapes

Occur throughout the eastern woodlands in several species.

Very hardy and cold-weather resistant.

Autumn olive

This species is invasive and grows in mostly field edges.

Blooms in early fall and becomes better after the first frost so it is a cold-weather plant.

Bushcraft Tip

Many fruits and plants also produce natural dyes. Raspberry will make red, goldenrod is deep brown, pokeberries make a purple dye, bloodroot is orange to reddish. Dyes made from berries can be soaked in a hot fixative of salt water, while most plants will require a vinegar for fixing.

9781440598524 Raspberr

Raspberries (edible)

Other Edible Plants

Many plants provide storable food resources such as seeds, seasonings, or bulbs. These food items can be processed and dried for later use.


Bulbs can be stored in a cool, dry place for a whole season. There are some great plants with edible bulbs to be found in the woodlands, including wild garlic or onion garlic. This last is one of my favorites for sure. Ramps and leeks also contain edible and delicious bulbs.

9781440598524 Ramp

Ramps (edible)

Roots and Tubers

Cattail contains an edible starchy tuber that can be eaten as well as stored dry. Arrowhead is another water plant with an edible tuber that has high starch content. Burdock contains a large taproot similar to the potato and can be easily stored for later use if kept dry. Dandelion root makes a good drink or coffee substitute. You can even dry it and grind it down for later use in a hot drink. Yellow nut grass is another edible root plant native around areas of water where cattails and arrowhead are found.

Tips and Tricks

·        I discourage you from eating wild mushrooms at all since many are highly toxic.

·        You don’t have to learn about every wild plant in order to forage. Learn about the edibles in your area or where you like to camp. Local knowledge is what matters.

·        You can find local experts at plant societies or through the extension service.

·        Try a taste before you eat in bulk. Everyone is different. Plants that one person can eat and enjoy will make another sick.

·        Regarding nuts, be careful of mildew, which is the real enemy of any seed. Keeping them dry is the key.

·        Knowing some basic plant lore can keep you from wasting time. Nearly 100 percent of all white berries are toxic, for example; you don’t need to bother finding out if the white-berried plant that grows in your local woods is edible. It probably isn’t.