Wild Fruits and Nuts: A must have guide for backcountry traveller - Into The Jungle

Wild Fruits and Nuts: A must have guide for backcountry traveller

You can’t walk through a field, forest, swamp or even your own backyard without passing by (or stepping on) wild edible plants. Uninhabited areas, and even urban locations, contain nutritious wild food that’s free for the taking—if you know what to look for. The same plant foods that sustained our ancestors are still out there growing as they always have. Learn what those things are, and you’ll gain a back-up food supply that’s available year-round

What can you do with acorns

The nuts produced by any oak tree (trees in the genus Quercus) are a plentiful, high-calorie wild food crop around the Northern Hemisphere. Coming in at just over 2,000 calories per pound, acorns are too valuable to ignore, despite their bitter flavor and previous misinformation. Just make sure you can tell the difference between an acorn and a buckeye, because buckeyes (and the very similar-looking horse chestnut) are poisonous. To prepare your acorns, crack them out of their shells and break any large nut pieces into smaller bits. Then soak the acorn chunks in water to remove the bitter and irritating tannic acid.

Don’t boil acorns, because it locks in some of the bitterness permanently. Just soak the acorns in a few changes of water, for a few hours per soaking. If the water was safe to drink, taste a piece of acorn to see if it’s still bitter. If you don’t like it, dump off the water (which should look brown after a few hours of soaking), add fresh water and soak the acorn pieces again for a few hours.

Repeat this as needed, depending on the acorn’s bitterness. Once they taste acceptable, let the acorns dry out for a few hours. Then you can run them through a grain grinder, blender or flour mill to make acorn flour. Add this flour to existing recipes, or try making traditional acorn porridge by simmering acorn flour, water and maple syrup.

Focus On Other Tree Nuts

The walnut family gives us the highest-calorie wild food available. Black walnut, butternut walnut, pecan and hickory are all in this family, and the shelled-out nut meats of these trees can provide you with a high-fat food that’s almost 200 calories per ounce. Beechnut, hazelnut and even pine nuts can also be eaten, after picking the nut meats from shattered shells, assuming you can beat the squirrels to them.

Spring Brings Great Salad

With all the fresh green growth, you’d think spring would provide you with a lot of food, and it does—but it’s all very watery, low-calorie food. Most of the leaves, shoots and other spring vegetables provide only 20- 30 calories per plateful. However, spring makes up for this low-calorie situation by offering us a great variety of tasty wild salads, flowers, shoots, tubers and roots. Among the tastiest spring edibles are dandelion greens and flowers, watercress in a salad, spring beauty bulbs, fresh chick- weed, redbud tree flowers, and sassafras roots, which I use for tea and homemade root beer.

Summer Offers Berries And Fruit

Blackberries and all of their kin (raspberries, dewberries, thimble berries, etc.) provide a great-tasting summertime berry. The vitamin- and mineral-rich berries provide about 50 calories per cup, and can be squeezed for their juice to provide safe hydration, a pleasant juice or even a winemaking ingredient. Other summer treats include milkweed pods (boiled in changes of water to remove toxins), blue- berries, wild cherries, burdock leaf and root, and paw paw fruit.

Fall Foraging Will Keep You Full

While you can get your highest calories of the year by foraging tree nuts in the fall, you can also get your highest source of vitamin C this time of year. One cup of wild rose hips contains 162 calories and seven times your daily allowance of vitamin C. Rose hips also provide vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K, calcium, manganese and magnesium.

In the plant kingdom, red berries are just as likely to be good or bad (you have about a 50/50 shot at either), so to avoid getting the wrong fruit or berry, look for semi-evergreen compound leaves and thorns on your wild rose bushes. Other fall favorites include the persimmon fruit (which is one of the best tasting edibles in late fall), Jerusalem artichoke tubers, cattail rootstocks, barberries, curly dock seeds (which I grind into flour) and wild grapes.

Don’t ignore winter foods

Even though winter seems like a bleak season to scavenge for food, it still provides a great number of edible plants. Pine needles are a vitamin C powerhouse in winter. Positively identify pine, chop up a tablespoon of needles and soak them in scalding hot water for 10 minutes to get four to five times your daily requirement of vitamin C. Just skip the loblolly pine on the east coast and the ponderosa pine, as these may have toxins in the needles.

And for women who may be or are pregnant, don’t consume pine needle tea at all. If you have an abundance of pine and a shortage of food, you can eat the inner pine bark as well. Shave off the inner layer, dry it and grind it into flour that provides 600 calories per pound. Other winter wild foods can include left-over tree nuts from the fall, and tenacious wild salad plants like dandelion, plantain, clover and wintercress.

Heed these tips before you gather your next meal

  • Before you start foraging, understand that there are some deadly plants out there that you should avoid. Poison hemlock, fool’s parsley, water hemlock, pokeberry fruits, and many other plants and plant parts are capable of killing the careless and unobservant wild food enthusiast. With that in mind, consider these guidelines:
  • Carefully identify the edible plant with a good book, like Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Alternately, you can take a wild edible plant class or go foraging with someone who is well versed in this area.
  • Learn which poisonous plants are in your region, and avoid them like the plague.
  • Learn how to use the plants, which parts to use and when they are available.
  • Wash your wild edibles to avoid pathogens deposited on them by birds and bugs.
  • Don’t collect near areas that could be contaminated with pesticides, pollution, or chemicals. Avoid harvesting near conventional farm fields, roads, landfills, power lines, train tracks or drainage ponds.
  • Don’t use the “Universal Edibility Test.” This is the test where you expose yourself to a mystery plant in increasingly greater doses over time. This test could get you killed.
  • Just try one new wild food at a time, after determining edibility, so you can tell which plant doesn’t agree with you—in case of allergic reaction to a new food.
  • Just because an animal ate it, doesn’t mean that you can. Even other mammals can eat plants that would kill a person. Every creature metabolizes plants differently.
  • And last but definitely not least—if you’re in doubt of the plant’s identity, don’t eat it!
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.