Here’s the Absolute Best Way to Tell If a Wild Plant is Edible

You have to give a lot of respect to people who practice foraging. It’s definitely one of the most underrated skills in the modern world, and it’s also quite difficult to learn. If you want to eat plants that are found in the wild, you must have an encyclopedic knowledge of wild plants, both where you live and abroad. And not just because there are thousands of plants in the world that are poisonous, but also because many of them look a lot like edible plants.

For most people however, it can be difficult to justify learning this skill. We live in an era that provides an abundance of cheap food (relative to previous eras of course). If you want to learn how to safely forage for food in the wild, you have to spend a lot of time and energy on a skill that may not ever come in handy for you.

But if you want to better your odds of surviving in the wilderness, and you don’t have time to gain such an impressive skill, there is a shortcut you can learn. Like most things in life that take less effort, it’s not as comprehensive or effective, but it’s a lot better than nothing. It’s called the Universal Edibility Test, and it’s a method of safely testing wild plants that you’re not familiar with to see if you can actually eat them. Here’s how it works:

  1. Say you find a tasty looking plant in the wilderness. To see if it’s safe, the first thing you need to do is separate its parts, such as stems, leaves, flowers, buds, and roots. That’s because in many cases, only certain parts of a plant are poisonous.
  2. Next you need to take one of those parts and smell it. Certain plants have evolved to avoid being consumed, and they often have a terrible smell. So if it smells something awful, throw it out.
  3. But if it passes the smell test, the next thing you need to do is rub or place the plant on your skin, preferably on your inner elbow or wrist. Keep it there for a few minutes, then wait eight hours. If that spot starts to feel itchy, numb, or develops a rash, then clearly that plant doesn’t want to be eaten.
  4. If the plant passes that test, then the next thing you need to do is cook it if you can, since that often neutralizes poisons. Then you need to rub it on your lips for about three minutes. If you don’t encounter any kind of burning or tingling sensation after 15 minutes, then you can move on to the next step.
  5. Now you need to put the plant in your mouth. However, don’t swallow just yet. Just let the plant material rest on your tongue for 15 minutes. If the plant tastes bitter, or just gag-worthy in general; or if you experience burning or tingling in your mouth, then it’s probably not safe to eat. If it passes this test, then try swishing it around in your mouth for 15 minutes and look for the same signs. If you do experience any of these negative reactions, then not only should you spit the plant out, but you should also clean your mouth out with water.
  6. Finally, if you don’t receive any negative reactions from that previous step, then you can swallow the plant. Wait till the next day, and don’t eat anything else while you’re waiting. If you’re still feeling alright after that, then you can be reasonably sure that the plant is safe to eat. You can repeat this process for the other parts of the plant.

Now you can try eating a more substantial amount of the plant. If you still feel fine after another eight hours or so, then it’s definitely safe to eat.

Given the time-consuming nature of this test, you’ll want to try this out first on plants that are more abundant in your environment. It’s also important to note that there are certain things that are not worth your time with this test. Most notably, mushrooms usually can’t be tested with this method, so don’t even bother with them unless you’re well versed in spotting edible mushrooms.

Obviously the Universal Edibility Test isn’t perfect, and conducting it in the wild is going to use up a lot of precious time. Nothing beats having actual skills, and genuinely learning how to forage for wild plants. But if you don’t know what is and isn’t edible in your environment and you’re in a survival situation, then this is the absolute best way to find edible food in the wild.

Joshua Krause was born and raised in the Bay Area. He is a writer and researcher focused on principles of self-sufficiency and liberty at Ready Nutrition. You can follow Joshua’s work at our Facebook page or on his personal Twitter.

Joshua’s website is Strange Danger

This information has been made available by Ready Nutrition

Originally published March 16th, 2017
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  • art smith

    novice at best! read and study plant s in your area- seek a specialist most have a class you can take – some plants whether you cook or not will kill you- better than your chances with mushrooms 90 percent of mushrooms are unedible dont try, they will liquify your liver

  • walcon

    Mustard greens are bitter. Hmmm.

    • Ed Makan

      One reason why darker greens are bitter is due to the higher levels of ascorbic acid or Vitamin C they contain. All acids are bitter. Some greens contain oxalic acid as in the case of spinach. Rhubarb has a high oxalic acid content.

  • Chuck Morrison

    There are wonderful little pocket guides for N. American (or a specific region thereof) edible plants. The same series also has separate guides for medicinal plants, fungi, hallucinogens. They take up very little space in your bug-out bag.

    • One Ring or Two

      Thank you Chuck. Care to share your favorite source for these?

      • Chuck Morrison

        Sure. Look for Peterson Field Guides. I also have some Golden Guides from Golden Press, which are very small. But the Peterson ones are the best. They’re made like an Audubon guide; water resistant, flexible and yet tough.

      • One Ring or Two

        Thank you sir, I will search them out to add to my BOB! I have several huge reference books that are not very portable, nor specific to range.

    • Lala Land

      Thank you Chuck! As ORoT said, those big ones are not so portable, especially the really comprehensive guides.

  • Synickel

    In the meantime while you’re going through all these time-consuming iterations, you starve to death.

  • Marcopolo

    If you have enough sustenance to last a few days, just do what mankind did for millennia; watch what animals eat and you’re good to go. Carnivores are a slam dunk. It’s the birds, deer, etc., that will help you round out your diet in the wild. My point of view is that’s the best way to tell if any “wild” plant is edible. P.S. Dandelions for salads are only good before they flower. After, they’re bitter tasting; not harmful, just the salad will taste lousy. Watch rabbits….:-)

    • DiMarco

      Just follow the animals…good advice and it is natural.
      Civilzation has made humans too unnatural. Learn from nature is best…practices..

      Btw…i would starve to death before i actually compketed the protocol in the article. LoL

      • Marcopolo

        That was sort of the “hidden agenda” of my post. Having served when we were more fixated on jungles than sand, the worst thing that happened when “lost” on a patrol was the runs. Although C rations we had were from the Korean war; many times we’d forage-there are no words to describe “beef stew” in an olive drab can….

  • Rothbardian

    Actually most mushrooms are edible but only some are worth eating. Some poisonous mushrooms will pass all the above tests – and taste good! – but you won’t know you have been poisoned for several days when your liver and kidneys stop working.

    • Lala Land

      Egad! That’s scary!

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