Lost Instinct of Knowning what to Eat

~ The fifth in a series of articles on survival skills ~
~ by Mark Warren ~

Have you ever heard that old adage: watch what the animals eat and you'll know what to eat, too? Well, forget it. It's simply not true. The fact is that there was a time when no one had to teach us what to eat.

Anthropologists tell us that the first people of paleo-times could merely stand in the presence of a plant and know how it was to be used. Anyone who finds such a notion too far-fetched to believe needs to look no farther than the animals of the wild for verification. No one instructs babes of the forest what to eat. They are born with the information hardwired into their genetic material.

Take a rat snake. It hatches from an egg deposited by its mother in a safe place. Once it emerges from that rubbery shell, it is unlikely that it will meet its parents in its lifetime. The infant reptile forges ahead into life with a fully-blown, inherited momentum for living, knowing what to eat, how to find it, and how to catch it. Humans were once the same way.

Survival Skills
Our plant wisdom
evaporated as our cultures
became more refined and poured more energy into
language development
and crop cultivation.
Survival Skills

You don't have to be part-Cherokee or part-Apache to lay claim to such ancestral lore. Every one of us comes from early relatives who instinctively chewed on willow twigs for the analgesic salicin in the bark and peeled yucca stalks to get at the digestible nutrients at the core. And just as we all share that heritage, we now (probably all of us) founder together in the loss of that information. Historically, we de-evolutionized. Our plant wisdom evaporated as our cultures became more refined and poured more energy into language development and crop cultivation.

The only way to regain this lost knowledge - at least the only way I know - is to re-approach it academically. We have to study. And we must demand from ourselves our most astute methods of learning, because a mistake in this field can be costly. Every year, out in the wild, people die from eating the wrong plant.


I have a friend who once worked as a naturalist for a suburban nature center. In offering a wild edibles class, she took adults into a marsh and gathered the roots of a plant with large arrowhead-shaped leaves. She believed that her class had harvested wapato, Sagittaria latifolia, a delicious tuber when steamed or baked or sauteed. Anyone who has read the journals of Lewis and Clark will be familiar with this native staple. It is mentioned time and time again as an important food all the way into the Northwestern part of the continent.

Survival Skills
Calcium oxalate burned
the tissue of their mouths
when they bit into it!
Survival Skills

My friend had the correct habitat and the correct leaf size and shape but she missed one crucial detail. The veins that radiated out into the three corners of the leaf she had found were pinnate; that is, feather-shaped. One mid-rib vein extended in a straight line like the trunk of a tree and lateral veins branched from it like tree limbs. The veins should have been parallel, spreading from the center of the leaf, running side by side and then converging at the tip of each lobe, somewhat like the grooves on a pumpkin. She had unwittingly fed her students arrow arum, Peltandra virginica, whose caustic calcium oxalate burned the tissue of their mouths when they bit into it! Knowing about that vein pattern on the leaf turned out to be an all-important bit of knowledge.

If you undertake the study of wild edibles and wish to supplement your diet with them, you must pay attention to the tiniest characteristics of plants. Hairs, pigments, aromas, vein patterns, leaf arrangements, the shape of teeth along the margin. Any one of these traits might be the trait that helps you to positively identify a particular plant.

Harvesting and Eating

By using a plant book, if you have positively identified wapato (also called "duck potato" or "broad-leaved arrowhead") in a wetland, roll up your pants and carry a rake down into the water and mud. Use the rake to dig down into the mire as deeply as you can manage and pull up the roots. Churn up the mud thoroughly. The tines will eventually pop off tubers from the ends of the radiating rhizomes (root-like parts) and these tubers will float to the surface of the water. Clean the wapato and cook by any of the methods which you might prepare a potato.

The High Price of a Mistake

One of the plants my students enjoy chewing for the extraction of its apple-flavored sugar is the aptly named "sweetleaf" or "horse sugar." They learn to fold the leaf carefully so that none of the hairs on the bottom of the leaf can get loose and lodge in the throat. When that happens, a lot of coughing is triggered. It's those hairs, however, that are the key to identifying the leaf.

Without those hairs, the shrub might be confused with azalea or mountain laurel, and here are the symptoms that follow the ingestion of those toxic leaves: headache, extreme thirst, a flood of saliva production, blindness, vertigo, arrhythmia, stomach convulsions, failure of the diaphragm, suffocation, and death. This ordeal is spread over about six hours. I suggest you remove sweetleaf from your list of foods to try until you are in the company of a botanist who can guarantee accurate identification.

A Necessary Promise

As you can see, eating wild plants is for the serious student. It is up to each forager to make a personal vow of certainty about identification. Never guess about a plant you want to eat. Never hope about that plant. Know that plant.

Survival Skills
Never guess about a plant
you want to eat.
Never hope about that plant. Know that plant.
Survival Skills

The practice of eating wild plants also deserves a shift in one's approach to diet. It seems that one culinary trademark of our culture is that we eat what we eat based primarily upon how a food tastes. (Most Americans eat so much that the quantity itself is probably what affords a stab at balanced nutrients.) Have you ever finished a dessert after a full meal, sat there at the table feeling absolutely stuffed, but asked for that second slice of pie? Why do we do this? To taste it again. It was the tasting that was the all important satisfying aspect of the eating.

Most wild foods, when eaten just as they are presented by nature, do not offer the zesty flavors to which we are so accustomed. In taste, they cannot compare to French fries, cheese cake and lasagna. Many forest foods are simply bland. What a forager should do, then, is readjust his attitude and appraise wild foods by the gift of their nutrients. Ounce for ounce, wild foods, after all, are infinitely more nutritious than the grocery foods that are trucked from farms. (There have been oranges, for example, picked up from a produce section of a store, analyzed in a laboratory and found to contain zero units of vitamin C!)


A good case in point about unexciting taste is illustrated by pine trees. All the pines of Southern Appalachia contain inner bark that is edible raw, steamed, stripped as noodles and boiled, or dried and powdered into flour for baking. (Pines include hemlock trees, but remember that every evergreen is not necessarily a pine. Yew, for example, is toxic.) This is a most valuable piece of information for two reasons. First, virtually everyone can identify some species of the ubiquitous pine tree; and so this survival food alone should negate the threat of lost people starving to death. And secondly, the nutritional breakdown of pine is impressive. That layer of yellowish inner bark (just beneath the dead layer of outer gray bark) contains protein, fat, phosphorous, iron, carbohydrates, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, and vitamins A and C. That's a mouthful.

Survival Skills
Fat is the body's most efficient energy source.
Survival Skills

The taste is considered by most to be terebinthine and uninspiring for any thoughts about lining up for seconds. But consider those ingredients. Fat is the body's most efficient energy source and an important requirement in our diet. The right kind of fat, that is. The bad kind of fat runs rampant in our fast food culture and gets so much bad press that the chubby little three-letter word has earned a connotation of ill repute.

Protein is so important to the body's well-being that if it is missing from the diet, the body will break down its own muscle tissue and use that protein. In other words, the body eats itself. It resorts to self-cannibalism.

The Adirondacks, a tribe of Native Americans who once thrived in the New York state area, survived some harsh winters of deep snow by preparing meals of pine bark. Because the animals they hunted denned up when the snow drifts stacked too high, the Adirondacks' hunting excursions (by snowshoe) proved fruitless. Their resourcefulness in substituting bark for animal protein earned them their name, which means "people who eat the tree bark."

Harvesting and Eating

Survival Skills
Native Americans…
knew on an instinctual
level what modern scientists have only recently learned about a tree's awareness of what is going on around it.
Survival Skills

If you have never seen inner bark in a pine, go outside and find a white pine with living branches close enough to the ground to be reached. Choose a branch on the south side of the tree (or the side that appears to have the best exposure to light) and hold the limb in your hands for a few moments. This is a time that affords you a quiet blessing or other word of thanks to the tree. Such a practice was an important rite to Native Americans, who knew on an instinctual level what modern scientists are only now uncovering about a tree's awareness of what is going on around it.

Lay your knife blade flat against the bark and then angle it only slightly, enough to barely cut beneath the thin outer bark layer. When the outer bark has been removed from a surface area equivalent to a three-inch strip of audio cassette tape, with the point of your blade, outline a rectangle by cutting through the inner bark into the wood. Pull up a corner of the rectangle and peel the yellowish inner bark away from the wood, which will be a darker amber color. The small strip you've removed is ready to be eaten. Chew it until it goes beyond a chewing gum consistency and breaks apart. At that point you can swallow it.


Another plentiful food is cattail, which can thrive in large colonies in sunny marshes or at the edge of rivers or even in roadside ditches. There is food to be had on this plant any month of the year, not to mention medicinal and utilitarian uses.

Harvesting and Eating

If the plant's water source is clean, grasp one plant with both hands near its base. In short gentle jerks, pull it upward to free it from the mud. Then peel away the outer leaves one by one until the interior color approaches creamy white. This pale core is a delicacy eaten raw or steamed, and its taste is always a crowd-pleaser. Eat from the bottom toward the upper end of the plant until the tissue becomes too fibrous to chew.

Now check the root system (actually rhizomes, or underground stems) for curved, tusk-shaped appendages that might be from an inch to three inches long. These structures, too, are edible raw or cooked.

If you're lucky enough to find the cattails in flower, shake the pollen out of the male flower head, which is located just above the female flower head at the top of the tall stalk. The pollen can be eaten out of hand or used as flour in a baking recipe. Both flower heads can be steamed and eaten off their cores like corn on the cob.


In autumn, a variety of nuts are available to eat, all of them cholesterol-free and rich in fat and protein. Hickory, walnut, hazelnut, chestnut, beech, and oak. By far the most plentiful are acorns, the only nuts that need leaching of their tannic acid content. White oaks have less tannin than red oaks, but some Native American tribes preferred red oaks for their flavor.

Harvesting and Eating

Gently crack an acorn by using a hefty stone on a log workbench. Peel away the shell and discard it. The two-part split nut inside will usually be covered by a reddish-brown rind, which must be scraped away by a perpendicularly held knife blade. Position the flat (interior) side of nut-half down and slice it into the thinnest flakes possible and collect these in a sauce pan. Pour over this just-boiled water - enough to cover the nuts. When the water turns cloudy brown, pour the water away and repeat until the water remains clear. At this point the acorns are ready to be eaten as is, cooked into gruel, or dried and roasted by a fire, ground into a flour and used for baking.

Survival Skills
"Powcohicora," a word whose last three syllables should ring a bell.
Survival Skills

Other nuts can be eaten right out of the shell, but one nut - hickory - will prove to be problematic due to its convoluted maze of a shell. I once picked the nut meat out of cracked hickory shells for four hours. My yield was one-half cup. Native people cleverly solved this problem by removing the green husk and then smashing nut and shell together and soaking in water. Within two days, the shell pieces absorb water and sink while the oil and nut scraps float. This edible portion was skimmed off and used as a soup base called "powcohicora," a word whose last three syllables should ring a bell.

In this article, we have only scratched the surface of edible plants; but these examples provide a good start for anyone just delving into the adventure. I have chosen plants that are easy to find and relatively straight-forward in the all-important positive identification process. Your job is to make certain of this identification by using a reliable book and/or an experienced forager. We have also not touched on animal foods.

Be safe and sure and selective. Don't forage in polluted areas, such as the right of way along busy roads. Speaking of roads, if ever the semis stop running on our highways and our grocery stores empty, every bit of information you have gleaned about wild foods will be invaluable. Your botany book might become the most important book in your house. Aside from any gardening you might be doing, forest and field will become your grocery store. Your knowledge about these foods will be in much demand by the people around you. We will have gone full circle in our human history of eating. Once again, the real world - the green one - will be pertinent to everyone.

Mark Warren owns and directs Medicine Bow Wilderness School, teaching nature classes and Native American survival skills in the mountains of north Georgia.

For more information, call: 706-864-5928 or email: medbow@windstream.net or write to: Medicine Bow, 104 Medicine Bow, Dahlonega, GA, 30533. To view the school's class offerings, please visit the web site www.medicinebow.net.

Read all of Mark's Article in this Series...

"Primitive Survival Skills in the 21st Century"

"Hemlock Gift Giver of the Standing People"

"A Place to Rest My Cold, Cold Body, Self-Made Shelter"

"A Light in the Forest ~ Seeking the Company of Fire"

"Lost Instinct of Knowing What to Eat"

"Purity, your second-most immediate need in a survival situation"

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