Does the scene of Chris McCandless picking the wrong potato plant haunt anyone else’s trail nightmares like it does mine? Each time my project crew leader, Marchand, plucked a plant from the side of the trail, I had to resist the Into the Wild urge to slap her hand away and yell, “Don’t do it!” Turns out, Marchand knows a lot about plants, way more than Chris McCandless probably did, and it was a relief to learn how to recognize edible plants for wilderness survival.
If you find yourself in need of some vitamin C, sunblock, or pain killer, you can actually find these trailside, in the flora at your feet!
On the third day into our trip, we hiked herbicide sprayers to Bar Meadows where the noxious weed, leafy spurge, had grown rampant, threatening the security of the soil and the habitat of other flora. As we hiked along, our companion, Mike, fell a bit behind, cursing under his breath. He had sliced his palm open on a rough edge of the sprayer. Without hesitation, Marchand picked a soft, fluffy, fern-like plant with clusters of tiny white flowers, from the side of the trail. She munched and chewed on it good, and then like a mama bird, spat it out, and pressed the wad of saliva-greens onto his bleeding palm, and said, “That should stop the bleeding soon.”
Sure enough, Mike’s cut had basically healed by the end of that day because yarrow is a first-aid hemostat; a powerful, fast-acting coagulant! Marchand is maybe less like a mama bird, and more like the Greek hero, Achilles (hence Achillea!). Achilles used yarrow to staunch the flow of his bleeding foot soldiers too.
This unsuspecting plant and its rough, sandpaper foliage will likely sting you if you happen to brush up against it. But! Stinging nettle is sometimes called “the starvation plant” because, once cooked, its leaves and roots are not only medicinal, but nutritional.
Forget the potato plant. Stem the heart-shaped leaves and cook them, and now you’ve got a delicious edible green, similar to spinach! You might even decide to add these cooked leaves to your green smoothie at home to provide a herbal remedy for allergy relief. If earthy-green smoothies aren’t your thing, you can easily brew some Nettle Tea instead, at home or on the trail.
Here is an excellent recipe and article about how to properly identify, harvest and brew nettle!
Subalpine Fir Tree
The Rocky Mountain fir is one of my favorite subalpine trees–I even have a tattoo of it! The needles of this fir are different from other pines because they are flat and soft, rather than round and sharp. At the tip of the narrow conic crown, you’ll find brand new, bright neon-green, baby needles. These contain a punch of Vitamin C, so if you’re feeling a little under the weather and need a boost, chew on some subalpine fir.
The inner bark, leaves, and buds of Aspen trees contain fair amounts of populin and salicin. These two natural ingredients are synthesized in your bottle of Tylenol at home. (Aspirin, Aspen. Populus, populin. See the connection?) To apply the Quaking Aspen’s healing properties: Steep the inner bark or leaves in hot water for a tea that works like an over-the-counter pain reliever.
Another unexpected benefit of the Aspen is the outer bark. Its white powder actually makes an effective emergency sunscreen! Super handy if you’re hiking through exposed areas.
Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures of these edible plants, so this is by no means a comprehensive field guide. But I was excited to share these neat-oh nature facts about edible plants you can keep handy, or at your feet, in your wilderness survival kit. A fellow adventurer recently told me that she almost always overpacks her first aid kit, but I think, better safe than sorry, right?