If you ever found yourself out in the wild, with no food, would you know what plants you could eat to sustain you? Or would you inadvertently poison yourself? This is a question that even seasoned foragers ask themselves. So do you know how to test if a plant is edible, without having access to internet to look it up?
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It’s important to note one of the most basic foraging rules: Don’t eat anything that you can’t 100% identify. However, in an emergency situation (and ONLY in an emergency), it may not be possible to get a perfect identification of a new plant. In the best-case scenario, you would have a local field guide to help you identify the plants in your area. But if you’re stranded in the woods, that’s far from a best-case scenario!
Lots of people now (myself included!) use the internet the majority of the time to identify plants that are new to them. But if you’re stranded in the woods with no phone, or no internet, how would you learn what you can eat? That, my friend, is what I’m sharing with you today!
Watch the wildlife
Pay attention to your surroundings, and watch the animals. For the most part, if wildlife won’t eat a plant, it is likely poisonous to them. And most plants that are poisonous to animals are poisonous to humans too.
Animals use instincts and experience to determine what plants are not safe to eat. Many are taught by their parents what they shouldn’t eat. Others will nibble a part to see if they should eat it. If it’s bitter (usually poisonous), they will spit it out and not eat any more. Some animals use colors or color patterns to determine what should be avoided.
On the other hand, you also can’t just automatically assume that if the wildlife eat it, that it’s safe for you too. Some animals are resistant to certain poisonous plants. It is important to also note that in extreme hunger situations, even animals will eat poisonous plants. This can result in death for the animal. Don’t be like them!
Avoid plants that have poisonous characteristics
Now, this may seem to be a no-brainer. But what plants have poisonous characteristics? There are a few dead giveaways that a plant is toxic, that you need to know.
Of course, these are not perfect indicators of a toxic plant. But, in general, you should avoid eating any plant that has:
- White or yellow berries (90% of these are toxic)
- Umbrella-shaped flower heads (umbrels)
- Milky sap
- Shiny leaves
- A foul odor
- Groups of 3 leaves (leaves of 3, leave it be)
- Grains with pink, purple, or black spurs
- An almond-like smell
- Beans, bulbs, or seeds that grow inside pods
- A bitter or soapy flavor
You should also avoid any mushrooms that you are not familiar with, as well as any plants growing in or very near water that is questionable or just plain gross.
Learn the odds of edible berries
There are typically lots of berries in the wild, but not all of them are safe to eat. As stated above, you should avoid white or yellow berries, as 90% of them are poisonous. Half of all red berries are edible.
Most of the black or blue berries are safe to eat. There are a few blue or purple berries that are poisonous, including pokeweed, privet, nightshade, and various honeysuckles. One thing to note about these, is that they don’t have a crown at one end. If blue berries have a crown at one end, they are almost certainly edible.
Almost all aggregate berries (99%) are edible. Aggregate berries are berries that are actually clusters of tiny fruits that form one berry. Aggregate berries include raspberries, mulberries, blackberries, salmonberries, or wineberries.
You should always avoid these berries:
- Holly berries
- Ivy berries
- Yew berries
- Virginia Creeper berries
- Mistletoe berries
Try to find commonly eaten plants
Depending on where you are stranded in the wild, you might be able to find some commonly eaten plants. Look for those first, instead of going for the ones you are uncertain of. While this may seem like common sense, sometimes people overlook the foods that they KNOW that might be growing in that area.
Here are some things you might be able to find growing in the wild, that you KNOW are edible. These are common foods that grow wild in different areas.
- Wild onions
- Wild sunflowers and sunflower seeds
- Maple seeds (we call them whirlygigs or helicopters)
How to know if you should test if a plant is edible
If you find lots of a new plant where you are stranded, it may be worth it to test if the plant is edible. Don’t waste your time on a plant that is very sparse. This plant edibility test is very time consuming. You don’t want to take the time to test it if it won’t be a plentiful source of food.
Inspect the plant
The first step to test if a plant is edible is to inspect the plant. Check for rotten parts and insects. Parasites, fungus, insects, or worms can be a sign that the plant is either rotten or shouldn’t be trusted.
Break the stem. If it has a milky sap, it should be avoided. Inspect any berries for color, consistency, and other notable characteristics. Crowns on one side of blue berries is a good indicator that it’s likely edible.
Feel the leaves of the plant. If it stings you right away, it is best to avoid it (unless it’s stinging nettle!). Shiny, glossy leaves should be avoided.
Before you harvest an unknown plant, smell it. Break the leaves, stem, roots, and berries to get a good smell of the entire plant. If it smells like almonds, walk away. If it has a foul or soapy odor, do not try to test it. A bitter smelling plant should be avoided.
The Universal Edibility Test to see if a plant is edible
The test to see if a plant is edible is also known as the universal edibility test. It’s a skill taught in the United States Army Survival Manual. It is a valuable skill to know, but it takes a lot of time, caution, and experience. You should familiarize yourself with this test BEFORE you may be in a worst-case scenario.
The universal edibility test is made up of 7 separate steps, and one pre-step. It’s important not to skip any steps. We’ll go over these steps in depth.
The pre-step is to not eat or drink anything except for purified water for 8 hours before starting any testing. Once you have fasted for 8 hours (which may not be avoidable if you’re forced to use this step), you are ready to begin testing to see if a plant is edible.
When you first find a plant that is abundant in your area, you will need to separate it into its 5 basic parts. These parts are root, stem, leaves, buds, and flowers.
If it is a smaller plant, pull it up by the roots. For a larger plant, you can take a small sample of the root. You will want to divide it into sections to try the different parts. On any given plant, one part could be edible and another part could be poisonous. To get an idea of the edibility of a whole plant, you should test each separate part. But remember, just because one part is determined inedible, does NOT mean another part of the plant isn’t safe to eat.
After you have separated the different parts of the plant, you need to do a contact test. Typically, if a plant is irritating to your skin, you shouldn’t try to ingest it. Crush up just one particular part of the plant. Rub this one part on the inside of your elbow or wrist for 15 minutes. If you need to speed this process up, you can rub another part on the other elbow or wrist.
Check frequently for signs of irritation, such as redness, welts, bumps, burning, or stinging. While performing this test, continue your fasting for an additional 8 hours, drinking only purified water. Don’t eat during this 8 hours.
Cook and contact
Some parts of some plants are only edible once cooked. If you have the ability to do so, and will continue to have that ability, boil some of each part of the plant. If you aren’t able to cook anything at all, just do this next step with the raw plant part.
Take part of the plant (after cooking, or raw if needed) and press it to your lips for 3 minutes. If you sense any burning or tingling sensation, discard that part. That part of the plant is likely poisonous. Try it again with another part of your chosen plant. If you find a part that doesn’t give you a reaction, you can move to the next step.
After a plant part has surpassed the previous steps, try putting a small piece of that part in your mouth. Hold it on your tongue, without chewing, for 15 minutes. If you don’t notice any burning or tingling, you can move on to the next step with that plant part. Any reaction like this is an indicator that you shouldn’t eat that part. Spit it out, rinse your mouth thoroughly with water, and start over with another part of the plant.
Please note, it might not taste good, but that doesn’t mean that it’s poisonous. As long as it’s not overly bitter or cause any tingling or burning, it’s safe to try the next part of the test.
If you’ve held the plant part in your mouth for 15 minutes with no reaction, it’s safe to try to chew it. Chew the part thoroughly, then hold it in your mouth for another 15 minutes. Don’t swallow it during this step, just hold it in your mouth. If you feel any burning, numbness, or tingling, spit it out immediately and rinse your mouth.
If the plant part passes the chew test, feel free to swallow that piece that you’ve held in your mouth. Now is the hard part – don’t eat anything else for 8 more hours. Drink only purified water.
If you feel nauseous or have an upset stomach, induce vomiting immediately, then drink lots of purified water. However, if you don’t notice any ill effects, you may have found a new-to-you edible plant!
This is the final part of the test to see if a plant is edible. I know it’s a long process, but it will be so worth it! This universal edibility test can mean the difference between starving to death and learning a new-to-you edible plant. If this plant is determined to be edible through these 7 steps, you have found a new way to sustain yourself through this life or death situation!
After this part of your chosen plant has passed ALL previous steps in the test, you can now eat some. Harvest about 1/4 cup of that particular plant part and prepare it the same way you did for the test. Eat that whole 1/4 cup, then wait for another 8 hours. Don’t eat anything, and only drink water. If you feel sick, nauseated, or have an upset stomach in that 8 hours, you will need to induce vomiting right away. Then drink lots of water.
You can safely assume that the tested part of that plant is edible in the same way you prepared it if you don’t experience any negative reactions during that 8 hours,. If you wish to prepare it in a different way (say, for example, raw instead of cooked), you will need to complete the whole test again.
Keep in mind, just because one part of the plant is edible, that doesn’t mean the rest of it is. You will need to conduct this whole test with each separate part of the plant.
Things to keep in mind if you need to test if a plant is edible
Don’t take this test lightly. It is only meant for dire, life-or-death situations. Try to avoid needing to use the universal edibility test if you can.
First, practice foraging before you need to use it. Get familiar with the plants in your area, so you’re not stuck with zero basic knowledge of the fauna around you.
Second, you should purchase a field guide to help identify the plants around you. Get one that fits where you are located. Keep this field guide in an easily-accessible place, like your backpack if you’re hiking, or in your car if you’re going for a drive. For another helpful resource, I have a new e-book that shows many of the common edible plants in North America. “Weedy Friends of North America” is very affordable at only $5.99.
Third, there are many plants that, even though they may not be a good food source, they may make a nice tea. Spruce tips, pine needles, and rose hips (totally edible and plentiful) can make wonderful medicinal teas. These teas may not fill up your belly, but they will give you a nutritious alternative to plain water. Many of these have high amounts of vitamins and will help keep you healthy.
Fourth, there are also some plants that are okay to eat a good amount of, but can be toxic if eaten in large quantities. It’s a good idea to try to vary your diet, even in the wild. If you need to, do the universal edibility test for several plants, so you can eat a variety of things.
Lastly, keep in mind that the human body can go a long time without food. While you will be hungry, and it will seem like the test takes too long to complete, it’s important to do to stay safe. You’re much better off hungry than poisoned!