In a wilderness survival situation, knowing which plants are helpers and which are harmful can mean the difference between life and death.
Remember Christopher McCandless, the young guy who camped out in a rusty old school bus in the remote Alaska tundra until he accidentally ate the wrong thing and died of wild-potato seed poisoning? On September 6, 1992, the remains of the young recluse were found by moose hunters who happened to pass by the campsite, located outside the northern boundary of Denali National Park.
Inside the bus, a known shelter for trappers, dogsled mushers, and other wilderness hikers, they found a journal McCandless kept. The entry on July 30 said, “Extremely weak. Fault of pot[ato] seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great jeopardy.” Investigators reckon that three weeks later he was dead.
The toxic plant that killed the emaciated young outbacker was Hedysarum alpinum, the wild potato. At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that wild-potato plant was completely safe to eat. But in late 2013, lab results proved that this plant contains a neurotoxin compound known simply as ODAP (beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta diaminoproprionic acid or beta-odap).
Fortunately, there are many helper plants out there, too. Modern pharmaceutical drugs are based on them. Willow bark contains the active ingredients in aspirin, for example. Boil the bark for 15 minutes to make a home remedy for treating headaches, fevers, and inflammation.
Here are nine other very useful plants if your safety is at stake.
Yarrow. Drinking a tea made from yellow yarrow flowers can ease respiratory infections (cold or flu) and menstrual cramps. Yarrow is a natural coagulant. Applying the leaves directly to an open wound speeds clotting and fights infection. It has antiseptic and antibiotic (germ-killing) properties and reduces bruising, rashes, and other inflammations when rubbed on the skin – and this will also repel insects.
Chewing the roots can numb the oral cavity and ease tooth pain.
Cattail. Distinctive cattail plants that grow near water are safe to eat. Treat burns, scrapes, insect bites, and bruises by splitting open a cattail root and bruising the exposed portion to secure over the injured area as a healing poultice. The ash of burnt cattails is thought to have antiseptic properties for treating wounds and abrasions. Weave the leaves into a mat to use as a blanket, roof, or tray. Use the heads as a fire-starter or stuff them inside your shirt to stay warm.
Sage. The ultimate mosquito repellent in the wild. Burn sagebrush and rub it directly on the skin to keep bugs away. Medicinally, sage has three important medical properties: it is astringent (shrinks or constricts body tissues), antispasmodic (relieves, prevents, or lowers the incidence of muscle spasms), and carminative (expulses gas from the stomach or bowel). Sage can calm the digestive tract during episodes of diarrhea, gas, or bloating. It also breaks up clots and reduces the risk of strokes and thrombosis.
Mint. Drinking tea made from moisture-loving mint plants settles the stomach – and it can cure the hiccups. A barrier of mint leaves around your camp can ward off rodents that don’t like the menthol aroma. Rubbing crushed leaves on clothing is an effective insect repellent. Square stems are the signature sign of all varieties of mint plants. Mint has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Brew a strong tea, let it cool, use it to wet an absorbent cloth, and apply to sunburned skin for immediate relief. Soaking a towel in the same tea while still hot and draping it over the head effectively treats sinus infections and clears a stuffy nose or nasal congestion. As an antispasmodic, crushed mint leaves applied to the temples will relax tightened head muscles to soothe a headache.
Nettles. Soak the plants in water or boil for 10 to 15 minutes to get rid of the stinging element of the bristles for easy handling and consumption. As a natural remedy, tea made from the stalks of nettles can calm an upset stomach and promote better digestion, but handle with care – the stalks are covered with prickly hairs, called stinging for a reason. Packed with vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium, nettles are both nutritious and tasty (like spinach or cucumber when cooked). As an added bonus, you can make a nifty survival cord out of nettle fibers.
Ceder trees. Cedar wood burns well and the smell repels ants and moths at a distance. Strip the bark off a cedar tree to make rope for fishing line, snare lines, shelter building, bow drill sets, carrying gear and supplies, and safety lines/harness/climbing. Natives of the Pacific Northwest called cedar “the tree of life” and made “baskets, ropes, mats, blankets, canoe bailers, and clothing. The wood of red cedar was used to make things that included: dishes, arrow shafts, harpoon shafts, spear poles, barbecuing sticks, fish spreaders and hangers, dipnet hooks, fish clubs, masks, rattles, benches, cradles, coffins and paddles.”
Juniper. The dry inner layer of juniper tree bark is one of nature’s best fire starters. It becomes even more flammable if you rub it briefly between the palms to powder it. The berries and twigs are edible but may taste bitter. Eat the berries raw. Roast the seeds to make a coffee substitute. Use dried and crushed berries to season meat – juniper berries are the primary flavoring in gin. Gather young twigs to make a tea. Native Americans use juniper berries as a female contraceptive. In some parts of the world, juniper is used to disinfect the urinary tract or as a natural diabetes remedy.
Pine. Sap oozing from a pine tree will stop bleeding from a cut. Pine is highly flammable so it is a great fire starter or lamp. Combine fire ash and oil, then mix with pine sap to make a moisturizing soap for soothing irritated rashes. Eating raw pine sap directly from a tree coats a sore throat and can help you feel better. Heated pine resin liquifies into an excellent waterproofing material for boots, seams, and to repair holes in boats and structures. Pine boughs are good for making a shelter.
Grass. All grasses are edible but hard to digest so chew young leaves and stems, swallow the nutritious juices, and spit out the coarse fibers – or make a tea. The more than 400 types of grass all provide proteins, chlorophyll, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc to keep you alive in the great outdoors. Grass seeds are highly nutritious and can be sprouted. Make fire tinder, bedding, insulation, weave rope, or build a shelter using long blades of grass.
You can increase the odds for your survival by packing a field guide to the native plants where you live or visit. Practice identifying plants well before an emergency situation develops. Taste plants that are safe to eat that occur in your locality and cook some up over a campfire you build with other survival plants.
ALWAYS be sure you can identify any plant before you consume it. When in doubt, DO NOT eat or drink it. The plight of Christopher McCandless, although extreme, is a cautionary tale for us all. Stay healthy in the great outdoors and survive!