First Plants to Learn
No plant is more important than any other, just like no person’s life should be more important than anyone else’s. But all of us who publish books about plants make choices as to which plants to highlight, and which to leave out during the editing process. My choice of plants is a practical one, and I should have named this article the “Plants Which Have the Most Critical Ethnobotanical Uses in North America ” if it weren’t such a cumbersome statement.
Deciding which plants to study first is also critical for those of us who are trapped by linear thinking. Once we realize that there are thousands of plants to learn, we can become very discouraged, and turn our attention elsewhere. But if people knew that they only need to learn about 9 plants in order to gain 90% of benefits from plants around them, then that’s an attainable challenge!
How can 9 or 10 lowly plants give a person more than half of everything they need? Bear with me. With what we in the field of earth skills education call the “order of survival” we describe our basic needs as air, warmth, water and food. The skills needed to acquire those basics include breathing, shelter, fire, tools, and hunting/gathering. So, which plants are critical to secure those basic needs? Ask yourself:
1. Which plants grow nearest to you?
2. Which plants have important nutritional value for you?
3. Which plants have important medicinal value for you?
4. Which plants have important utilitarian uses for you?
Those are the four criteria you can use to judge whether a particular plant you come across is worth prioritizing in your learning process. In fact, if you are truly an experiential learner, then go outside with your Lone Pine or Botany in a Day field guide and find a tree or other plant that appears to have grown naturally in your neighborhood. I say “naturally” because it is easiest to identify native plants with local field guides. Once you have identified the plant, apply the four questions above to assess whether it would be a priority to learn the plant in depth.
Plants that are part of my Top 10 list are primarily food plants, secondarily plants used every day for basics needs like shelter, and lastly plants that are critical medicine for common illnesses. So, learn your most common species of plant in each of the following groups, and you will have a good foundation made up of your most important plants:
TOP 10 PLANTS in NORTH AMERICA
3. Nut Tree (hazelnut in the north, plus more and more nut types the further south you get; pine and oak also have edible bark if you fry up chips of thick cambium, and a cold infusion of pine needles will give you substantial vitamin C)
4. Fruit or Berry (learn the Rubus genus, then Vaccinium, then Ribes, then Prunus, then Fragaria, then Rosa and the further south you go, the easier they are to find throughout the year) – click here for a bit more info
5. Root Crop (wild carrot, burdock, blue camus, chocolate lily or whatever your native root crop is; however, there are many poisonous look-alikes when you delve into these roots, so beware) – click here for a bit more info
6. Nettle (yep, the stinging kind, a good stomach filler in emergencies, some tasty protein and great minerals)
7. Other Wild Flowering Green (learn the genus Chenopodium or other edible goosefoot, genus Taraxacum or other edible aster, etc.)
8. Seaweed (interior peoples function with salt from Chenopodiaceae for instance, but seaweeds really keep us nourished with minerals and more)
9. Cactus (as you can see, we’re starting to get limited by geography, so substitute this with additional species from above if you don’t have cacti, nettles, seaweeds, etc. in your area)
10. Palm (coconut, anyone?)
TOP 10 PLANTS in WESTERN WASHINGTON
My modified list, recommended to anyone living in my home bioregion of Western Washington State, and based on a wilderness survival perspective, includes:
3. Grass (as long as it doesn’t have black spots, it should be edible; test for the sweetest part of the plant, depending on season, chew it up, swallow the juice, and spit the fiber out) – click here for a bit more info
4. Berries (learn the Rubus genus, then Vaccinium, then Ribes, then Fragaria, then Rosa) – click here for a bit more info
5. Pines (sub-alpine fir has large cone nuts, but at lower elevations, learn douglas fir, grand fir, sitka spruce, western hemlock tree, etc.)
6. Oaks (and hazel; white oak is still native mostly south of Tacoma; red oaks are planted throughout cities)
7. Seaweeds (my favorites include dried bull kelp, nori, etc.)
8. Wild Flowering Green (lamb’s quarters, dandelions, etc.) – click here for a bit more info
9. Roots (start with burdock since it is easy to identify, then wild carrot and blue camus but beware of deadly look-alikes) – click here for a bit more info
10. Urban Exotics (from the Plum sub-family of plum-cherry-almond, the Apple sub-family of apple-serviceberry-quince, the Vitis grape genus, etc.)
Again, it can be overwhelming to think about learning all the plants in your area, so do what I did: create your own “niche” to study. After I learned wild edible food plants, I started delving in to medicinal plants which can be many, so I chose to focus on plants that were native or widely naturalized in my region, and more specifically, plant medicines that would be important for first aid in the wilderness. For that, check out my article on the Top 15 Most Important Native Plants for Herbal Medicine.
TOP 5 PLANT BOOKS
Indispensable resources include these, my Top 5 Plant Books important for North America:
1. Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel for general learning.
2. Lone Pine Plant Guides such as Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar & MacKinnon for itentifying wild plants in the field.
3. Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas for using urban greens.
4. Medicinal Plants books for your area by Michael Moore to focus on wild herbal plants.
5. And critical for any home apothecary is Rosemary Gladstar‘s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide to gain skills on using herbs you grow at home.
Chris Chisholm is founder and co-owner of Wolf Camp and the Wolf College. For training on wild edibles, wilderness survival, and more, check out these programs:
Academic Year Workshops in Western Washington:
• Wilderness Survival including Wild Edibles
• Wild Foods Foraging & Herbal Medicine Making
• Edible Seaweeds, Shellfish, & Shore Plants of the Salish Sea
• Fall Plant Harvest for Baskets, Rope, Mats & Tonics