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:
- Which plants grow nearest to you?
- Which plants have important nutritional value for you?
- Which plants have important medicinal value for you?
- 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:
- Cattails are a quick source of sustained, plant-based energy (complex carbohydrates) in any season at almost any latitude, and the only source of plant-based energy during spring and winter in many northern climates. Just don’t confuse cattails with poisonous look-alikes such as irises.
- Grasses, and you know you ate some today – wheat, oats, corn, rice, bamboo, sugar cane – all grasses have sugars in the stalk and complex carboydrates in the seeds. Available in almost any season in any climate, the stalks have sugar at the base in winter, and the leaves have sugar when growing, you can just chew on them, swallow the juice, and spit out the fiber. Further, the seeds are often big enough, and still inside the dry, standing stalks of grass growing wherever sunlight reaches the ground. But don’t eat any grass that has black spots on it – often fungi like ergot that will poison you.
- Nut Trees, including hazelnuts/filberts which you can eat green in the summer and ripe in the fall, or collect pollen in the winter, are often the only plant-based protein available through the seasons in the north. Or if you have means to process acorns, then oaks are even more nutritional. Finally, if you are lucky enough to be surrounded by pine trees that grow cones/nuts big enough to bother harvesting, that’s the best, oily food next to eating animals. Old growth pine and oak trees are also valuable for edible bark … if you fry up chips of thick cambium. An infusion (tea) of pine needles will also give you substantial amounts of Vitamin C.
- Fruits & Berries are the next most viable plant-based source of calories in a survival situation. Great in season, but definitely generally available in winter and spring. First learn the Rubus genus which can’t be mistaken for anything else, then your local Vaccinium genus berries which must be clearly identified so as to not confuse them with myriad number of little round poisonous berries of all colors, then the Ribes genus which can be identified by its distinctive leaves, then the Prunus genus which has few wild species in the north, then Fragaria which are my favorite but hard to spot underfoot, and finally Rosa and the further south you go, the easier they are to find throughout the year.
- Nettles, yep, the stinging kind, are the most nutritious green we have. Think cooked spinach on steroids. Cooked nettles are great stomach fillers in emergencies, contain about 8% protein (amino acids), complex carbohydrates in the flowers and seeds, an incredible set of minerals. Most people also report that it balances their immune systems so well that they hardly experience seasonal allergies if drinking a lot of nettle tea. But be advised that if using nettle leaves that often, you have to harvest it in the spring before it goes to seed, at which point a compound of cystolyths very hard on the kidneys and/or bladder. Nettles also get a promotion to the Top 5 most important plant since the stalk provides us with the strongest natural plant fiber available in many northern climates.
- Other Wild Flowering Greens like aster family flowers and seeds are critical to recognize and use. Sunflowers are the most obvious example. But if you read Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas, you’ll also find that “little sunflowers” like dandelion, hairy cat’s ear, oxeye daisies, and other asters usually have edible flowers you can eat raw or fry upside-down in hot oil for a nutty, nutritious treat. You should also learn the genus Chenopodium or other edible goosefoots like Lamb’s Quarter leaves which are “salty” and whose seeds contain some of the highest levels of proteins in the plant world. Think quinoa.
- Seaweeds are critical for salts/electrolytes as well as iodine, neither of which is easy to get away from salt water. Interior peoples function with salt from Chenopodiaceae for instance, but seaweeds really keep us nourished with minerals and more. All seaweeds north of about 40 degrees latitude are technically edible, but like plants, you can’t eat too much of some. Just like if you eat too much carrot and you get Vitamin A poisoning, too much iodine and you’re dead. Or simply too much salt and you can die of dehydration. Bottom line is to research seaweeds if you eat them, just like you would research individual plants in your diet.
- Root Crops including wild carrot, blue camas, and chocolate lily for instance, or whatever your native root crop is, are great if you identified and marked them for future harvest back when they were flowering in the summer. Problem is, they have many poisonous look-alikes, and anything worth harvesting is hard to find in the wild nowadays. You pretty much need to cultivate them yourself. Carrots usually grow in poor, gravelly soil so their taproots are almost non-existent except in tilled gardens. Blue camas is a prairie plant which must be baked for days, and there are only about 1% of prairie lands remaining in North America. Chocolate lilies are found in pristine wetlands, and rare to say the least. Ready to give up being vegetarian yet?
- Cactus shows us that we’re starting to get limited by geography, although the popular prickly pear cactus grows even in temperate Western Washington and throughout northern prairie states and provinces. Cactus also provides many gifts of craft too numerous to list.
- Palm trees would probably be the first or second most important plant family if we were talking tropics of mid latitudes. Think coconut and many, many other species with edible nuts, incredible craft materials like raffia, great building materials, and fire making capabilities to say the least.
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:
- Pines (sub-alpine fir has large cone nuts, but at lower elevations, learn douglas fir, grand fir, sitka spruce, western hemlock tree, etc.)
- Oaks (and hazel; white oak is still native mostly south of Tacoma; red oaks are planted throughout cities)
- Seaweeds (my favorites include dried bull kelp, nori, etc.)
- Wild Flowering Greens
- Roots (start with burdock since it is easy to identify, then wild carrot and blue camus but beware of deadly look-alikes)
- 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:
- Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel for general learning.
- Lone Pine Plant Guides such as Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar & MacKinnon for itentifying wild plants in the field.
- Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas for using urban greens.
- Medicinal Plants books for your area by Michael Moore to focus on wild herbal plants.
- 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.
*** For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. We recommend that you consult with a qualified health care practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing or on any medications. ***
*** Please read our Honorable Harvesting Guidelines before harvesting any plant material. The final guideline is of utmost importance: “Never put anything in your mouth unless you are 100% sure it is safe to ingest.” ***
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