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May 16, 2014

You may be lost, but you'll never go hungry with these tips

The Daily Star

---- — As you may know by the stories I have written, I like to spend a lot of time in the woods. I almost got lost once, but I soon learned to use a map and compass, vowing that would never happen again. 

I’ve told the story many times about Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man who explored Yellowstone way back in the early 1800s. When a newspaper reporter asked him if he ever got lost in the wilderness, he replied, “No, but I got confused for about three weeks one time.”

Well, I too have been confused, but I have never gone hungry. When I go hiking or backpacking, I always carry enough food to last me several days longer than I plan on being gone. After all, a full stomach makes a rainy day far more enjoyable.

Over the years, I’ve also learned about the many edible plants that grow wild in the woods. I sat on a wooded Adirondack hillside one afternoon, waiting for a buck to come up out of the swamp. Three does came along and fed not far below me. I wondered what they they found so enjoyable to eat.

After they were gone, I walked down to check it out. They were eating tiny new-growth ferns. Those little, curly things would be next year’s plants. I picked one, rubbed off the brown covering and tried it. It was a little dry, but it had a nutty taste.

While hunting bear in Canada the following spring, we had fiddleheads for dinner one evening. The cook had gone out in a damp, wooded area and picked a bunch of those same curly-headed ferns. She boiled them and served them with salt, pepper, butter and a little vinegar, but they still had that same nutty flavor.

One common plant found in most any pond, backwater or beaver dam is the cattail. The entire plant is edible and was the main staple of many Native American tribes. The roots and white part of the lower stalk are sweet and very tasty. In the late spring and very early summer, the corn-dog looking top can be boiled, and it tastes a lot like sweet corn.

Dandelions are everywhere and are edible, but they’re a little bitter. Lots of people eat the young greens, but the flowers make a better wine.

Another great plant is the wood sorrel. I’ve seen it many times along the trails and among the trees. It is a small plant with leaves that look like a three-leaf clover, except that each leaf sort of hangs down. You may easily notice the pretty white flower with blackish veins running through the petals. It has been used for food and medicine for centuries. Eating the leaves quenches your thirst and the roots can be cooked. It’s a great source of Vitamin C and tastes a little like potato.

Burdocks are found everywhere and are edible. The leaves, however, are very bitter. The best part is the stalk and root. Burdocks are commonly eaten in Japan.

There are a number of safe, edible plants, berries and nuts available in the wilds. I took a wilderness first-aid and survival course one time and learned a lot, but there are some good books available to guide you safely along. Sure, I could survive for a while if I had to, but a freeze-dried meal by Mountain House tastes a heck of a lot better.

Many of the edible woodland plants don’t have the best flavor, but they would do in a pinch. It would be better than going to bed hungry.

Remember, when in doubt, avoid it. And leave the mushrooms alone. Many of those are deadly.

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at