Growing up, we had a yew bush in our front yard and my parents had to almost constantly tell me not to eat the berries from this bush. They looked so vibrant and delicious-looking that I couldn’t help but be tempted. It turns out that had I given in to this temptation I would have been perfectly fine as the berries themselves aren’t poisonous, but the entire rest of the plant is (It’s reputed that some bowyers have died from handling too much yew wood while making bows). There are many plants in nature that rely on their toxicity to survive. Unfortunately, we humans are incapable of detecting this poison where the natural world has ways of telling. So we have to rely on our wits to help us avoid these plants.
An easy (but tedious) way of determining a plants toxicity is to look for signs of other animals eating parts of it or observing the plant to see if any animals eat it. Some animals aren’t affected by poisons that affect humans so this doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t poisonous, it just makes it less likely to be poisonous.
Universal Edibility Test
If you encounter a plant that you think may be safe to eat, you should conduct the Universal Edibility Test on it to ensure that it is, in fact, safe to eat. The UET minimizes your chances of being injured or dying from contacting a poisonous plant. It is a long and tedious process, but it could very well save your life. You must have an empty stomach at the start of the test so you need to fast for at least 8 hours before you start.
- Separate the plant into five basic parts: leaves, roots, stems, buds, and flowers. Some plants have parts that are edible while the rest is poisonous (as with yew bushes). Separating each part lets you test the individual pieces to determine its edibility.
- Rub a part of the plant on a bit of sensitive skin (wrist, inside of the knee or elbow, etc.) and wait eight hours. During the waiting period, you shouldn’t eat anything, but it is acceptable to drink water (and only water). Throughout the waiting period, watch out for a burning sensation, redness, welts, or bumps on the skin. These indicate that you are having a reaction to the plant, and if it affects your skin, it will affect your stomach. If you encounter any of these reactions, rinse your skin, wait 8 hours, and start the test over with a new piece of plant.
- It has been shown that some toxins that were present in a plant raw were not present after boiling the plant. If you have the means to boil the plant, then do so.
- Whether or not you boiled the plant, place the plant against your lips for three minutes. If you feel any burning or tingling, remove the plant, rinse your lips and start over with a new piece of plant.
- Taste the plant for 15 minutes without chewing. If you experience burning, tingling or any other unpleasant sensations. Discard the plant, rinse your mouth, and start over with a new piece of plant. Remember that just because it tastes bad doesn’t mean it’s poisonous.
- Chew the plant thoroughly and leave on your tongue for 15 minutes. DON’T SWALLOW! Again, if you experience any burning, numbness, or tingling spit out the plant, rinse your mouth, and start over with a new piece of plant.
- Swallow the soggy, masticated bit of plant. Now you get to wait another eight hours while watching for signs of nausea. You can only drink water during this time. If your feel nauseous at any point during the 8 hours, induce vomiting and drink lots of water.
- Eat about a quarter cup of the plant (specifically the part you have been testing) in the same manner as you’ve tested to this point (just without all the waiting). Once you get it all down, wait for adverse effects again for eight hours, only drinking water. If you feel sick, induce vomiting, drink lots of water and start over.
At this point the plant part can be considered safe to eat, just don’t gorge on it.
Signs To Avoid
Memorizing all the plants in an area can be tedious, and will do you no good if you are surviving in a different area, but that doesn’t mean that you’re totally screwed. There are some surefire ways to determine if a plant is poisonous or not:
- Plants with shiny leaves.
- Don’t eat mushrooms. Some are perfectly safe, but others are highly toxic and it’s very difficult to differentiate between species of mushrooms. Also, mushrooms don’t offer much in the way of nutrition so they really aren’t worth the risk.
- Umbrella-shaped flowers.
- plants with milky or discolored sap.
- Bitter or soapy taste.
- Smells like almonds.
- Leaves in groups of three.
- Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods.
- Spines, fine hairs, or thorns.
- Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsleylike foliage.
- Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs.
There is a saying about berries that holds true:
White and yellow, kill a fellow.
Purple and blue, good for you.
Red… could be good, could be dead.
Additionally, a good way to determine if a red berry is poisonous is to look at how they’re grouped on the branch. If berries are grouped in bunches, then avoid them. If the berries grow individual off the branch, then they are probably good.