Survival Foraging: A Realistic Approach

by Paul Kirtley

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There are many edible wild plants. Leaves, shoots, flowers, berries, nuts, seeds, roots, and bark of different plants and trees can provide us with some form of sustenance at different times of the year.

What’s more, foraging is fashionable, having featured on several TV programmes in recent years. Wild foods are even showing up on restaurant menus. Whether harvesting from nearby hedgerows or purchasing from a local market, many people are taking a greater interest in wild foods gathered from the countryside.

But there is a big difference between nibbling on some tasty wayside morsels and being able to live from the land. For a given environment, living from the land requires a detailed knowledge of the food resources available as well as the hunting, fishing and foraging skills to utilise those resources.

Wood sorrel leaves

Wood Sorrel is full of flavour but these leaves won’t keep you alive for very long. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

In terms of plant foods, to start with you need to know which are edible and which are poisonous. This isn’t black and white either. Some plants can only be safely eaten at certain times of the year, while they contain toxins in other seasons. Others require processing to remove toxins. You must also be able to recognise the optimal time to harvest a particular species, so you obtain the greatest food value.

Three underground storage organs

Of these roots/tubers, one is edible raw or cooked, another is edible only if cooked and the other is toxic. You must know the difference. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Hadzabe man hunting with bow

This Hadzabe man in Tanzania has a detailed knowledge of his environment and the skills to go with it. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

If we look at societies across the globe that still live close to the land, it is apparent that this kind of knowledge is essential. A detailed understanding of food resources would also have been essential to our forebears who lived a hunter gatherer existence. Unfortunately for those of us who are interested, because this way of life no longer exists in much of the world, a great deal of know-how has simply been lost. Archaeology can provide snippets of information but nothing close to what is likely to have been the full picture.

Some plant foods which are thought to have been important in the diet of our ancestors require significant processing to remove toxins, to make them digestible, to increase the amount of available nutrition or so that it can be kept until the next season. In many cases the exact methods used can only be speculated upon, with experimentation by researchers allowing their theories a degree of validation.

Storing food obtained during a seasonal glut and – if possible – keeping it until a period where there may have been very little food available could well have been very important.

Starting From Scratch

What we do know for sure is that if today you found yourself lost, stranded, marooned, hiding or, for any other reason, needing to gain sustenance from the land, you would not have the benefit of last season’s provisioning. Nor would you have any tools or implements prepared to process the more difficult foods that may be available right now. You’d have to start from scratch, with no savings in the bank as it were.

We should also be honest – none of us have the skill, knowledge or experience in living from the land that one of our European hunter gatherer forebears would have had before the onset of farming. Nor would they recognise the land we now occupy – we have altered it so much.

Given how we travel these days, if you are lost or stranded somewhere wild, you may find yourself needing to find food in a part of the world you are not as familiar with as the environment local to your home.

So, if you do find yourself needing to keep yourself alive from what you can forage, you are starting from a tough position. What we need to learn first then, so that we can stand on our own two feet and feed ourselves (at least for a little while), are plants that are:

Easily Identified

Our ideal food plants are easy to spot, easy to recognise and have few, if any, poisonous lookalikes. Where there are toxic lookalikes, we need a failsafe method of differentiating between them.

Widely Distributed

Some of the best survival food plants are those that have a wide geographical distribution. You won’t have to be in a very specific environment to stand a chance of coming across them.

Relatively Common

As well as being widely distributed, the best survival food plants are also relatively common in the territories where they do occur. You won’t have to go as far before you encounter them.

Easily Processed

As mentioned above, if we are thrust into a situation where we must feed ourselves from the land, we are unlikely to have any specialist processing equipment. Also, some processes are time-consuming, requiring us to work on them for some time. Others just need time to work; for example leeching or fermenting. If I have to soak something in water for several weeks to make it edible, it’s not much use to me if I’m hungry right now. Plus we don’t want to be spending precious energy processing a food source if we don’t need to. Prioritise the easily-processed foods. If we can consume the food immediately – or almost immediately – on finding it, this will be a good source to go for. This basically translates to plant foods that can be eaten raw or easily cooked on an open fire.

Available (for a good portion of the year)

Our ideal survival plant food sources will also be available to us for longer than just a short window of time. There are some great fruits that are easy to recognise, available around much of the Northern Hemisphere for example; they are relatively common and can be eaten immediately. They are, however, only ripe for a short period of time and if we don’t get to them quickly, some other creature will. I’m not suggesting you ignore them if they are available but you’re going to need to have other options for the 50 weeks of the year they aren’t available.

A secondary consideration for availability is making sure you know a spread of plants so you stand a reasonable chance of finding at least one of them at any given time of the year.

Providers (of a favourable return on energy invested)

What you should be considering is how much energy you need to expend versus how much energy you will get in return. Check your thinking carefully. Don’t fall into the trap of sitting in a shelter, doing nothing. The food won’t come to you! This is definitely a time for thinking “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. And the more plants you know, the more food you’re likely to gather while walking a particular foraging route.

That said, you still need to prioritise. There are only so many hours in a day and you are burning calories continuously. Make sure what you collect counts.

I like to think in terms of two broad profiles:

First we can look for plants that are going to give us a good amount of energy just by finding one or two of them. They may take a bit of effort to collect – digging up a large root for example – but we get a good reward.

Burdock, Arctium sp, roots

Burdock roots require some effort to excavate but are relatively large. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The second profile is one of a plant where we may only get a few calories from each instance of the plant but they are easy to collect. So we don’t expend much energy in the collection. This profile is best when many of the same plants grow together, alongside each other. Then we don’t even have to expend much energy moving from one instance of the plant to the next.

Energy Requirements

So how much energy do we need? What type of food should we be consuming?

Before I get into that, you’ll be forgiven for already wondering “why all this talk about food? Can’t we go without food for three weeks anyway?”

Not eating anything for three weeks may be survivable if you are rescued in week four and taken to hospital. There you’ll be fed intravenously because your digestive system will have stopped working. Studies have shown that you are much better off getting some food – even a small amount – into your system on a daily basis than eating nothing at all for an extended period of time. This will keep your digestive system from shutting down completely.

It’s also important to understand that if you eat the right sort of food, it will help you burn your body’s fat reserves more efficiently as well as reduce the amount of muscle loss that would otherwise occur. You’ll stay stronger for longer and if you are successful with fishing or trapping, you’ll also be able to take on board the full value of these foods too.

The recommended daily energy intake for an average man is 2,500 calories and for an average woman it is 2,000 calories. If you are working hard physically or the environment is cold, you are quite likely to burn through more than this.

Studies have shown, however, that taking on only 500 calories of starchy, carbohydrate-filled plant food per day will maintain your digestive functions and provide enough energy to significantly reduce muscle loss compared to eating nothing. So this consideration should also inform the types of plant foods we prioritise when living off the land.

Hadzabe women digging for tubers

Hadzabe women digging for tubers (note the small pile in the bottom left of the picture). Tanzania, East Africa. Photo: Amanda Quaine

In this context it’s interesting to note that the fallback food Hadza hunter-gatherers resort to when more preferred foods are not available are underground tubers of vines. These tubers are underground storage organs (USOs) which contain carbohydrate in the form of starch and generally available all year-round.

In future articles, I’ll be expanding upon this notion of fallback foods and looking at specific species which fit the bill for the survival forager based on the criteria above.

Related Articles on Paul Kirtley’s Blog:

Conopodium majus: Pignuts and How to Forage for them

Foraging For Spring Greens: Some To Eat, Some To Avoid

Boost Your Bushcraft With Urban Botany

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

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{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Duane Yates

Hi Paul,
Very interesting, i am looking forward to more articles on this subject :)

Take care Mate
Duane

Reply

Mark Pennington

Hi Paul,
Yet another brilliant article, out of all the different aspects of Bushcraft I find this, foraging, the most difficult.

Cheers
Mark

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Niels

Hi Paul,

I hope your well?
Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I’ve been experimenting with burdock roots. I ate a boiled one in the autumn, and it tasted like a warm sponge. I’m going to dig one up this spring and see if it’s any sweeter. They do take a lot of effort to dig up though, especcially when they grow in dry clay.

Happy bushcrafting,

Niels

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Rody Klop

Paul,

This is interesting because I have the same idea about this subject. Not even is the food per square km, rather low. And what most people do not realise is the time you are busy gathering. When I told them that bushcraft will take you all day and mostly gather as you walked by it. Never reject an oppertunity. They looked at me if I was crazy, when I explained it opened their eyes. Nothing is for sure, your area dictates what you are eating that day. Luckily we have supermarkets, where a product not available is rare and we have lots of choices.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Rody,

Nice to hear from you.

It’s good to know that you also have a similarly realistic approach.

Quite many people are surprised they will not be living off the land on our introductory courses at Frontier Bushcraft.

I tell them that if we would do this, they would spend all their time trying to find calories and probably still be hungry. And there would be no time to learn anything else.

There are more efficient ways to build up skills and knowledge; you can test yourself later, once you have attained a good level.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Galya

Very interesting and useful information.I read it with pleasure.Thank you Paul!
Greetings from Bulgaria!
Exclusively interesting article about maintaining digestive functions on 500 calories. This is one really good thing to be learned and remembered by every person.
Thanks once again!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Galya,

It’s good to hear from you again.

I’m glad you enjoyed the artlicle and found the content particularly interesting. I shall be writing more on this area in future.

Thanks for your comment.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Grizzly Bear outdoors

Hi pual.
Very good thanks for that. Totally agree if we had to live of the land for whatever reason our bodys and minds would be in for a big shock. As you said skills that are lost! How long would it take us to regain the skills? A lifetime? So best to start now and pass the knowledge on to the furture and get the kids involved so they do it without thinking. There is not eough of this in our schools along with outdoor ed. it should be combined, feed that young mind and who knows where it will take us. I am game!! Grizzly Bear

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Grizzly,

Thanks. Glad you liked it. :)

All the best,

Paul

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Mark H

Hi Paul,

Great article- thought provoking.

The woods I use have become my ‘back yard’ to a certain degree. It is very interesting how this back yard has become such an important source of local resources. After quite a few years ‘up there’ we recognise where certain plants grow and when. We look to conserve them and even bring on other crops.

I constantly find myself looking forward and manipulating situations to protect and provide me with more resources. I constantly feel connected to the peoples who must have lived in this area long before modern agriculture.

As I say your article provokes many thoughts….

Go Well
Best

Mark

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark,

As always, it’s good to hear from you.

Your experiences at your site ring true with mine.

And I’m glad my article has also provided food for thought.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Elen Sentier

Paul, that’s excellent, thank you for getting it up on the blog as I couldn’t stay to hear you at the Bushcraft Show. Looking fwd to further articles …
And it’s pleasure to read someone who can write English :-)
ATB
Elen

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Elen,

Thanks for your compliment (or should that be complement? Only joking) on my writing.

I did touch on this in my talk at the Bushcraft Show but also on some other related aspects.

I’m hoping to get a recording of the talk on here before too long.

I will, of course, let you know when I do.

Best,

Paul

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Mark H

Hi Grizzly Bear,

Times are a changin ! There is a definate trend out there to teach Wilderness Living Skills as some part of our National curriculum- OFFSTED enjoy it and want it to flourish.

That said teaching children Wild Foods nutrition is extremely difficult and hazardous. It only really works with full parental involvement and reasonable to good knowledge at every ‘port of call’. Even I am witnessing cases where pupils are actively foraging with their parents as a result of Bushcraft lessons !

Like all good education it has to start at home. People like Paul who teach the parents are in effect teaching the children aswell. This fountain of knowledge, although almost lost is going through a new period of rediscovery. Happy days !

Best

Mark

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Grizzly Bear Outdoors

Hi Mark
Totally and full heartily agree. We all need to bring on these skills and yes the parents will take the skills to the children just like we have with tv and computers. There will come a day when these skills will be worth more than gold, just hope I do not see them in my time hence why I mention the children. However parents are ever scare of normal outdoor ed and fail at the red tape side of risk assessments of local councils. It’s had to break the habit by with help of things like the bushcraft show and what Pual does with his blogs. Hopefully people will realise the wilderness came become your friend, and people will grow out of their comfort zone at what ever level that is. As for teaching children the skills with the risks it all comes down to good education. The children for example are much better at recycling than my age group and I am in my 40′s. long story short keep up the good work every one

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drb

have no fear theres plenty of meat walkin around, if you know what i mean. lol…….

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Steve Carothers

Paul,

Thanks for the article…interesting and life saving subject. I am in Kentucky in the USA and a whole different set of food products to be gathered from the rest of the world. I await your follow up article with specifics….Steve

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Steve,

Thanks for your comment. I’ll be sure to let you know when I post more on this and related subjects.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Simon Cook

Hi Paul
Many thanks for yet another really interesting article. I personally am most interested in wild edibles although I have not yet tried any as I am always a little weary. The more information you can provide in your future articles the better, and I look forward to both reading and learning from them .
Keep up the good work

All the very best

Simon

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Simon,

You are most welcome and I’ll endeavour to get as much useful info over to you as possible via this blog.

But you are right to be cautious until you are confident you can identify a plant 100%.

Remember – If in doubt, leave it out! ;)

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Louisa

Hi Paul, great article. I have known for a while about the difficulties of actually living off the land, but this really breaks it down into bullet points that are easy to digest ;) have you managed to live off the land like this yourself for any period of time?

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Louisa,
:)

I’m glad you appreciated the article content and layout.

Yes, I have lived off the land but only for relatively short periods of time.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Leon

Hi.
I enjoyed reading the article. Literally food for thought.

It certainly Illustrates why mankind started farming! Perhaps bushcraft will similarly evolve into “Farmcraft” in a few thousand years , choosing the right grains to sow, how to domesticate wild animals etc!

Cheers

Leon

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Leon,

Thanks for your comment.

Why farming became the dominant form of food production/acquisition, is an interesting question.

Modern, industrialised farming methods aside, anthropologists have observed that subsistence farmers typically work longer hours each day in producing their food than hunter-gatherers. The advantage farming seems to bring, however, is greater certainty of food supply from one season to the next and from one year to another.

This is a trade we humans seem to be prone to make – in modern society most people would rather trade a large amount of their time for a predictable income (i.e. a job) than be self-employed/free-lance/entrepreneurs and have more risk in their life yet potentially more free time on their hands.

It’s an interesting psychological parallel…

Cheers,

Paul

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Oc

Good article, looking forward to future installments.

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks Oc!

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Mike H

Dear Paul,
Thanks for the insightful article, its a keeper in my book. Always enjoy what you have to say.
I have been also enjoying wild edibles this year. Spring it was cattail shoots, mid summer it was Mulberries, and now this fall we have been collecting mushrooms. Nice additions to our diet and so much more flavorful!
Take care and keep writing the good stuff
Mike

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to read that you enjoyed my article. I hope the info it contains serves you well in the future.

It’s also good to read about what you have been foraging over recent months.

What fungi have you been collecting out of interest? It’s been a bumper year here…

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Adrian Corson

Thanks Paul, Great Blog, I would like to read some more on the subject as it is a subject which greatly interests me. Even if not survival food, I believe that wild food adds a great deal of missing nutrients to our modern diet.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Adrian, I’m pleased this interests you. I plan to write more on the subject and I agree, wild foods add a diversity to diet that is difficult/impossible to obtain in any other way.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Anthony Tallack aka oldtimer

Thank you for another lively and thought provoking article.

I find the difference between my French and English friends’ attitudes to wild foods of interest. In England, we tend to ignore and waste what is available in Nature’s larder whereas in France, the seaonal harvesting of natural goodies is a matter of routine enjoyment. French people of my generation may well have had survival in mind during WW2, but the knowledge of when and where to find wild asparagus remains. My English neighbours, on the other hand, pass up on such commonly available treasures such as blackberries.

We may be fortunate in not having to struggle for survival on a daily basis, but I do find the casual loss of knowledge of what nature has to offer a worry. We need people like you to keep that knowledge alive and available.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Anthony,

Thanks for your comment. That’s an interesting comparative observation.

I too find the casual slip into general ignorance quite disturbing.

I think it’s incumbent on all of us who have knowledge in these areas to help pass them on to others.

Keep in touch.

Warm regards,

Paul

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James Gohl

Thank you Paul. It’s just what I’m looking for.
Incidentally, I recently found an article about the 6 elements of nutrition. I always thought there were only proteins, fats and carbohydrates, but water, vitamins and minerals are essentials, too. One of the most interesting things about bushcraft is, for me, a thirst for more knowledge. Keep on writing; I’ll keep on reading.

Jim

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Jim,

Good to hear from you again. Also good to read that this is up your street. I’m glad you found it useful. Personally I find clarity and prioritisation very powerful tools.

Thanks for your feedback.

Warm regards,

Paul

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John Carstairs

Hi Paul

Yet another very interesting and informative article. I am interested in being able to forage, and find so many books and articles on the subject that I feel I am suffering from overload. Are there any books that YOU would recommend for a beginner?

I have a grand daughter who is coming on for 2 years old, and I would like to be able to show her some bushcraft and survival skills when she is older. Obviously, for me to pass on these skills and information, I have to be proficient in plant recognition etc.

Keep up the excellent work, Paul.

Best regards, John

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Paul Kirtley

Hi John,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article interesting and informative. I understand about overwhelm and I understand about the lack of prioritisation in the literature, that does not tell you which species to put at the top of your list for gaining calories in a particular environment nor tells you which species to learn first so you get most benefit from a limited knowledge.

You do need to be proficient in your identification skills before you start nibbling on things. I think you concentrate on broadening your ID skills first and gently move into the world of foraging once you are confident to positively identify some of the species. This may require a mentor/teacher.

In terms of books I recommend, I have some lists in my resources pages, which I have linked to below for your convenience:

http://paulkirtley.co.uk/resources/recommended-wild-food-and-foraging-books/

For extending your identification skills, you might be interested in my Tree and Plant Identification Masterclass.

Hope this helps.

Warm regards,

Paul

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liam meakin

Hi Paul another great article looking forward to the next one

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Paul Kirtley

Thank you Liam.

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Martin

Hi Paul , as ever more great information from you ,
I do a little bit of foraging on the few things
I know about.I have an awful lot to learn.
Thanks for the time and effort you put in on on your blogs ,
I and i’am sure everyone else look forward to them.
Cheers
Martin

Reply

Mark Henderson

Nice article,
I’ve always “lived off the land” as much as possible: hunting, fishing, berrying, nuts, and wild greens; wild asparagus will be coming on in mid-May. Such living is easier further south, but here in Northern Minnesota, with 2 or 3 feet of snow on the ground and the ground frozen down as much as 6 feet, it’s a tough go much of the year. And too, I’ve gone without eating or consuming any calories at all: many times for 3 days to a week, one time for 27 days, and still another time for 33 days. These were by choice “fasts”, but they were eye openers. After 3 days I wasn’t hungry, just missing the habit of eating, after a week or so, food smelled so bad it was difficult to shop or prepare meals for my children. I worked too, and walked at least 5 miles every day; I shingled a house on the 27th and 28th day of one fast. Eventually, one reaches a state where one is once again hungry. There is a passage from the Bible; Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights and afterward, he was hungry”, that is about the way it goes with fasting. The trick to not going hungry is to learn to find the available food in one’s area at all seasons; here in Northern Minnesota, it’s pretty much protein and pine needle tea in winter, though I know there are some edible inner barks. I read once that further north, aboriginal hunters would consume the contents of a caribou’s stomach; caribou would consume lichen’s, and these lichens, once harvested from the dead caribou’s stomach, tasted like greens with vinegar. I’ve been hungry, but not that hungry yet.

Good article though Paul, really enjoyed it.

Take care out there,
Mark

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Jeff

Nice article, I will be looking out for follow-ons

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks Jeff.

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murry davidson

Great

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks Murray.

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Gordon Henderson

Foraging is such a huge subject, I realistically know very little. I really look forward to hearing more. Meanwhile I need to do some serious botany homework.

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James Gohl

Dear Paul,

Here’s one of my favorite reference books: “Nature through the Seasons”. By the author of “Watership Down”, Richard Adams, it’s a small guide with wonderful illustrations by Max Hopper. It’s a great read, if you come across it.

Jim

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Deri Pocock

Hi Paul
When I lived in Canada I learned a lot of similar stuff from a guy trying to regain / preserve the skills of his Huron ancestors. Then in UK it was a lot easier, a la Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall. But this was only skimming the surface of what was available to an artist like yourself. I regret that I never got to master fungi. Now I live in Turkey, where the land is old, tired, well-used, worn out. Many of the poorer folk here have an excellent understanding of their local wild food – some of it is harvested for the weekend markets. My beach for instance is covered in samphire. When it’s just ready and I go out to gather some, I am competing with farmers wives (and are they tough!!)
Maybe you could write about identifying strange foods – the lower lip test etc.

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mike b

Hi paul
Very interesting article as always, be very interested to hear about the less common wild foods such as tree barks and plants that need processing , information on these subjects are hard to find, also whats your thoughts on this book for plant id ” the vegetative key to the british flora”, it seems to be a bit of a revolution in plant id but theres not many reviews on it. keep up the awesome blog all the best, mike

Reply

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