This is a two-part article, with the second part to be published in a future Issue of Seattle Backpacker Magazine. A preview of Part Two will be handed out at a workshop the author is leading called Gifts of Wolf Prairie – Oaks and the Acorn to be held on the mima mound prairie at Wolf Haven, Int’l on Saturday, November 6th, from 10:00-4:00. Enrollment is limited to 20 participants, so register through the Seattle Backpackers Meetup Site asap if you are interested.

October Participants in the Wolf College plant workshop cook up a pot of Stinging Nettle Soup.

Even as an avid backpacker well into my 20s, my eyes would always glaze-over when anyone started naming plants, or lead me on a “drag and brag” plant walk. I wanted to know the plant names, but for some reason, they just would not stick. Then someone told me a story about a plant, not mentioning the name, and I was hooked, wanting to know more.

That approach to learning plants seemed backward to my western, lineal mind. But what I discovered, despite good grades throughout my school years, was that I learned best through experience. Therefore, I needed to learn about a plant before I would ever be able to remember its name.

What’s a name anyway? Just because you know a name doesn’t mean you know a plant, or a person for that matter. Names are a good way for humans to communicate to one another about something, but interetstingly, names also get in the way of a learning, of really knowing about something or someone.

Some people do learn cognitively, needing a name to hook any knowledge onto. So if that’s you, just keep on learning in the way that has been successful for you. But if you are like me, then we need to experience something deeper about a plant before building a memory box for it, aka giving it a name. Maybe we just need to know what size box to build, and where to put it, before naming it.

My guess is that most people need to experience something before they name it, before they categorize it in their minds. In fact, in my experience, whenever I teach, if I mention a plant’s name too soon, students feel like they are done with the plant. They think they know it, and want to move on. You can see this best in children, but also in most adults: if you show them a plant and tell them its name, they usually become completely disinterested.

How to Identify Plants

When you come across a plant, tell a story about it, using its characteristics to make up its origin, and making up a descriptive name (like Thorny Pink Flower Plant That Draws Blood from Those In Love:) until its lesson is revealed. That way, the plant comes alive in the mind of those listening, and they remember how the name reflects the story. Or, when you come across a plant, draw it with colored pencils.

Teachers who already know a plant, and who want to convey to students the importance of a plant, should try introducing the plant by using it, describing its qualities while respectfully harvesting and processing it into food, medicine, fire, shelter, or craft. When the inevitable question comes up as to a plant’s name, then I shift student dependence away from me and toward their field guides. I show them how to use their guide books, and keep things interesting by asking, for instance, how many petals the flower has, or what the shape of the stem is. Five petals? Maybe it’s a violet. Square stem? The mint family!

The point of helping people learn to identify plants on their own is so that they can do it anytime, anywhere, without the dependence of a teacher. Fortunately, in the northwestern states and southwestern provinces, we have a plant guide series published by Lone Pine which is excellent for identifying plants based on family characteristics. It has color pictures, black silouettes, ethnobotanical uses and excellent descriptions.

For everyone else throughout North America, it’s critical to get Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel which includes great ethnobotanical descriptions, and teaches the reader about plant identification through taxonometric classification. For younger students, he has a story book called “Shanlaya’s Quest” which details the characteristics of plant families inside a context of story.

Which Plants to Learn First

Of course, 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 in 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” 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 the benefits that a person needs from the plant world, then that’s an attainable challenge!

How can 9 lowly plants give a person more than half of everything they need? Bear with me. Take a look at my article on the Critical Order of Wilderness Survival and you will see that our needs include 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 a truly experiential learner, then go outside with your Lone Pine or Botany in a Day field guide and find a tree or other plant that looks like it grew naturally, rather than having been planted. In other words, it is easist 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. Or, if you want to skip that first experiential step, then approach the process like this:

Learn the most useful grass in your region. I doubt you can find a plant family which answers the four questions above more fully than the Grass Family, which, using the common vocabulary from Botany in a Day, is a member of the sedge order, which is in the spiderwort subclass, a sub-group of the minocot class, in the flowering plants division. We don’t normally think of grasses as flowering plants, but they are. They simply use wind to pollinate pistils rather than depending on insects which often require showy flowers.

Grasses are the most commonly eaten food we have. They include all of our cereals, such as wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, millet and rye, while the seeds of virtually all other grasses are also edible if they are in a healthy state. Grasses also have critical utilitarian qualities (insulation, roofing, fire tinder, etc.) for human livelihoods. Medicinally, grasses are used in many ways; the most basic you can see when your cats and dogs eat grass, probably a way to cleanse their bowels.

So, if you do any farming or gardening, grow a grass species and study it from seed-to-fruit. Otherwise, just go outside and walk until you find some grass that has not been cut. Make sure that it is grass, not sedge or rush, although almost all members of those closely-related families are considered fairly edible and also useful in many ways. Identification of grasses is easy in comparison: just remember the rhyme (of dubious origin and many funny variations) that says, “Sedges have Edges, Rushes are Round, Grasses are Hollow from Nodes to the Ground.”

The last part is my little “take” on the rhyme, using “nodes” as a “play on words” to sound like “nose” so that children, and all people, think I said “nose to the ground” and then I correct them, pointing out that I said “nodes to the ground.” Nodes are like little “knees” at the base of where the leaf of the grass grows out of the hollow stalk. And although you can’t always see the nodes, sedges and rushes don’t really show nodes at all. Anyway, once you see a rush, you’ll know it by how round it is. I also call it the “belly-button plant” because its flower grows off the side of its round stalk. And most sedges have triangular stalks, while some can easily cut you with serrated edges.

Do a couple of things with the grass species you decide to learn. In the winter, gather some for tinder and you will easily start a fire, and gather a bunch to make something insulative, like a grass mat to sit on, or a thatch roof to sit under! In the summer, pull a few stalks out of the ground, then clean, and chew up the tender hollow bases. That’s where the sugars are stored, and in fact, that’s exactly what sugar (cane) and high fructose -corn- syrup is made from! Finally, gather a bunch of it when the seeds ripen, and whip the ends into a bucket. Avoid grasses that have hairy or sharp chaff because they are difficult to process and could scrape your throat; some grasses have chaff that is very difficult to separate from the seed (your cereal) inside, but even those are okay for the most simple cereal: just grind the seed with or without the chaff, and make a hot cereal just like you would make oatmeal, but cook longer using 3 parts water to 1 part cereal.

The author carrying a load of stinging nettle stalks during a Wolf College plant workshop in October.

Learn Nettles or a substitute for your region. I am not making this list in chronological order of the most important to less important, because choosing which plants to learn first is dependent on which ones grow closest to your home. Right next to my house, there is a park which is filled with stinging nettles, while you may have other plants which substitute for the qualities that nettles provide. For instance, nettles provide the strongest plant fiber commonly growing in maritime Washington State. But there are other plants which are even stronger, like dogbane (the poisonous indian hemp) which grow east of the mountains. Or if you live to the north, fireweed makes an adequate fiber substitute.

You may be wondering how stinging nettles can be processed into a strong fiber for rope, clothing, netting, and other uses. Well, the best way to understand something so tangible is to actually do it yourself, because words usually fail to do justice to visual/tangible things. But here’s how I like to process nettles into fiber: Although the Native people of this area tell me that they like to harvest nettles for fiber in late spring or early summer, I like to wait until early fall, giving the nettles a chance to complete their life cycle of seeding, etc., yet gathering them before they start to mildew and rot as the rainy season approaches. I use scissors to cut the nettle stem at its base, taking care to leave the root in the ground since its rhizomes (root stem) will produce new nettle shoots in the spring.

I also try not to let the nettle stalks bend/fold. That way, the fibers stay as pristine as possible until the next processing step. To keep them from folding, and to make transport easier, I strip the stalks of leaves and stems and use string to tie a bundle of stalks together. At home, I hang up (or just set up) the stalks to air-dry where they won’t mold, such as in a drafty upstairs bedroom with a window open. Alternatively, you can strip the skin off the stalks (that takes showing) instead of drying the whole stalk, but you should wait until the skin fiber is dry before using, because the fibers will continue to shrink while drying, causing any rope or other product you make to loosen and therefore weaken. The advantage to drying the stalk first is that it is a bit easier to remove the skin fiber once the stalk is dry, but not yet hardened, so at least a week, depending on the heat and airflow in your drying area.

Describing how to make rope, clothing, netting, etc. is nearly impossible without showing a person, but suffice it to say that you can easily spin the skin of the nettle stalk into cordage using various “reverse wrap” methods. The inner stalk is great for fire kindling, by the way, and in fact, even after the nettles have molded in the forest throughout the winter, they often remain standing, so the stalks with remaining skin are just about the best fire kindling you can find in a generally wet forest.

To put the ethnobotanical uses of stinging nettles into context, nettles have been used around the world for many uses, with the most popularly known being a great tonic (tea) for preventing wintertime illnesses, as it contains excellent nutrative properties, high amounts of iron, etc. quite similar to spinach, but also high plant proteins. As a food, people harvest the new growth throughout the spring (until it starts to flower when it develops a compound which is hard on the kidneys) and make it into a tasty soup, pesto, or lasagne, among other culinary delights. You can dry the nettles to preserve throughout the hear and continue using them in similar medicinal and edible ways. Finally, the sting of the nettle is in itself medicinal. People throughout northern Eurasia still whip themselves with the stalks to cure arthritis, as the formic acid contained in nettle hairs draws blood to the affected areas and, in my experience, does in fact cure sore joints.

Douglas Fir Cone. Note the “mouse tails” which make for a great identification story!

Learn the most useful tree in the Pine Family, Oak Genus, or Palm in your region. Being from the north, I can’t speak from experience about palm trees, but from what I’ve heard, they are amazing for starting fire by friction, like when Tom Hanks started fire using the “plow” method in the movie Castaway. There are also various edible and medicinal qualities to members of the palm family, as well as myriad uses for its wood. But if you are almost anywhere in the lower U.S., you live where there are at least one species each of oak and pine. Oaks are fairly easy to identify with their acorns and often well-known leaf-shape, but the pine family includes a variety of species which all have similar edible, medicinal, and utilitarian qualities.

The pine family includes the following genera: pine genus (pinus), spruce genus (picea), larch genus (larix), fir genus (abies), douglas fir genus (pseudotsuga), and the hemlock tree genus (tsuga). You might have noticed a couple of interesting things in that list. Last in the list was the Hemlock Tree, whose common name is often confused with the poisonous hemlock plant in the carrot family, so it goes to show you how problematic common names can be. Further, the Douglas Fir is not in the fir genus as you can see, and its Latin name pseudotsuga means “false fir/hemlock” to further complicate matters.

As far as identifying members of the pine family, since the entire family (as far as I know, and as long as you are not allergic) has common edible traits, there are just a couple things to remember for avoiding poisonous look-alikes. Mainly, you have to remember that not all needle-bearing trees and shrubs are in the pine family. Most notably, yew trees, however medicinal and useful, are poisonous, and very similar-looking to hemlock trees. Talk about a confusing assortment of names and identification traits! The Pacific Yew, whose bark contains taxol, the compound which advanced breast-cancer cures in the 1990s, is just about the least poisonous in the yews, while yews in Europe are very poisonous. In fact, warriors in the middle ages would use yew arrows not just because they provide nearly the strongest arrow wood, but because they poison their target.

Cedars are considered medicinal and highly useful, but not edible, yet many people think of them as pine trees just because they are evergreen trees. So just take care to make sure you correctly identify the needle tree you are using for food or medicine, because you can’t live without pine trees if they grow in your bioregion. Obviously, they are highly useful for construction, but not just for buildings and furniture. Many of them, like the Douglas Fir, make for great bedding, with boughs that provide a soft, aromatic sleep. In addition, that aroma is a hint that there are great medicinal qualities to pine. Most notably, the needles contain high amounts of vitamin C. Just think about how much scurvy could have been avoided if all the pioneers trekking across the west had known that a cold infusion (tea) of pine needles contained as much vitamin C as an orange! Pine needle tea (of any species) is a great tonic for that reason, among other traits.

Pine cambium (inner bark), although considered a survival food, is also edible, but also very good for your bowels periodically if you eat a high protein/fat diet, as people living naturally in northern states need to do. But it is the pine nut (seeds inside the cones of all pine family trees) that can make the difference between life and death if you are in a survival situation and can’t successfully hunt. Pine nuts contain fat, and fat is critical for survival. Some pine family trees, like the Douglas Fir, have small nuts inside their cones, so they are more difficult to collect efficiently. Other pine trees, like the pinon pine, contain nuts that you commonly find in grocery stores today. Take care to avoid Chinese pine nuts , however, as one of their species can cause all food you eat for the next couple of weeks to taste horribly bitter. No one knows why, but my wife experienced it herself last year!

Very similar to the pine family are oak trees, whose acorn is just about the most nutritious vegetable matter on the planet. Oak cambium is also edible, and the tannic acid throughout its parts has many uses, while of course the wood is incredibly utilitarian. For these reason and more, I’ll write about oak trees and the following plant families in part 2 of this essay to be published in time for the Wolf College workshop entitled “Gifts of the Prairie – Oaks and the Acorn.”

Plants Backpackers Must Know, Part 2 – next issue: (in addition to oak)

• Learn Cattails or a substitute for your region. Probably the most versatile genus in North America.

• Learn the most useful Cedar, Cypress or Juniper Tree in your region. Tree of Life Anyone?

• Learn a Seaweed, Cactus, or Bamboo depending on your region. Where do you live?

• Learn the most versatile Edible Fruit Plant in your region. Vaccinium anyone?

• Learn the most versatile Root Crop Plant in your region. Burdock anyone?

• Learn your other most favorite versitile plant in your region. Rose anyone?

Kim & Chris Chisholm lead classes and workshops in the autumn focusing on plants critical to know, including:

1st Saturdays of October in Puyallup WA: Gifts of the Forest – Stinging Nettle

October Classes on Tuesdays-Wednesdays-Thursdays: Cedar & Nettle Rope & Cloth

1st Saturdays of November in Olympia WA: Gifts of the Prairie – Oaks and the Acorn

November Classes on Tuesdays-Wednesdays-Thursdays: Willow Aspririn & Basketry

1st Saturdays of December in Monroe WA: Gifts of the Wetland – Cattails & Tules

December Classes on Tuesdays-Wednesdays-Thursdays: Baking with Oak & Cattail

In addition, the Wolf College sponsors a Permaculture & Herb Gardening workshop every Third Sunday of the Academic Year, plus a week-long Wild Ethnobotany & Herbalism course the last week of July. For more information, visit or call 425-248-0253.

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