This is Part 2 of an article we ran in November.

Oak trees (Quercus spp) give us the acorn, which is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. Yet the acorn fallen from being a food that great societies were based around, to being completely replaced by grains around the world. Why are there no societies left which use acorns regularly? I think we should start a new trend eating acorns, and here’s why:

©Kim Chisholm

First, let’s remember other important parts of the oak tree. The wood, of course, is well-known for its excellent qualities for home building, furniture, fire, and more.  And like the pine (see previous essay), the bark of the oak tree has edible qualities, but it’s a bit of a trick getting bark to a point that it is palatable or even very digestible.

Although oak bark can be processed into food, it is better used for medicine.  In fact, there are many folk remedies which call for white oak bark as an ingredient, and there is a great web page which provides an excellent discussion of its medicinal uses.  For that, check out Although the web page is excellent, it assumes you would be buying already-processed white oak bark.

But we like to harvest from scratch, right? So here’s how you do it: First, learn to identify the difference between “red” and “white” oak species, of which there are many, because the red oaks contain several times more tannic acid than white oaks. White oak is even preferable to animals.  In fact, white oak acorns are an important food source for deer and pigs, while the red oak they won’t touch.

But even too many white oak acorns are toxic to horses, so that goes to show you that you need to process any oak correctly before consuming. To process oak bark, think about its “tree rings” or how the tree marks its age.  The lighter part of each ring signifies the spring and summer of a year, when the tree was growing thicker by sending nutrients up its cambium layer, just beneath the outermost bark.

The cambium is the only part of the trunk or stems which is considered “alive” and growing.  If you can harvest the cambium during a time when the oak tree is sending nutrients (sap) up the trunk, then it is fairly digestible.  If you harvest it during the fall and winter, when the tree is “making its annual mark” or in other words, when the cambium is turning dark, then it may not be as digestible.

The actual process for harvesting the bark is very important if you don’t want to kill the tree: be sure to harvest thin strips on one side of the trunk, because if you “girdle” the tree all the way around, it will not be able to send nutrients up anymore, and it will die.

Once you have a slice of bark, it needs to be pounded thoroughly; otherwise, you will be chewing for a long time!  And depending on how astringent (how much tannic acid) you want your medicine, you may need to leach some or almost all of the acid out of the bark before using it.  The easiest way to do this is to place it in a clean, flowing stream for a few days. However, if you need to use the bark right away, then follow the same steps I lay out for processing acorns:

To process acorns, find a trees that produce acorns well. Some years, and some patches of oak trees, don’t produce many acorns.  In fact, this year (2010) there were almost no white oak acorns produced in the areas I traditionally gather, so I had to go around to parks where red oaks were planted in order to gather enough acorns to make flour.

That was unfortunate because red oak acorns contain a lot of tannic acid, so to process them, my wife and I had to keep two pots of water boiling:  bringing one to a boil, throwing in the coarsely ground acorns (after cracking open the shells with vice grips, removing the inner nut, and using a coffee grinder to break them up), letting the water turn deep red, draining it out, dumping the acorns into the other pot of boiling water, bringing a new pot of water to boil, and repeating the process about 10 times before the acorn meal started to taste good.

Acorns can sprout, mold, and get worms very quickly, especially white oak acorns, and none should be used if any of those things happen, so take care to process them as soon as possible, or freeze them.  Drying is good as long as you really get the acorns to dry, which is a challenge.  Even after leaching the tannins from the acorn meal, we roasted the meal on low heat in our oven for an hour in order to dry it.  Taking no chances, we also froze it because we were not yet ready to grind the meal into flour for making bread, muffins, etc. But when we were ready, almost every recipe we found online tasted great!

Harvesting Cattails

There is another lone plant which is surprisingly versatile, and its name is Cattail. The Typha genus, which is in its own family and order, has its closest relative as the sedge order which includes grasses, which I discussed in Part 1 of this essay. Specific species include the narrow-leafed cattail [Typha angustifolia] the wide-leafed cattail [Typha latofolia] the common cattail [Typha domingensis] and the hybrid or white cattail [hybrid, crossbred between Typha angustifolia and Typha latofolia T x glauca]

I grabbed this taxometric information from which also states that “the two most popular species are the Typha angustifolia (narrow-leafed cattail) and the Typha latifolia, (broad-leaved cattail) which are found across North America. The T. angustifolia does not go as far north as the T. latifolia and the T. domingensis grows more in the southern parts of America, as well as into South America.”

Guess what?  The first food I would look for in a survival situation would be a bunch of cattails.  Besides being delicious, they are the quickest way to “fill you up” with sustained energy, because their rhizomes (root structures) and shoots are full of easily-digestible starch.  In fact, I’ve actually heard that besides its water content, cattail is 80% carbohydrate, about 7% protein and 13% vitamins and minerals.

There is only one problem with harvesting cattail.  Any parts of the plant that you took from below the water line are no help if you can’t start a fire, because eating those parts raw would put you at risk of water-born diseases like giardia.

However, once you have a fire going, cattails are great because they are easy to pull out of the mud, easy to clean, and easy to cook.  Just throw them onto the coals to heat thoroughly, and enjoy!  Personally, I enjoy the rhizomes best, using my teeth to scrape the clearly visible starch-balls off of the stringy stem.  But if you have access to some cooking oil or butter, try frying the shoots in a pan for a wonderful, nutty taste.

When the flower spikes first emerge above the new leaves in late spring, the unripe, green female “cob” part is an incredible treat. I like them raw, but to be safe, you can cook them until tender, and season with salt and butter for a mouth-watering experience.  Toward early summer, if you gather the pollen from the top of the mature “cattail” seed head, it is a wonderful addition to pancakes or other breads, and a great topping for stir-fry.

Unfortunately, if you eat cattails very often, they must be harvested from a completely unpolluted location.  The reason is that they bio-accumulate toxins from the environment, which is why you will see them planted in bio-swales, or ponds which are designed to accumulate run-off from development.  In my view, this actually raises this plant’s status, because it is so important for the cleansing of wetlands and the water that will flow into our rivers.

In addition to their nutritional qualities and environmental importance, cattails also have some important medicinal qualities.  But like any plant, there are precautions when using it.  For instance, pregnant women are sometimes advised against using cattails medicinally. According to, cattails are considered to have herbal properties including “tonic, diuretic, circulatory, nutritive, stimulant, refrigerant (root), diuretic (leaf), astringent (pollen), and hemostatic (down).”

Chinese and western herbalists note its affects on the liver, heart and spleen. Its pollen is sometimes used as a coagulant and sometimes as an anticoagulant, internally and externally, depending on how it is prepared, such as by roasting it. Some have even used its rhizome to treat dysentery.

Some North Americans report having pounded the rhizomes down to apply to burns and sores.  But my favorite medicinal use of the cattail is that “gel” which you can find sticking between the base of its leaves. It has an an anesthetic effect when applied locally, for instance on the gums below a sore tooth. Some say that the gel is also antiseptic, but I’m not yet convinced of that.

Before mentioning my favorite utilitarian qualities of the cattail, I’ll quote which aptly states that “the utility of this cattail is limited only by your imagination.  The dried stalks can be used for hand drills and arrow shafts.  The seed heads and dried leaves can be used as tinder.  The seed head fluff can be used for pillow and bedding stuffing or as a down-like insulation in clothing.  The leaves can be used for construction of shelters,… baskets, hats, mats, and beds.”

In fact, my favorite uses of cattails include weaving them into window shades, and at Wolf Camp, we like to dip the mature seed-heads into oil, and then light them in the fire for use as torches!

Wakame – a brown seaweed commonly used in Japan, gaining popularity in the U.S.

The next plant group you should learn really depends on where you live.  The choices I recommend are Seaweed, Cactus, or Bamboo. If you happen to live where the sea meets a desert, then you are in a great location to learn both seaweeds and cacti.  Or if you live where bamboo forests reach the ocean, then you are similarly blessed.

However, if you live in the north where few of these plants grow, then I recommend buying some potted edible cacti for inside your house, and planting some bamboo to place in pots along the south-facing wall of your house.  However, bamboo is nearly impossible to remove if you plant it in the ground, so beware of its voracity!

If you don’t have any seaweeds, cactus, or bamboo growing near you, you may also just want to jump to the next categories of plant which are incredibly useful.  For instance, you may have cedar, cypress or juniper trees grown near-by, and although few of them have edible qualities, they are incredibly medicinal, but moreover, include some of the most useful wood products in the world.  Besides being relatively light-weight, most species are incredibly resistant to rot, which in wet environments make them indispensable.

In some parts of the world, bamboo is still the main resource for development.  It’s used like plastics and lumber are in America, but it is also very edible, as you may know if you eat certain asian foods.  For an interesting historical and biomedical perspective on bamboo which also details how critical it is for development in some countries, check out the documentary film “Rat Attack.”

I’m no expert on cactus, but I’ve eaten it (prickly pear), used it to make fire by friction (saguaro), used it to sew clothing and other gear together (yucca), used it topically as medicine (aloe), and heard of a thousand other uses for the species within the Cactus family. But because I live near the ocean, in a location where few cactus and bamboo grow, I am going to focus on seaweeds:

Seaweeds are algae, and there is disagreement as to whether algae is categorized in the same “kingdom” or “division” as plants.  The difference, basically, is in how they reproduce.  Suffice it to say that algae reproduce with spores, among other ways, while plants reproduce with seeds.  Why are ferns plants then, if they reproduce using spores?  That gets complicated, so I’ll leave it to you to research:)

In aggregate, seaweeds are simple to understand because there are just 3 kinds: the reds, the browns, and the greens.  In addition, pretty much all of the ones you’ll find in the intertidal zone north of the 40th parallel are edible.  South of that parallel, toxins may grow on seaweeds in those warmer waters which are invisible to the eye.

And although each kind of seaweed contains thousands of species, fear not, because learning one of each kind will garner you most of the knowledge you will need.  For instance, find one of the sea lettuces, a green seaweed, which often grows up to the high-tide line.

Sea lettuce is my favorite seaweed to eat fresh off the shore.  Unfortunately, it is most abundant where nutrient run-off pollution is present, so I limit my consumption of them where they dominate.  Much of the rest of the world prefers nori (rolls) as their favorite, which is a green seaweed common in japanese cooking like sushi.

A brown seaweed, the giant bullwhip kelp (commonly featured in films and known to grow 2 feet per day) is my favorite seaweed when dried.  Different seaweeds need to be dried in particular ways. The method for bullwhip kelp, for instance, warns you to avoid rinsing it with fresh water, or it will putrefy, while other seaweeds are best to rinse.

To process kelp, harvest it in the morning, and dry it in a warm wind during the afternoon before taking it inside to place in a paper bag, which will help ensure that it will dry further and avoid decomposition caused only when water is present. Then store it in a glass jar but out of the light to avoid nutrient breakdown, and observe it to make sure condensation doesn’t form inside.

I love to crush and sprinkle the salty dried kelp on many foods for seasoning, giving myself a high dose of minerals, I also take it on hikes to eat in order to avoid electrolyte depletion in the backcountry.  Bullwhip kelp, like many other seaweeds, is also highly utilitarian.  Like the name says, it is a great whip, plus a super tube for underwater-to-surface breathing. Plus, it’s very strong as a cord when kept taut.

Red seaweeds are very interesting, and a common ingredient even in western foods. In particular, red seaweeds are used as thickening agents, and they are what carrageenan and agar are derived from.  Dulse is a commonly-known red seaweed, as is Irish Moss, the thickening agent in Guinness beer!  Along the Pacific Northwest Coast, we have Turkish Towel, which we use at Wolf Camp to make pudding.

Finally, the medicinal benefits of seaweeds are incredible, and some species may hold to the key to curing many illnesses still rampant in the world such as cancer.  All I’ve learned about the medicinal qualities of seaweeds come from classes I’ve had with Ryan Drum, Ph.D., who has a great website with essays on the subject at

Rose hips after first frost – the perfect time to harvest for vitamin C


Finally, learn the most versatile edible fruit plant in your region. Choose any in the rose family, for instance.  The rose family includes a couple of subfamilies like the Plum which includes the Prunus genus, including cherries and plums.  Wild plums and chokecherries are great choices if you want to learn the attributes of a fruit plant, as they have medicinal as well as edible qualities, and their woods are great for crafts, cooking and more.

Inside the rose subfamily itself, there are many genera, including strawberry (Frageria spp) and Rubus, which includes all the “nobby” berries like raspberry and blackberry.  Rubus is renown for its medicinal properties, and it is my impression that some blackberry/raspberry leaves can lower blood sugar levels, which is why I like to eat a bitter leaf in the morning to curb my sugar cravings throughout the day (see below for explanation in the Vaccinium paragraph).

Other uses of Rubus include using salmonberry leaf as “kleenex” which I have also found as a cure to my grass allergies, and is great to sooth rashes as well.  Another example of this genus’ usefulness is to use native raspberry vines for lashing, while thicker invasive blackberry vines are great for straws, for instance.

There is also the Rose genus itself, which is a great fruit plant to learn, because its berry, aka the “rose hip,” has one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C anywhere. In fact, natural “vitamin C drops” are often made from rose hips.  Further, the flowers of most species are quite edible and nice in salads, while rose wood is highly prized for making arrows, at least in my experience.

Other choices for learning a fruit plant can be found in the Heath family, which has a couple of subfamilies.  The Rhododendron subfamily includes interesting genera like swamp laurel, labrador tea, false huckleberry, mountain heather, and azalea/rhododendron, but while most are medicinal, some are very toxic.

The other Heath subfamily is commonly referred to as Blueberry, but it contains some surprising genera, including madrone, wintergreen/salal, sourwood, and the Arctostaphylos genus (kinnikinnick/manzanita), in addition to the Vaccinium genus: blueberry, huckleberry (red blueberries), cranberry, bilberry, and lignonberry.

You may have thought that these Vaccinium species are just great tasting, but they also have some of the most versatile and proven medicinal properties of any wild plant.  Quoting Botany in a Day, “Medicinally, the plants and berries are mildly astringent, diuretic and sometimes act as vasoconstrictors.  The berries or a tea of the plant are thus useful against diarrhea (Willard).  The leaves also contain quinic acid, which may inhibit the formation of uric acid.  Excessive uric acid in the urine can lead to both gout and formation of kidney stones.  A cup or two of leaf tea every day can lower the sugar level in both the blood and urine (Moore).  The berries and plants alike are rich in flavonoids, which are consumed for their antioxidant effects. Bilberries benefit night vision by increasing the number of “purple” receptor rods in the eyes (Klein). Some species contain simple phenols, similar to Arctostaphylos…. (which) “in the presence of bacteria and alkaline urine (urinary tract infections/ulcerations/inflammation), the phenols are hydrolized in the bladder into the disinfectant hydroquinone (also) useful … as a solvent for calcium stones.”

The author hanging bullwhip kelp leaves in the trees to dry

There are many other plants to prioritize as “most important” to learn, such as root crops like burdock or wild carrot, but what’s important is that you just get out there, and see what attracts you on your hikes. Enjoy!


Kim & Chris Chisholm lead classes and workshops focusing on wilderness survival and plants critical to know, including:

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