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Edible Plants - Far North - Lichens, Mushrooms & Trees

Have You Had Any Lichens Lately?

Ribes rubrum, redcurrant - Wild currants Source: Lukas Riebling, GNU, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Ribes rubrum, redcurrant - Wild currants

Source: Lukas Riebling, GNU, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Edible wild plants are simply “laying in waiting” in your environment, no matter where in the world you are -- everything you need to sustain you, in times of food emergencies is there simply for the harvesting. Far north plant foods (Arctic zone) are unique in this factor, because as you travel farther north or south on from earth’s equator -- everything changes dramatically, in terms of how the plant food chain works.

Disease transmitting insects, parasites, diseases, poisonous snakes, plants and animals decline as physical hazards such as snow and cold increase. Trees become scattered and stunted, finally giving way to tundra, grasses, and seas of ice. Obviously, food in the form of plant life grows less abundant, while at the same time -- the body’s needs in terms of nourishment increases in it’s effort to keep warm.

In an emergency situation, living off the land in these regions becomes progressively more tricky, but not impossible. In general, the plants of the arctic zone and of the sub-Arctic forests, are circumpolar in earth’s distribution -- so living off the land will basically be the same through these global areas. Furthermore, in high mountain areas below these regions, the same rules apply and the same food sources can usually be found.

Simply put, the plant food sources you can expect to find, will be much the same in Alaska, Northern Canada, Labrador, Greenland, Northern Europe, Iceland, northern China and northeastern Russia. Keep in mind that although plant food sources are available in these regions, it is not always readily available. Vegetation can be scarce and scattered, however, can be most ample along the banks of lakes and rivers. Also remember, Arctic fruits ripen only during a very short summer period.

Far North Plant Life

Like anywhere else in the world, in the summer there is not real problem finding plant food. Even in the winter berries and roots are usually available beneath the snow, if you know where to look for them.  Unlike, anywhere else in the world, Arctic and subarctic regions are uniquely "safe" in terms of the plants not likely to be poisonous. Actually, there is only one real plant that is seriously a poisonous plant in the Arctic, and that is the water hemlock.

The only other plants you need to look out for and avoid like the plague, are buttercups and Amanitas (mushrooms), as both will not necessarily kill you (with some varieties and small amounts), but will make you very sick with long lasting consequences.  While many mushrooms are edible wild food sources, they are best left for selection by the mushroom experts. Alone in the wilderness is no time for experimentation.

Deadly Amanitas

Many mushrooms are edible and a familiar food source to most humans. However, no mushrooms should be tried, unless you are sure of its identity, as some varieties are dangerously poisonous. The most widespread among the dangerously poisonous mushrooms are the Amanitas, which are somewhat easy to identify because:

  • A bag (volva) at the bottom; and
  • A white spore deposit which drops out of the gills;
  • They have a frill or ring (veil) around the upper part of the stem.
  • Don't Overlook Trees As A Food Source

    Aspen after Blizzard Source: CameraHound, GNU, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

    Aspen after Blizzard

    Source: CameraHound, GNU, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

    Have You Had Your Daily Quota of Bark or Buds?

    My Grandpere taught us early that whatever other mammals eat, is probably safe for humans to eat, at least when it came to the bark and the buds of plants. For instance, both the bark and the bud of aspen trees can be eaten raw or cooked. Now, they taste better when boiled into a jello-like gruel, but they can sustain life.

    Consider, that the buds of the following trees are edible:

    • Basswood
    • Popular
    • Maple

    Likewise, the shoots of the following trees are edible:

    • Spruce
    • Tamarack

    Then, there is the highly edible bark of the:

    • Willow
    • Alder
    • Hemlock
    • Basswood
    • Birch
    • Some pines (Scotch pine of northern Europe and Asia, also lodge-pole or shore pines of North America)

    The inner bark is edible from virtually all trees and can be eaten raw or cooked. A long time ago during famines, people even made bread from flour gotten from the bark of trees.

    The most important thing to know about eating bark is that it's the thin, green, outer bark and the white, inside bark that are edible. Stay away from bark that is brown, as it contains too much tannin. Another tip is that with pines, the park is scraped away and the inner-most bark stripped from the trunk can be eaten fresh, dried, or cooked. Most desirable bark as a food source in terms of taste is in the spring when bark is newly formed.

    Lastly, do not forget that the leaves of certain trees can be eaten when boiled, some of these are:

    • Mountain sorrel
    • Willows (young, not mature)
    • Fireweed