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Useful Plants in the Backcountry: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Guest post by: A fellow hiker, Henry
When we go hiking, we mainly think of the plants we see by the side of the trail as part of the scenery,
but many of them can also keep us fed, healthy and warm, while others are best avoided. Here’s a quick
introduction to some plants in each group. This post focuses on plants found in the western USA, but
many of these plants can be found in other locations as well. If you’ve got knowledge about the useful
plants of another region, feel free to share that knowledge in the comment section below.
The Good Plants to Identify:
Wood sorrel (genus Oxalis)
This widespread plant can be identified by its edible heart-shaped leaves, which taste like sour candy. You generally have to chew the leaf for a couple seconds before the taste becomes noticeable. Wood sorrel contains oxalic acid, and thus should not be eaten by people with certain kidney conditions. However, many vegetables found in supermarkets, like spinach and broccoli, contain as much of this substance as wood sorrel does.
Plantain (genus Plantago)
Not to be confused with the bananalike fruit, this genus of herbs is found worldwide and is very common on hiking trails and in campgrounds. Its oval-shaped leaves, identifiable by veins that run the length of the leaf, can be pressed onto insect bites to reduce inflammation. (Another good way to deal with mosquito bites is to slap them, which reduces itching without tearing up the skin the way scratching does.)
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
You might wonder what nettles are doing in the “good” section of this guide. While it’s true that some subspecies can give a mild sting, others are stingless and can be used to make tea and a variety of foods. Even the stinging varieties can be rendered harmless by soaking them in water for 10 minutes, or by cooking them. (Warning: this does not work on poison ivy. Yes, people have tried.) It’s best to harvest nettles early in the spring, before their flowers have begun to bloom.
Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
Both of these plants are found in the Pacific Northwest and are distinguished by their waxy leaves and dark blue, edible berries. However, salal leaves (top) are rounded while Oregon-grape leaves (bottom) are spiny. Also, salal berries are extremely sweet whereas Oregon grapes are more tart, and many foragers prefer to combine the two for a balanced flavor. Holly, a poisonous invasive, has spiny leaves similar to Oregon grape, but its bright red berries are easy to tell from blue Oregon grapes.
Old man’s beard (genus Usnea)
It’s easy to tell where this widespread lichen got its name – it really does look like someone’s long, fluffy white beard! When dry, it has a rough texture and makes good kindling, if you’re camped in an area that allows campfires and gathering firewood. Get it wet, however, and its texture becomes soft and absorbent, making it an excellent substitute for toilet paper when a restroom is not available. It can be buried in the woods, which is much more pleasant than carrying out used paper.
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)
These related plants from the Pacific Northwest both have reddish compound berries (shaped like a blackberry or raspberry) that are delicious. There is a joking “rivalry” between fans of these two plants – salmonberry fans say thimbleberries are too bland, thimbleberry fans say salmonberries are too sour. I love ‘em both. While salmonberry leaves (top) are spiny, thimbleberry leaves (bottom) are very soft, and can be rolled into little conical cups in which to carry the berries. Thimbleberry leaves are also useful for the same hygienic purpose as old man’s beard, and can be used to blow your nose if you haven’t mastered doing that without tissues.
The Bad Plants to Identify:
The most infamous “bad” plant is poison ivy. Identifying poison ivy (and similar plants like poison oak and sumac) is tricky enough to deserve its own blog post, which I might write someday. In the meantime, here are some lesser-known plants to be careful of while in the wilderness.
Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus)
This plant resembles thimbleberry and is found in many of the same areas, but while thimbleberry leaves are soft, the leaves and stems of devil’s club are covered in fine yet very sharp yellow spines. Check thimbleberry leaves carefully for these spines before using them on your nose or elsewhere – a friend of mine once neglected to do this and I don’t envy her experience. Though this plant can cause pain to hikers, an extract of its bark has long been used as a painkiller. Its Latin name, which means “hurting-healing”, emphasizes this duality.
Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum)
This very large plant, found throughout North America, isn’t immediately painful like nettle or devil’s club. However, its soft leaves secrete an oil that greatly increases the skin’s sensitivity to light, which can lead to extraordinarily bad sunburns. If you think you have been exposed to cow parsnip, keep the affected area out of the sun (or slather it with sunscreen if that’s not possible) and wash it off as soon as possible. Ordinary soap and water seem to work better on cow parsnip than they do on poison ivy and related plants.
Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
The snowberry is the only plant native to the Pacific Northwest with poisonous berries. However, its distinctive white berries are very different from the area’s edible berries, all of which are red, blue or purple. (Holly, which is not native to the Pacific Northwest, is also poisonous. Its red berries are smooth, whereas edible red berries like salmonberry and raspberry are compound.) Snowberries are only mildly poisonous – eating a few will probably only result in an upset stomach, or vomiting at worst – but still not a recommended meal option.
Camas (Camassia quamash) and death camas (tribe Melanthiae)
Camas (top), a potatolike bulb vegetable, was the staple food of many Pacific Northwest Indians, but its bulbs look very similar to those of the death camas (bottom), which as its name suggests is deadly poisonous. The purple flowers of camas can easily be distinguished from the white ones of death camas, but the camas bulb is ripe in summer, when neither group of plants is in flower! The Indians who ate this plant kept it under cultivation, in patches where they knew there was no death camas, but the casual forager would do best to not dig up and eat any random bulbs in the forest.
The Ugly Plants to Identify:
MAN ROOT! (Marah oreganus) (exclamation point is mandatory)
There is not much practical reason for including this plant in my blog post. It is not edible, but based on its appearance it’s unlikely that anyone would try to eat it. Its common name comes from its root (not pictured), which is shaped like a person. Its fruit (pictured) can allegedly be used as a loofah if you remove the spikes, but I included it less because of that and more because it’s weird-looking and has a silly name and is generally wonderful.
Have you seen any of these plants on your hikes? Let us know in the comments below!
For more hiking tips, check out:
- 35 Backpacking tips and tricks
- 14 Things to do while camping alone
- How to make more time for hiking
- What to include in your hiking itinerary