Survival Skills : Basics of Plant Identification

By Brandon Martin

Travel Lifestyle Prepper Survival Foraging
Survival Skills : Basics of Plant Identification
AmmoLand Gun News
AmmoLand Gun News

USA –-( The fact that I have a distinct fondness for plants isn’t surprising to most that know me or read what I write; what often goes unexplained is the why I love plants as much as I do.

The answer is simple: knowledge of plants is one of the single most useful things to know about when taking into consideration survival in an uncertain future.

What if I told you that I knew of a plant that could stop the bleeding of a wound in seconds?

(The plant is called Yarrow and within 13 seconds by my own personal testing it stopped all bleeding.)

How about a plant that if applied quickly enough after contact could stop the symptoms associated with poison ivy (Jewelweed)? What if I told you about a plant native to the Northwestern United States that lowers blood sugar (Devil’s Club)? What about one that has been clinically proven to work similar to the SSRIs (antidepressants) in use today (St. Johns Wort)?

I imagine there would be a lot of you out there thinking “hey, that’s pretty nifty.” At least that’s what I said when those very same questions were posed to me years ago. The uses of plants that are probably growing around you Spring through Fall are myriad. With the exception of Devil’s Club which only grows in the Northwestern United States the plants I alluded to above are all prolific throughout North America and Europe.

The first question anyone has when learning to identify these immensely useful plants is where to begin. My hope with this article is to give the potential forager a starting point and an understanding of the basic terminology involved in honing this skill.

With that said, I would be remiss if I also didn’t warn about the potential dangers of what you are about to embark on; let me say this on no uncertain terms: there are plants out there that will kill you and if you don’t know what you are identifying and consume them. This is not always the case, there are some poisonous plants out there that will give the mistaken forager a terrible bout of diarrhea, others that will have next to no effect whatsoever.

The way I have written this post is to mitigate any of this from happening, and start with easy to identify plants with no poisonous lookalikes.

Getting Started: As I hinted before in my previous survival skill post the initial cost of entry when learning this is minimal.

Here are the basics of what you need:

  • A good foraging guide. The options you have in this arena are vast. My suggestion would be to procure a guide that is applicable to your area (North/Southwest United States, North/Southeast United States, even climate zones). Readers in Florida, you will probably have to get a guide specific to that State because the ecosystems there can be quite different than most of the other continental United States. Whatever your choice, I highly suggest a physical book and not an e-book or a website; while it would possible to use such things I find that when I am outside I get horrible glare from the sun, the screen will get covered in gunk quick, and there were times often that I would have to avoid water to prevent damage to my devices. Not to mention in a SHTF situation you do not want to depend on electronics.
  • Ziploc bags. You’re going to need something to haul away the stuff that you find.
  • Backpack for obvious reasons.
  • A knife. I personally prefer something with a saw blade on it like the Old Timer Drop Point Lockback Knife so that I can separate a plant from its roots. A knife without a saw will work fine, just take longer.
  • Water. Which should go without saying, but there have been a few times where I have been out and either forgotten or not taken enough with me and by the end of my journey, I was absolutely miserable.
  • A weapon (some say optional…not). I don’t like being out in the woods with potentially dangerous animals and whatnot without some method of self defense, something you should consider as well.

Basic Terminology: Any guide worth its salt will go over the following terminology in greater detail, but what I describe below will suffice for a beginner:

Basal Rosette: This formation is low to the ground with leaves and/or stalks that radiate outward. Here is a picture of a dandelion which has a basal rosette shape:

Dandelion, taraxacum officinale, growing on pavement.
Dandelion, taraxacum officinale, growing on pavement.

Feather Compound Leaf: Which are leaves on each side (even with one another) and also having a terminating leaf. Staghorn Sumac has a Feather Compound leaf shape:

Staghorn Sumac aka Rhus Typhina
Staghorn Sumac aka Rhus Typhina

Palmate Compound Leaf: Leaf that has a set of leaflets radiating out from a center (similar to a basal rosette, but not on the ground) usually on a stem or vine. The toxic plant Virginia Creeper has this shape.

Early Autumn. Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper, wild vine berries.
Early Autumn. Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper, wild vine berries.

Alternate Leaves: These are leaves that alternate from side to side and are not even like compound leaves. Spicebush has an alternate leaf shape.

Northern spicebush Lindera benzoin Plant
Northern spicebush Lindera benzoin Plant

Teeth: Some leaves will have points around the leaf, called teeth. The shape of these points can vary (most are pointy there are some that are rounded).

Now I’m going to try and describe the processes that I go through to identify a new plant. Let’s say that I’m walking along the edge of a forest and I happen upon the plant pictured below. The first thing I do is look at its characteristics:

I note the oval shaped leaves and upon closer inspection I notice that the leaves have rounded teeth as pictured below:

Jewelweed Plant
Jewelweed Plant : The Jewelweed plant has been used for centuries in North America by Native Americans and Herbalists, as a natural preventative and treatment for poison ivy and poison oak.

Then I note the distinctive trumpet shaped flowers and the nodules on the stem. The more characteristics that I can gather the easier the identification process will be. With the characteristics of this plant in mind I then pull out my guide and begin skimming through the pages until I see a plant that matches all of these criteria. The plant in this case is a plant called Jewelweed that is entirely edible, great for skin conditions (used topically), and has a shimmering effect when submerged in water.

Considerations and Warnings:

  • As stated before you have to be 100% sure of your identification otherwise you could mistakenly consume a poisonous plant that will kill you. The worst part that is that it may not even be instant. Some Amanita mushrooms take 3 weeks to shut down your liver causing death. This is going to scare a few of you away, but don’t let it. As long as you have your guide and the plant has met all the identifying characteristics you should be fine. But, if you’re still unsure snap a picture or collect a bit and cross-reference it with a few sources once you get home.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t get this right away. Plant identification can have a somewhat steep learning curve and when I was starting out I almost threw in the towel a couple of times. I’m still seeing new things each and every time I go out. Take your time and start out with some easy stuff to acclimate yourself to plant identification. Try to pick something basic that you already know like Dandelion or Clovers and look at how your guide notes the characteristics of said plant.
  • Two heads are better than one. Grab a friend so that they can help you out. They can grab the book while you look closer at the leaves. They may also spot something you missed.
  • Know the pest/poisonous plants in your area. It’s best to learn to identify and stay away from poison ivy, poison oak, hogweed, virginia creeper as soon as possible. If you’re feeling brave you can Google Phytophotodermatitis which is basically a plant defense that hinders skin’s ability to protect itself from the sun and it’s what some of these plants cause.
  • Know the rule of 10%. Whenever I go out I only try to either take what I need or no more than 10% of what I see. I do this to ensure that I don’t damage the plant to the point that it completely dies. This is especially important for use with native plants that are already under intense competition from other plants encroaching on their habitat.
  • Don’t believe everything you read. I’ve been to numerous sites claiming that certain plants have the ability to do everything from cure cancer to give someone super powers. I suggest that someone interested in this do their own research and make their own conclusions as I have.

This post doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is out there. Depending on the success of this post I will post subsequent follow-ups on important plants that would be immensely beneficial in a survival situation. Let me know in the comments if you want to hear more.

If you are interested in seeing more of my plant identification exploits you can find them here (although I should warn you that I’m not the world’s best photographer):

About Brandon Martin

Brandon Martin has been a follower of all things collapse related for well over a decade, an avid firearms enthusiast, a husband, a father of four, and Brandon can often be found in the warmer months in parks learning to identify wild edible and medicinal plants growing around him. Twitter: @BrandoTheNinja

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Herbology has always been an interest to me. Thank you for this info. Maybe we can swap info to talk or email more on some plants in random areas. Glad someone can make a great article to tell others that nature can do it all!


Great article. I am super I terested and have been for a long time but I didn’t know where to start. Any more info on the topic especially the one about plants that would be extremely helpful in a survival situation would be much appreciated.

Alex Bennett

Brandon Martin

Well the first thing you’re going to want to do is to get yourself a good guide. Ideally there would be a section in the preface where they will describe terminology that they use (basal rosette, compound, etc) in the description of plants. Then go outside and start with something you already know (like dandelion, clovers, wood sorrel) see how your guide describes it. Once you get a handle on that you go out for a hike and just look at random plants and see if the guide has anything on them. Instead of something learned all at once think… Read more »

gerald brennan

Very well-done, Brandon, thanks.

Wild Bill

Oh my, I thought that it was about the Democrats in Congress!

Brandon Martin

Thank you, I appreciate it. I’m always nervous that this kind of thing isn’t going to be well received. Glad to be wrong.

Rodney C Kuenzer

Where do I get this book.?

Brandon Martin

You can just type in plant identification guide in amazon or wherever and look for one the covers plants for your area.