A well-prepared apocalypse survivor should be thoroughly educated and experienced in herbalism. The healing properties of plants are not only myriad and potentially strong, but they also may be the only form of medicine available once every pharmacy and medicine cabinet has been looted (by violent gangs of thugs who stockpile all drugs in a region and trade them at ruthlessly high rates to those who are unfortunate enough to fall ill after the bombs have fallen).
Ingesting some herbs can be just as dangerous as thugs, however, so the Survivor should be careful. Plants can have multiple, sometimes conflicting, properties when used or prepared in different ways.
For example, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) purportedly has dozens of effects on people: It has historically been used in a poultice to staunch the flow of blood from wounds (the scientific name Achillea is derived from mythical Achilles, who supposedly carried the plant with him for his soldiers’ wounds (1)), but it can also stimulate circulation and encourage bleeding if ingested. Those are opposite effects, so the Survivor should make sure not to have anything backwards!
Another example: Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), although also very useful as a poultice for flesh wounds and as replacement for toilet paper, has been known to cause kidney or liver failure when ingested (2).
The Survivor should therefore be sure to have positively identified a plant and try it first in small, diluted quantities. Reading as much about these plants as possible before the apocalypse, especially sources by true experts who have personally foraged more than I, would be extremely beneficial.
The landscape in which the future apocalypse survivor will struggle will most likely be similar to the one in which he or she now lives (albeit looted, deserted, partially destroyed and/or infested with disease, radiation or zombies, of course).Nevertheless, the remains of our suburban sprawls, urban jungles, and semi-rural farmland will still be enticingly full of hidden resources, and survivors will gravitate towards them.
Even after all of the food pantries, garages and tool sheds have been looted and emptied by competing survivors, there will still be valuable resources hidden in these human environments. In fact, even now, you are surrounded by a versatile and almost universally helpful plant every time you step in most backyards or parks!
Plaintain (Plantago major being the most common species) is considered a weed, but is edible and packed with medicinal qualities. Extremely ubiquitous, plantains are common in most parts of the United States and Europe. Seriously: just look in the grass at the park or the lines of green in the cracks of the sidewalk, and you’ll see plantains. I always think it is exciting (and will be so much more so for the Survivor) to realize that I am walking through a field of food.
I would only eat the plant (either raw in a salad or cooked) when it is very young and tender–once it gets tough and rigid, it’s much less tasty. Actually, if you’re looking for the tastiest plant, plantain really isn’t the best choice–Samuel Thayer, author of Nature’s Garden, bemoans the fact that so many foragers talk about plantain when there are so many better options out there. But it is everywhere!
Arrowhead is also sometimes called Indian potato or duck potato because the starchy tuber at the end of its rhizomes (a rhizome is essentially an underground stem) is edible and filling. Native Americans ate it often, and Lewis and Clark equated it to the potato and claimed it fit for trading. If it was good enough for them, it will be good enough for the survivor of the apocalypse to learn to identify and harvest.
The tubers can be baked in the edges of the fire desperately scrapped together by the cold and hungry Survivor, or they can be boiled if the Survivor has a vessel. The tubers can be dried and kept after roasting, making them a valuable long-term food source.
Arrowhead can be found in marsh-like settings, usually places with more permanent marsh conditions (rather than floodplains), although they are found in many parts of the Mississippi River basin.
To harvest them, the Survivor must dig around in the “muck” of the swamp bottom (with your hands or feet) and “hope to see the duck potatoes float to the surface,” according to survivalist Hank Shaw. Check out his blog for a recipe to use them (quickly, before your conventional kitchen is disintegrated in a nuclear explosion).
Identification: Grows in swampy ground or standing water. Leaves are 5-50 cm and are in the shape of an arrowhead. Small flowers with 3 white petals cluster the upper stem, usually 3 per bunch. More on this plant from the USDA.
I did not do justice on Black Chokeberry in my last post about it. This morning I biked to a strip of Aronia melanocarpa that my friend had discovered, and we discussed all the reasons that it is a fantastic resource to know for surviving an urban apocalypse while we loaded up bags and bags of plump berries.
The berries of Aronia (that’s what grocers and co-ops have started calling the berry, rather than “chokeberry” in an effort to brand it as actually edible and healthy) are bitter but certainly not toxic.
Birds generally don’t like them because of their astringency, and humans tend to avoid them for fear of them being poisonous (and out of general naivete). This means that if you find or plant an Aronia bush, it will most likely remain untouched by competitors!
Black chokeberries are a commonly used decorative plant as well. The strip I encountered was within a heavily landscaped urban plaza, along a bike path near high rise apartments. They grow easily (and can spread through suckers if uncontrolled), so finding them within the city is not too challenging. Being able to identify this plant will thus give you an edge over other survivors in the apocalypse!
The fruit is ready to be harvested in late summer or early fall–the ones I picked this morning were not fully ripened (good for making jam), but will be by September. The berries are full of antioxidants (in fact more-so than almost any other plant) and help prevent conditions like cancer and heart disease. As I’ve pointed out here before, nobody wants to make it through the apocalypse only to die of something like cancer or liver failure.
Harvesting the berries is pleasantly easy, and almost addicting. The berries hang lower than most of the leaves and disconnect from their stems freely. My friend and I picked for about an hour and collected over 25 lbs. They can be eaten raw, canned, cooked in pies, made into juice or all sorts of other things.
Identifying chokeberries can be tricky, as they look similar to chokecherries, buckthorn and other shrubs—although chokecherries are also edible. The leaves are glabrous (hairless), darker on top than underneath. The buds on the branches are red, and the branches themselves are brownish/reddish and have lots of lenticels (lenticels are the things that look like this). You can distinguish chokeberries from chokecherries by the fact that the berries have many seeds while cherries have a singular pit.
I developed a new appreciation for Aronia melanocarpa today. Harvesting them was so gosh darn easy, and the buckwheat aronia waffles I made for lunch were delicious. This one will be good to know for when the bomb hits.
Plants that will be useful in the future are generally plants that have a knack to spread and survive. We often classify many of these types of aggressive, sturdy plants as weeds. (Perhaps after the apocalypse, we will call them valuable resources or gems).
White and Yellow Sweet Clover are examples of plants classified as “noxious weeds” by the MN DNR but which are actually both edible and medicinally useful. The seed pods can be cooked in a stew (as if they were beans), and are high in protein. The leaves are edible, and the flowers taste something like vanilla. Many parts of the plant are used as flavoring or seasoning in various recipes.
Like many edible plants, the survivor will want to harvest them fresh and young. Sweet clover contains coumarin (along with other plants like mullein), which adds effects to leaves when they are dried. Coumarin has an anti-clotting effect on one’s blood, but it can also be toxic. Consume carefully and in much moderation.
While flowering, the plant can be used to soothe and soften skin conditions and external ulcers, so the survivor should add it to his or her list of wound-alleviating ointments like plantain.
Where to Find and How to Identify
Sweet clover is valuable to the survivor in part because it is so common. It grows in disturbed areas and along edges, often lining roadways, ditches and abandoned fields. Which is essentially the landscape of the post-apocalyptic future.
Sweet clover is a biennial plant, flowering in the second year. When flowering, they grow erect, 3-5 feet tall. Leaves are small, split into three leaflets with sharp teeth, and the flowers line the top of the stem. The flowers have a strong aroma.
Hops! These will be just as awesome in the post-apocalyptic future as they are now. Hops are both edible and medicinal. A dye can also be made from the female fruit, and the leaves can be made into a hemp-like fiber. Can also be planted simply as a decorative shrub. The young leaves and shoots of the hop plant can be eaten, and tea made from the leaves and fruits of hops is said to have positive effects on the digestive system and help alleviate insomnia.
The calming effect of hops may provide a well-deserved reprieve from the stress and anxiety of being one of the last humans alive on the planet.
Hops are also one of the main ingredients required to brew many types of beer, one of pre-apocalyptic civilization’s finest inventions. This plant should be protected and propagated if any future civilization of humans values happiness and contentedness. I would argue that propagating hops in the future would be more important than at least 75% of other edible plants. I mean, have you ever had a Surly Furious?
Important Notes on Keeping Happiness Alive:
Hops are perennial herbaceous climbing plants. Leaves have three lobes with serrated edges and alternate veins. The fruit is about 1/2 -1 inch long, cone-shaped and green, flowering from July to August. Found near water bodies, in river beds, ditches, canals, runoff areas, and other wet or disturbed areas. They like full to partial sun. Can grow in sandy, loamy, or clay soils as well as a range of pH’s. Prefers moist soil but can grow in drier environments. Can tolerate flooding.
Plant seeds in early spring in a cold frame, move to pots in late spring, then plant in summer.
Jewelweed will be useful to the reader if he or she has previously encountered Poison Ivy or Stinging Nettle, also to be featured later on this blog. The sap of Jewelweed can soothe the irritation caused to the skin by touching these plants. The sap can also ease the suffering caused by bug bites or Athlete’s Foot.
As a side note, and perhaps even more importantly, the Jewelweed is also sometimes commonly called “touch-me-not” because the flowers can eject their seedpods somewhat enthusiastically when disturbed. This mechanism can be quite entertaining for children, and may also provide a depressingly brief yet rare moment of glee for the survivor whose life has become a nightmarish torrent of fear, anxiety and hopelessness.
ID and Other Notes:
2-5 foot tall annual herbacious plant. The stems are somewhat translucent and fragile. Leaves are serrated, hairless, ovate, and smooth. Orange jewelweed has a bright orange flower, usually clustered in groups of 2 or 3 off the upper leaves. They have 5 petals forming upper and lower ‘lips’.
Found in openings in moist woodlands, floodplains, or at the edges of paths, ditches, or swamps. Prefers partial shade/sun and fertile soil full of organic materials. Prefers wet or moist conditions; can tolerate flooding. The orange flowers can glitter in sunlight and have positive aesthetic effects. Can be planted by cuttings or by seed.