12

"Before eating, always take time to thank the food."
-Native American proverb

 
 

Introduction

Food is an essential part of survival and according to the Rule of Threes, a person cannot go without food for more than about three weeks and that is assuming a minimal amount of labor.  However, in a survival situation, just finding food can take major effort let alone what it takes to prepare it safely.  Animals and plants both come with their own set of complications and ultimately food production (agriculture) is the only way to ensure a steady supply of food but at least in the short term, a person must live off the land once his/her food supply is exhausted.  In this E-unit, we will take a look at some of the fundamental skills needed to identify, collect and attract potential food sources.

 

Animal vs. Vegetable

It is not uncommon these days to find several people in a typical social circle that are vegetarians. In fact, it is becoming more and more popular. This form of diet is perfectly acceptable from a nutrition point of view but there is scientific evidence supporting the fact that this type of diet does result in certain vitamin deficiencies. Conversely, a meat heavy diet also has its own set of liabilities which are just as well known.

In a survival situation, however, some important decisions need to be made about food. Most important among these decisions is a basic fact that there during certain times of the year, finding certain types of food could be very difficult due to weather, altitude, drought and even fire and all of these factors must weigh in on your decisions about what you will and will not eat.  If faced with a true survival situation, it just isn't the time to get finnicky.  In the most extreme of circumstances, some (in)famous cases like the Donner party in the Sierra Nevada mountains (1846-47) and Old Christians Club rugby team in the Andes (1972) resorted to cannibalism to survive.  Granted, such a discussion is beyond the scope of this E-unit but both true stories should give anyone taking a survival course pause to think about just what he/she might (or might not) do if faced with death due to starvation. 

 

Points to Consider

 

As a matter of fact, there are no vertebrates with poisonous flesh in North America. This of course assumes the animal is cooked first to kill any bacteria, viruses, etc. but in all truth, the flesh of any mammal, bird or freshwater fish in North America is safe to eat. Plants, on the other hand, are much more dangerous fare and multitudes of poisonous plants exist across North America. In short, eating wild plants (especially berries) is much more dangerous than eating meat without considerable expertise to know the difference between an edible plant and a poisonous one.  Look at the pictures below for example.  One is poisonous and one is delightful to eat but can you tell the difference?  At left are the berries of Hedera helix, otherwise known as the European Ivy while at right are the berries of Gaybussacia, the huckleberry. While eating wild huckleberries is quite safe and they are often used in cooking (esp. pies, ice cream, muffins, etc.) and even in traditional medicine for treating infections, eating the berries of the European Ivy would quickly lead to vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

The Black Walnut

The black walnut (Juglans nigra) is a common tree found throughout North America on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains.  Often growing to over 100', they can grow to massive sizes and can form imposing stands of trees with trunks often several feet in diameter and a crown as much as 75% of the height.  The species prefers sunny locations but can sometimes be found in deeper forests.  The hard wood of the black walnut has been highly prized for centuries by native tribes and European settlers alike and has been used for such commodities as lumber, furniture, gun stocks and fences.  In addition to the value of the tree itself, the fruit of the black walnut is highly edible and was a staple of Native American tribes.  The flesh of the nut, while very hard to get at, can be eaten whole or ground into a powder and used like flour.  Due to the typical size of mature black walnut trees, the amount of fruit that can be collected from a single tree is quite impressive making it

an easy source of nutritious food.  Especially if frozen, the meat of the nut will generally remain edible for up to two years so it is also quite easy to store for long periods of time.  The sap of the black walnut can also be collected and drunk or made into syrup that has a taste similar to maple syrup.

In spite of its extensive value, it is worth noting that the black walnut does not play well with other plants.  The species is allelopathic, meaning it secretes chemicals that limit competition by harming other plants.  While foraging, it will often be readily apparent that few plants grow beneath the shade of a walnut tree as its roots secrete chemicals directly into the soil that make it difficult for other plants to process oxygen.  Even after the death of the tree, the residual chemicals can remain in the soil for several years.  For this reason, it is unwise for gardeners to attempt to plant other crops close to these trees.

Nutritional Value

The walnuts are an excellent source of protein like most nuts and contain antioxidants that can be collected (from nut oils) and used for medicinal purposes including the treatment of bacterial infection due to the presence of high levels of tannins, a group of chemicals that help many plants ward off infection.  To a human, tannins are responsible for the bitter taste that many plants possess.  The oils also serve as an anti-inflammatory.  One ounce of these nuts typically contain about 170 calories and a variety of healthy fats and minerals.  In fact, black walnuts contain 75% higher amounts of protein than the English walnuts found in supermarkets.  When collecting, consider that the meat is approx. 25% of the total weight of the walnut with the rest being shell.  This low yield of meat to total weight is important.

Collecting the Fruit

The fruit of the black walnut is readily available in the fall months especially late September to October when the large, baseball-sized husks fall from the trees.  A word of caution though for foragers - care should be taken when collecting beneath a black walnut tree since the fruit are quite heavy and can cause injury if they strike an unsuspecting vitcim on the head.  It is not uncommon to see these fruit dent cars unfortunate enough to be parked beneath a black walnut's huge crown.

Fruit of the black walnut have three layers.  The outermost layer is a green, fleshy husk that darkens to black shortly after falling from the tree.  Care should be taken when handling these husks as they contain chemicals (called juglone) that will stain just about anything they touch.  While not dangerous or toxic, the stain is extremely effective and will not wash off any object it touches for several days or longer.  In colonial days, the husks of the black walnut were frequently boiled to release the staining chemicals to make ink, wood stain and pigment for clothing.  It is advised that foragers wear gloves to prevent staining skin and should use care with regard to touching clothing, etc. since permanent stains are likely.  Even crushing the husks under foot will cause the stains to transfer to footwear which can then be tracked on to a carpet or other stainable surface.

 

The next layer of defense the fruit has is an exceptionally hard shell (hull) with brain-like crenellations that require nothing short of a hammer or heavy rock to break through.  Note that the black walnut's shell is much harder than those found in supermarkets that will break apart with a standard nutcracker.  These nuts are from the black walnut's cousin, the English walnut (Juglans regia), a species native to Europe but not found naturally in North America.

Finally, the kernel of the fruit can be found inside the shell and is rather oily and sweet although it can taste bitter to those with sensitive palates especially if they have not been given a chance to fully dry before eating.  The kernel of the black walnut is also rather difficult to get out of the shell since there are more complex pockets of nut inside the shell compared to the English walnut.

In spite of the defenses the walnut has, there are still a few hearty insect pests that can appear when foraging.  In general, the appearance of these pests is not cause to throw the nuts away.  A forager can simply flick away any worms and eat the nut anyway.  Most insects that eat the black walnut restrict themselves to eating the husks as the inner shell is too hard to chew through but certain weevil species larvae have the capability to burrow through the shells and eat the nut meat inside.

Identification

The black walnut is one of the most common large trees found in North America and blights that have decimated species like the American Elm have made the species even more competitive in many ecosystems.  It is deciduous and contains groups of 5-25 serrated or toothed leaves attached to a single stem (above center).  The leaves are pinnate (feather-like) in shape.  In winter, the tree can be identified by the bark which is generally furrowed and dark in color (above left).  Beneath the tree, it is common to find shells or even whole walnuts.  The fruit has a large, green husk that will blacken once it falls from the tree (above right).

The Oak

 

The oak is a tree of the genus Quercus and is one of the most hearty and diverse types of hardwood trees in the northern hemisphere and North America in particular.  Having both deciduous and even a few evergreen varieties, North America possesses nearly 100 species in the United States alone with a total of 160 found in Mexico.  All oak species produce a nut called an acorn which consists of an immediately recognizable nut attached to a "cap" of varying features that are prevalent in the fall months.  These nuts are a mainstay of many woodland species of North American mammals and birds and are often hoarded before the harsh winter months.  Squirrels, mice and a variety of other rodents feed on them extensively and acorns are known to represent as much as 25% of the fall diet of whitetail deer.  Jays, pigeons, ducks, and woodpeckers are also hearty acorn eaters.

Perhaps a bit more unsightly are several larval species of moths and weevils which eat the acorn meat from the inside out after hatching from eggs laid inside the young, soft acorns in the spring.  The acorn weevil in particular is a very common acorn "pest" which can occur in large numbers in even a small batch of acorns.  Many rodents (especially squirrels) seem adept at identifying these infected acorns and will often leave them on the ground instead of collecting them.  The weevils are harmless if collected (and frankly edible by themselves) but are generally brushed aside.  Some trees can be as much as 95% infested with these weevil larvae so do not be surprised if a large amount of the acorns you find might be considered throwaways.

Nutritional Value

Contrary to popular belief, acorns are highly edible and native peoples have been eating them for thousands of years but they do require proper preparation to avoid nausea as high levels of tannins (first introduced on the black walnut page) are mildly toxic to humans and many species of livestock (see below).  They also give the acorns a very bitter taste...that is a hint that what you are eating is probably toxic.  Once prepared for eating, however, acorns are quite safe to consume and can be used in a variety of food applications.  Like most nuts, acorns are naturally high in fat, fiber, protein and several antioxidants.  Acorns are also fairly rich in vitamin B and E.  One ounce of acorns typically contains about 142 calories although the actual caloric count can vary greatly from one species to the next.  When collecting, consider that the meat is approx. 80% of the total weight of the acorn.

Collecting the Fruit

The fruit (acorn) of the oak is commonly found throughout the fall months.  As oak trees are monoecious meaning they contain both male and female flowers, pollination each year is common so, just about any tree will yield acorns in any given year.  In fact, some full grown oak species are known to shed as much as one to two tons of acorns per year so finding them is rarely a problem with October generally seeing the highest yields in the Mid-Atlantic U.S.

 

The acorn consists of a cap-like cupule which is the attachment point to the tree.  This cupule than holds a nut which consists of two cotyledons encased in a thin outer wall and seed coat.  Since the seeds are too heavy to be dispersed by the wind, the oaks depend on seed dispersal by the animals that collect and eat them 

Like many nut trees, the acorns contain high levels of tannins that are strong antifungal chemicals for the tree and protect it from disease but also interfere with the metabolism of protein in animals so those who eat them either have digestive systems that can help soften the impact of the chemicals or mix them with other food sources that buffer them from the effects.  The effects in humans and livestock tend to be more significant so raw acorns should never be consumed from any oak species.  To prepare them, the tannins can be easily leached out by soaking them repeatedly in water or even boiling them.  The most common method of leaching out the tannins is to either place them in a mesh bag and soak them in running water (like a stream) for several days or boiling them in a pot, dumping out the water once it turns a red, tea-like color (caused by the tannins) and then repeating the process until the water remains clear and a small taste of the acorn does not contain any bitterness.  The acorns should then be laid out to dry thereby minimizing the chances of mold or fungus.  This can be done artificially in an oven or naturally in the sun. 

As green acorns are not yet fully mature (ripe), it is recommended that only those that have begun to turn brown be used for consumption.  Another sign the acorns are not yet ripe is when the cupule holds tightly to the nut.  Ripe acorns will generally separate from the cap quite easily.  Once the acorns hit the ground, they are susceptible to mold and rot so any acorns found with black spots or "fuzz" (usually fungus) should not be eaten.  The meat of the nut should appear a light grey or creamy color.  The best way to assure the healthiest acorns is to actually pick them from the tree where possible.

Acorns are considered traditional food to many native cultures especially in North America due to their easy preparation and long shelf life which can extend several months if left unshelled in a dry location free of mold.  They can be eaten whole, roasted, ground into meal much the same as corn or any of other traditional techniques.

Identification

Aside from the acorns, oaks are generally identified by distinctive leaves and bark that has deep fissures and ridges which give them a scaly appearance.  Bark color can vary widely from species to species but are generally an obvious grey (light to almost black).  The leaves of oaks either have a lobed appearance or spiky, pointed ends.  Most species once full grown are quite large and can reach heights of over 75 feet.  Trees of this size have the capacity to drop well over one thousand pounds of acorns in a single season if they are healthy and have limited competition nearby.  In Pennsylvania and much of the Northeast, four species are commonly found.

The Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) typically grows 60'-75' high at maturity and prefers full sunlight so is often found alone rather in groups.  Its leaves in fall are usually a deep red color consisting of 7-9 alternating lobes about 5"-10" long with the longest lobes in the center of the leaf.  The leaves have a rather "full" appearance with wide lobes as compared to other species of oak.  They are usually bristly pointed as opposed to rounded.

 

The White Oak (Quercus alba) typically grow even larger than the red species and reach over 100' in height.  The tallest varieties are usually found in forests while shorter, rounder versions are often found if on open ground.  The white oak can also live exceptionally long with one famous tree in Maryland dated at over 450 years when it was cut down due to old age and disease in 2017.  It has a scaly, grey bark with large 5"-8" long leaves that can have a glossy green upper surface.  The lobes are often rather wide with the widest lobes towards the center but do not have the typical spiky ends of the red oak which sets them apart.  Like the red oaks, the leaves generally turn red to brown in the fall but can remain on the tree well into the winter.  The famous U.S. frigate U.S.S. Constitution, now the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world, is made of the very dense hardwood of white oaks which earned her the nickname "Old Ironsides" from the Royal Navy during the War of 1812.   

The Black Oak (Quercus velutina) is often a bit smaller than the red and white varieties at about 60'-70' tall (larger in warm climates) and are quickly identifiable by the spiky leaves with 5-7 lobes and deep U-shaped channels between each lobe.  They often grow in groves and can be found in large numbers over a small area especially on the eastern or northern side of hills in the low mountainous terrain of the Appalachians.

The Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) is a fast growing, disease resistant oak species that ranges from 55'-75" in height.  The leaves are broad with 5-7 lobes with deep, U-shaped channels most like the black oak rather than the red or white varieties.  Each lobe will in turn possess 5-7 spiny ends.  In the fall, the leaves often take on a golden to bronze color but reds are also found.  Pin oaks are actually most distinctive for their branch arrangement with the highest branches pointing up towards the sky, the middle branches pointing perpendicular to the trunk and the lowest branches actually hanging downward.  Note the acorns of the pin oak are exceptionally high in tannins and are therefore the most difficult to prepare for eating.