Spending time in the Adirondack backcountry requires an entire menagerie of skills, including navigation, endurance and tolerance for being the object of affection for hordes of bloodthirsty flies. Often overlooked are those skills necessary to survive in the wilderness for an extended period without all the convenient gear and compact foods typically carried by most backcountry enthusiasts.
These skills include, but are certainly not limited to, building a shelter, starting a fire and finding something to eat. Although these skills are useful when impressing members of the opposite sex far from civilization, these skills just might mean the difference between life and death when forced to spend a few unexpected days in the remote backcountry.
One important survival skill is locating edible wild foods in the backcountry. Whether lost and in dire need of sustenance or just curious about sampling the local cuisine, knowing what to eat, when and how is crucial to avoid a mouthful of something disgusting, or worse. Although the dense Adirondack forest may appear devoid of anything remotely resembling nourishment, the backcountry is full of nourishing, if not delicious foods, with only the knowledge of where to look for them lacking.
Welcome to the edible Adirondacks. Pull up a seat and slap on a bib, it is time to eat.
Wild foods come in many forms, with the principle ones being animal and plant-based. Like anything else, there are rules and regulations governing the harvesting of any wild edibles on public lands in New York State. Most people are familiar with laws concerning the hunting and trapping seasons of different mammals and game birds, but those governing the foraging of wild edible plants are less widely known.
According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, plants may be foraged for human consumption as long as they are not rare, endangered or threatened species protected by law or other regulations. There are no restrictions regarding the roots or other parts that may result in destruction of the plant, but such harvesting should be kept to a minimum when possible. In addition, refrain from harvesting in a single area to avoid jeopardizing the entire local population. Stick to personal foraging only; forget any plans of setting up a booth along a hiking trail and charging hikers for quarts of blackberries or blueberries.
The animal-based foods range from the obvious mammals (e.g. white-tailed deer, varying hare and beaver) to the less obvious, such as invertebrates (e.g. insects, grubs and worms). Although it probably goes without saying, the larger the animal, the more effort and skill involved to get it into your mouth and down your throat. Unless carrying a firearm or highly skilled in snare and trap design, have the proper licenses and in the appropriate hunting season, it is it is probably best to stick with the invertebrates, which only requires plucking from surrounding vegetation, ripping apart a log or digging within the forest floor. Just be sure such insects or other invertebrates are not rare, endangered, threatened or otherwise protected by law.
Although meat-loving carnivores would suggest eating animal flesh is the way to go, there are advantages to sticking with a vegetarian diet when in a survival situation. A plant-based diet requires no specialized knowledge and takes less time to gather, plus it does not run away and it cannot fight back. It is always possible to supplement the diet with the occasional worm, grub or insect as the opportunity presents itself. That is, if you can stomach it.
But what plants are edible in the Adirondacks anyways? The lack of knowledge in this area appears to be widespread, even among many outdoorsy people. Although ashamed to admit it, even my knowledge in this area is rather limited.
One should take great care when sampling wild edible plants, regardless of whether it is due to curiosity or some crisis. Never eat anything without being absolutely positive of its identity; poisonous plants do exist in the Adirondacks, and it goes without saying that these should be avoided.
Herbaceous plants are the proverbial low-hanging fruit of the edible wild plant world. They are easy to gather, often abundant and many can be eaten raw. Several species are very common in the Adirondacks, where others should only be eaten in an emergency or where found in large numbers. Many are only edible in their earlier stages of life, when still fresh and devoid of fowl-tasting compounds.
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) are all common plants within the Adirondack floral community. Each produce edible fruits, with the sweet taste of wild strawberries being the best and the insipid-tasting bunchberry the least desirable. What is less known is, the dried strawberry leaves produce a tea high in vitamin C, while the wintergreen’s leaves also make an excellent tea, and when young can be eaten raw.
Some of the most common but often overlooked wild flowers are quite edible. Trout-lily (Erythronium americanum), blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis), Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana), Solomon’s seal(Polygonatum biflorum), False Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) and even trillium (Trillium spp.) are partially edible. The young leaves or shoots of these species are edible, although some like the trout-lily may need to be boiled first. The young leaves of trillium are said to taste like raw sunflower seeds – what a treat!
The roots of many of these plants are also edible. The best in the bunch is the Indian cucumber-root, which is easily discerned from its deliciously sounding name. I can personally vouch for this, as I devoured more than a few during my time in the Adirondacks. Only partake of these roots where the plants are common though, as a ravenous group of backcountry explorers could easily devour them into local extirpation.
Shrubs offer a rich variety of edible fruits in the Adirondacks. Everyone spending even a little time in the backcountry is familiar with the fruits of brambles (Rubus spp.) (i.e. raspberry and blackberry) and blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), but do not overlook other fruits, such as those of serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), gooseberry (Ribies spp.) and hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). Just avoid being caught foraging in a bear’s favorite patch, as they jealously covet these delectable fruits.
If hallucinogens are your cup-of-tea, try steeping the leaves of Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum) for 5-10 minutes. Supposedly, the leaves make an agreeable tea, which some say is mildly hallucinogenic, although this may be more wishful thinking than anything else. Beware though, some sources suggest the tea can be cathartic in large quantities. I shudder at the thought of it being both hallucinogenic AND cathartic at the same time.
Trees offer a lot of opportunity for providing foodstuffs in an emergency too. Although not particularly tasty, the fruits of black cherry (Prunus serotina) and American mountain-ash (Pyrus americana) are edible in a pinch, and the roasted beechnuts from the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) are reportedly divine. Unfortunately, you will have wait until later in the season, or you will be out of luck.
Not wanting to be left out, many coniferous species offer some nutritional value as emergency foods in the backcountry. The inner bark of balsam fir (Abies balsamea), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), tamarack (Larix laricina) and the spruces (Picea spp.) can be dried and crushed to produce nutritious flour. Reports indicate the taste is quite unattractive, but if hungry enough, it becomes much more palatable.
The eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and white pine needles make a pleasant tea, rich in vitamins A and C. Typically, the younger needles make the best teas, but even the older ones will do. Note that the eastern hemlock is NOT the same plant used to poison Socrates; that was poison hemlock, or its relative. I promise my advocating this tea is not some ploy for revenge for all the uncomplimentary comments on my previous posts.
In addition, the tender new shoots of tamarack and spruce can be boiled and eaten, as can the male cones of the pine. Probably the most important emergency food from coniferous trees remains the pitch of the balsam fir. Although foul tasting, fir pitch is a highly concentrated food, and should be utilized in an emergency. Or if you enjoy foul-tasting but nutritious foods.
This is not a comprehensive list of edible plants within the Adirondacks by any means. It merely represents some of the more common species found throughout the area. Anyone interested in identifying edible plants, or in ways to prepare them should consult the following two excellent sources: A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America by Lee Allen Peterson and Feasting Free on Wild Edibles by Bradford Angier. There probably others but these are two within my own library.
Whether lost and in dire need of nutrition, or just curious of what the Adirondack backcountry has to offer, wild edibles, particularly plant-based ones, provide a diversity of foods that could put some grocery stores to shame. Before your next foray into the backcountry, take some time to research the available wild edibles just in case the knowledge ever comes in handy.
Photos: A wooded garden in the Five Ponds Wilderness, bunchberries and trillium by Dan Crane.