In a survival situation, the most useful tool you can have is knowledge. In extreme circumstances—imagine a large natural disaster, widespread social unrest, or the doomsday scenario of your choice—knowing how to “temporarily” survive in inhospitable conditions might become a permanent task, and being able to do that could mean the difference between long-term survival and … well, the opposite of that.
In austere conditions, knowing how to safely and regularly feed yourself is key. An extra handful of calories and nutrients can be the key to making it through another day. There are plenty of edible plants all around us, no matter where you live. In this blog post, we’ll be looking at one of the most common—and probably unexpected—sources of sustenance you can find: grass.
Almost every variety of grass can be eaten. There are over four hundred different types of edible grass worldwide, with hundreds of naturally occurring varieties in the Americas alone. Grass contains magnesium, phosphorus, iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc. Here’s another surprise: it also contains protein, which is priceless in a survival situation, and plenty of sugar, also highly valuable for the energy it can provide.
The amount of protein in grass is anywhere from 16-28%, and though some of that will be locked away in tough fibrous material that humans can’t readily digest, a lot of it is bioavailable in seeds. Your best bet for getting the most out of eating grass is looking for long, fully mature grasses with fully developed seed heads.
The stalks and stems can be chewed, which will release many of the trapped nutrients, and another survival boon—water. Depending on the environmental conditions, grass can contain as much as 83% of its weight as water, most of which can be released by crushing. Though the seeds are healthy and safe to eat, you’ll generally want to chew the stems, stalks, and non-seed part of grass plants, and then spit out the tough fiber after you’ve managed to pulp it.
We chose the following four grasses based on their food value, how common they are, and how widely found they are throughout North America. Chances are you’ve seen each of these grasses hundreds of times—but just didn’t know what to look for.
1. Canada Wild Rye (elymus canadensis)
Grows along riverbanks, in prairies, in open fields, and even in dry, sandy or rocky soil over much of the United states and Canada. An important food item for the Paiute of the Southwest, it grows in clumps from three to six feet high, with green to greyish-green foliage.
The head of the stem droops from the weight of the thick spike clusters—two or three clustered spikes, with each spike (which are between four and ten inches long) having three to five flowers. The spikes have two leaves (called bracts) at either side of the base, which will be roughly equal in length, hairy, and rough-edged.
2. Cockspur Grass (echinochloa crus-galli)
Also called Barnyard Grass, occurs throughout North America except in Alaska, Northern Canada, and Newfoundland. It grows to maturity in 42 days, and each plant produces around 40,000 seeds—which makes it a great edible grass. Native Americans made extensive use of it—the Cocopa, Paiute, Tubatulabal, and Yuma ate and stored it for overwinter use.
Cockspur can grow to five feet in height, with thick stems which branch all the way up the plant, which may have a red or maroon tinge at the base, which may have short hairs. Its leaves have a distinctive white mid-vein, its flowers are knot-like, and individual stalks will terminate in a green to purple seed head from four to sixteen inches long.
3. Common Wild Oat (avena fatua)
One of the most ubiquitous weeds in North America, growing in roadside ditches (as well as uncultivated in the wild) everywhere. Its green, hollow erect stems grow anywhere from one to five feet in height, with sparse hair over most of the stalk. It has flat, dark green leaf blades that are four to eighteen inches in length, with a loose, open flower head composed of spikes if two to three flowers each.
The seed can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and stored for several years. Ground, it can be used as a flour to make bread, biscuits, or porridge, and if roasted, wild oat seeds make a reasonable coffee substitute.
4. Foxtail Barley (hordeum jubatum)
Also called Squirrel-tail Grass, it is common throughout North America, growing from eight inches to two feet in height on wet shores, the banks of rivers and streams, in old fields, along roadsides, and often in soil along saline coasts.
The grass stem terminates in a single densely packed flowering spike, with long silky growth that will wave in the slightest breeze. The flower spikes are whitish green to purplish at flowering, and more compact when seeds are in season. The seed can be eaten raw or ground into a flour—which Native North Americans used to eat raw, by the handful.
To your survival,