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Foraging for Survival

Outdoors Feature

Written by
Katherine Charters

From dehydration to stings and scratches, venturing into the wild of the Northwest involves inherent risks. Be prepared for emergency situations before entering the backcountry by knowing the natural resources available and how to properly identify them. The following foliage could possibly save your life in a sticky situation.

Oregon Grape

Identification: Oregon grape is an evergreen shrub found in forest or open areas in low to middle elevations. The shiny dark-green leaves resemble holly with five to seven spiny points. In late summer, berries appear blue with a waxy, whitish film.

Abundantly found in the Northwest, the fibrous orange-yellow root of Oregon grape has medicinal properties that can relieve suffering on the trail. Consume the root or young leaves of Oregon grape when drinking water from a questionable source without a filter. The roots contain berberine, a strong antimicrobial, which can kill bacteria like giardia or other waterborne pathogens. The berries are also edible either raw or cooked. 

Sword Fern 

Identification: An evergreen ground cover found in moist areas, sword fern has sword-shaped fronds that grow out from a central cluster. Each frond has individual leaves that are serrated and sharp. 

The itchy, burning affliction caused by stinging nettles lining the trails of the Northwest can be soothed by the equally abundant sword fern. Find a mature sword fern with powdery orange spores on the underside of the fronds and rub into the affected skin area. The dried fronds of the sword fern are also great to use for tinder in fire making.


Identification: Found in full-sun fields and along roadways, yarrow is identified by branched stems and 

spear-shaped, fernlike leaves. The flat-topped cluster of white flowers makes this herb easily identifiable year-round. 

Considered to be one of the oldest-known herbal medicines, yarrow was commonly used as an expectorant, pain reliever and fever reducer. In the backcountry, yarrow is most useful to staunch heavy bleeding when suffering from a serious wound. In addition to applying a tourniquet, create a poultice of yarrow by kneading a damp mass of leaves into a gooey ball and place on the wound. The leaves can also be used as insect repellent when rubbed into the skin.  



Benoliel, D. (2011). Northwest Foraging. Seattle, WA: Skipstone.

Mariott, M. (2010). Medicinal Plants of the North Cascades. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from Plants of the North Cascades.pdf

Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum). (n.d.). Retrieved February 9, 2016, from


DISCLAIMER: Do not use any plant based solely on the content of this article, which is for informational purposes only. Any reader who uses plants for medicinal purposes does so at their own risk.

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