When it comes to survival, everything is about necessities. One of the most important necessities is food. You can go a long time before you starve, but diminishing energy levels will seriously hamper your efforts to survive. Accordingly, making use of wild-caught and foraged food is high on the priority list for preppers.
There’s lots to eat out in the world, and much of it is plentiful if you know what’s safe and what’s not. One of the most common kinds of plant life out there is moss. But is moss edible or poisonous?
Moss, as a rule, is edible though there are a few toxic varieties out there. And while moss is very plentiful, it offers very little in the way of calories or other nutrients. In all cases, it’s best to properly cook it to minimize the chances of food poisoning or digestive trouble.
Moss is one of those things that probably isn’t your first choice out in the wild, and even if it is you should look for something better. It doesn’t have much for you in terms of nutrients that your body has to have for optimum function and calories for energy.
That said, you can definitely use moss to get a little bit in the way of food, or to bulk up other items that you might have. There’s a whole lot more you’ll want to know before you start harvesting, and I’ll tell you about it below…
The good news, as far as survival food is concerned, is it the vast majority of mosses you’ll find around the United States and indeed much of the world are edible.
This is to say they aren’t overtly toxic or poisonous, and you shouldn’t expect terrible outcomes from eating them as long as you prepare them correctly.
Considering how plentiful most varieties of moss are in different biomes, this is something of a comfort because you’ll be able to find at least something to eat if you know where to look and how to harvest it. Definitely good news in a survival situation.
Even better news is that there is a precedent for people eating moss, and there has been for a very long time. A few types of moss have actually been important cultural foods, survival staples, or emergency rations in the United States and elsewhere in the world for centuries.
I’m not saying they are particularly good- they aren’t- but it’s nice to know that you won’t be blazing a trail when it comes to eating moss!
But it’s not all good news concerning moss as survival food. Moss, whatever kind it is, has only very little to offer you in terms of nutrients, both macronutrients like protein, fat, and carbohydrates and also micronutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals.
Basically, you’ll have to eat a ton of the stuff if you want to have a meaningful meal or even get a proper fraction of your daily requirements.
It’s a lot more likely that you’ll use moss as a sort of “filler food” to bulk up your diet a little bit and perhaps make the most of other foraged or hunted foods that you’ve managed to lay your hands on.
That is in fact how moss has most often been used for food historically: added to dough and porridge, used as a thickener for soups, etc.
Plus, even if you are gathering a type of moss that’s particularly abundant like Spanish moss, you aren’t necessarily best served by eating a ton of it…
Many types of moss are either intensely acidic or have other compounds that can cause stomach problems and other digestive distress if you overeat.
In short, moss can’t be a primary food item even if you’re desperate.
Now, most kinds of moss are safe to eat, or at least not particularly harmful, but there are a couple types out there which can really mess you up.
Some of them contain dangerous toxins that they use as protection against predators that would eat them, and others are known to be incidentally dangerous to humans because of high amounts of certain harmful compounds.
We’ll talk a little bit more about these in detail later, but for now, all you need to know is that you must treat moss like you would any other edible, foraged plant: it’s critical that you know exactly what you are dealing with.
Playing the odds might make a bad situation even worse if you’re in a survival situation, and it’s not out of the question you could wind up dead.
If you’re really in a jam, remember to perform the universal field edibility test before you dig in. It could save your life!
Something else you should keep in mind while you’re on the subject of moss is that many kinds of lichen are edible too.
Though often confused, lichens are completely distinct, taxonomically, from moss, but the two are often found growing in the same environments or even right alongside each other.
Lichens are different from moss because they are basically colonies of symbiotic organisms, typically fungi and certain kinds of bacteria or algae. One provides shelter for the other, and the two can even trade types of food for the mutual benefit of both. They really are fascinating!
I don’t bring this up to derail our important conversation about moss, proper, but to make you aware of what resources you’re likely to find while looking for moss. And there’s another very important reason why that we’ll talk about in the next section…
To make this subject even more confusing than it has to be, you should know that there are many kinds of lichen that are called mosses, and I don’t mean colloquially by folks who don’t know better. “Moss” is actually in the common name of these organisms!
That’s right: this can make tracking down and categorizing actual mosses confusing if you don’t have a guidebook or expert help.
But I want to clear this up: it doesn’t matter what the vegetation is called so long as you know exactly what it is and whether or not it is safe. You don’t need to dig into the taxonomy and differences of moss and lichens to make use of either.
Yes, you can, but there are some risk factors. Namely, raw moss is a lot more likely to harbor germs that can make you sick. Cooking your food, as always, eliminates or reduces these germs and makes it safer to eat.
That said, if you don’t have the resources or don’t have the time, or you just desperately need something to fill your stomach with, you can eat most varieties of safe moss without too much worry.
Often, yes, but there are still more trade-offs to consider. Cooking moss will kill any germs, parasites, and other nasty things that you don’t want to eat, but it will also significantly reduce the already meager nutrition that moss has to offer you. Specifically, it’ll lose out on vitamins and minerals which it can’t afford to give up.
That said, if your food situation isn’t in total crisis, you have the resources to cook, and the time to do it, I recommend that you at least cook it gently to improve its safety.
Moss does not taste very good. At its absolute best, it tastes very grassy, vegetative, and often earthy. And at its worst, it has a slimy and ashy taste that is downright repulsive, and it takes a whole lot of seasoning and expert preparation to make it even passingly palatable.
Doesn’t mean you can’t eat it safely, but it does mean you are unlikely to enjoy the experience!
The best way to prepare any moss for consumption without completely spoiling its nutritional content is to soak it in fresh, clean water.
Soaking it for just 10 minutes before shaking it off and giving it one final rinse can remove most of the contaminants that are on the outside and significantly increase safety.
And finally, we get to a list of known edible and nominally nutritious moss varieties that you should always be on the lookout for.
Willa has a place of honor on our list of edible masses both because it is a lichen, not a moss, and because it has a long history of being eaten in the United States.
Used as a staple and local delicacy, and also harvested en masse during times of food shortage, it looks like long, stringy tumbleweeds and is often found growing high up in dead trees.
Another noteworthy “moss,” and another lichen in reality. Often grows in northern latitudes where it is extremely cold. Named both because of its appearance (which is similar to caribou antlers) and also because it is an important food for them when they are migrating.
This one is still eaten today in various Scandinavian countries. It’s intensely astringent and acidic and should be prepared properly prior to eating to avoid major stomach trouble.
You guessed it. Oakmoss isn’t really a moss. It’s a lichen. This is another one that grows in colder regions and is commonly found on evergreen plants. Easily spotted by its light gray or mint green color and tangled growth habit.
Yes, Iceland moss is actually… a lichen. Ha, got ya! But jokes aside, it is one lichen that looks very much like its namesake because it has a low-growing, spreading, and almost furry appearance. Look for it on rocks and fallen trunks.
Sometimes called “old man’s beard,” this is neither a moss nor a lichen but is instead a type of flowering plant that is invasive but naturalized to the United States.
It’s a very common sight in the Deep South and Tidewater region of the US. Only very small, choice bits of the plant are safely edible and palatable, but it’s possible to boil it and mix in sugar or other ingredients to make a type of tea or syrup that has some calories and nutrients.
This lichen is native to many parts of Asia, and has a distinguished culinary history as an ingredient in various spice mixes for Indian cuisine, and others. It is easily recognized by its fern-like growth habit, and striking pale green-gray to black “leaf” coloration.
Before we get to the list of edible mosses that you should keep your eye out for, we need to talk about two really nasty ones that you must avoid at all costs. Truly poisonous mosses are rare, but they do exist!
This uncommon moss is actually a lichen, and one that is easily identifiable when it is found growing on birch trees throughout Europe and much of the United States and Canada.
It has a distinct and sunny but vaguely ominous yellow color which is an obvious warning sign, and the reason for its name.
It has a particular toxin that can cause severe abdominal pain and eventually damage and failure in the liver if you eat it. Learn what it looks like and avoid it, and be very cautious when collecting moss from birch trees!
Another notorious “moss,” and obviously from the name a lichen, this stuff is found all over the Western half of North America and some parts of Europe. It has a ragged, almost ruffled appearance and resembles a shrub that has had all of its leaves and greenery knocked off.
Historically, it has been employed as a poison against dogs and wolves, hence the name. This is due to high concentrations of vulpinic acid which is quite toxic to mammals. Learn to recognize it by sight and steer clear!
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