Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book review: In case of survival food, do not consult the US Army

I recently picked up a book from the library called The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants by the Department of the Army.  Yes, that Army, the US Army and Pentagon are listed on the back page.  This is a 'no-nonsense survival aid, {...} an essential guide for serious adventurers and the armchair botanist alike."  I thought I would get some interesting information about locally edible and poisonous plants, but the book provided something else, a serious scare. 

First, the book covers the tropics, subtropics, and temperate zones, but covers very few edible plants from each region.  That is OK, even if not great.  In the beginning of the book it is stated that you should never eat any plants you can't securely identify to the correct species.  Well, well - I would like to see the person that can identify any plant to the correct species based on the photos and descriptions in this book.  I can't even see some of the plants in some of the photos. Many of photos are grainy, too dark, and over-tinted in green. And when they couldn't find good photos they resorted to stick figures of the plants, also badly pixelated.

The photos of sorghum grains, the only photo used to illustrate this plant, looks like a large bunch of small cockroaches on a tabletop. The description of sorghum, which supposedly is there to help you identify the plant, follows: "There are many different kinds of sorghum, all of which bear grains in heads at the top of the plants.  The grains are brown, white, red, or black.  Sorghum is the main food crop in many parts of the world."  Would you be comfortable with identify a wild plant as sorghum after reading this?  I mean, the only real description here is that the seed color can vary and that the seeds are in heads on the top of the plant.  It doesn't even say it is a grass! Plant families are only listed for poisonous plants, I wonder why?  If you get sick, only then you need to know the family?

The mixture of tropical with temperate plants provides some interesting contrasts.  Sago palm (with a horrible photo), and sassafras (with a great photo, from the season when the plants have leaves) share one page. Same with prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) and pokeweed (Phytolacca, a plant which actually is very poisonous if raw or taller than 25 cm.)

Some information is dangerously wrong.  The fish tail palm, which I recently saw in the botanical garden in Stockholm, is edible, but the fruits are toxic and the leaves can give you dermatitis (link)."  In this manual, this is a perfectly fine plant without any warning signs at all. Only 17 poisonous plants are listed, and this book is supposedly covering the whole world.

Looking through this book I am starting to think it is a joke.  Either that, or the American soldiers are much dumber than I thought.  The text reads often like an essay by a 4th grader, for example:
"Look for sugarcane in fields. It grows only in the tropics (throughout the world). Because it is a crop, it is often found in large numbers."

This book is an embarrassment to the US government, US publishers, and botany. The book was published in 2009, and even if it was printed in China (true), I bet the material was provided from the US.

Remember that this book is called the "Complete guide..."?  It is as complete and useful as the human anatomy chapter of a high school biology book is to a neurosurgeon. As a survival aid, this book is not very helpful, and could even be risky to use for the serious outdoorsman. I also really doubt there are any armchair botanists out there that would enjoy a book with so many botanical faults.  I really hope the US Army provides their soldiers with better field manuals than this. There are many more and better books on this subject for those that really are interested in wild edible plants and wilderness survival.


O.K. said...

"Good enough for government work". Hehe.

LS said...

"I don't think so!" Unless you want your workers suffer...