Jungle survival plants: the banana tree
I imagine that most of us find the ability of being able to ‘live off the land’ appealing: being able to go into the jungle and survive indefinitely using only our wits and skill. The Orang Asli can do just that (although their diet is, arguably, not a very balanced one) but these are people who have grown up learning which plants to eat and how to hunt and fish.
To reach the same level of skill as the Orang Asli would take more time than most of us have to spare, however, you can learn some of the key plants that will, at least, provide the carbohydrate intake you need.
So, rather than trying to learn every plant that can be eaten, I would recommend learning the most important ones first – the staple foods of the jungle.
To give you an example: back in 2006 a surveyor was lost for 22 days in the Gua Musang jungle. He knew one plant that he could eat – Kacip Fatimah – and it sustained him until some Orang Asli happened to stumble across him (you can read the article here).
Similarly, I would learn to fish and find food from rivers before trying to learn to hunt on land – it’s simply an easier way to find protein. Now you might find yourself in an area in the jungle without rivers but, honestly, that is the exception rather than the rule.
There is a widely held belief that the jungle is full of fruit than can be picked at your leisure. Not necessarily so: the trees you find might not be in season (or the fruit is not yet ripe); the fruit itself is usually high off the ground and you may not be able to reach it and, perhaps most importantly, you would be joining the back of a long queue of hungry animals who have been eagerly waiting for the very same fruit to ripen.
For example, when the durian tree’s fruit ripens, villagers are sent off to camp nearby and wait for the fruit to fall. Why do they do this? Because the macaques also love eating durians (and, astonishingly are able to open this lethally spiked fruit with their hands) and will quickly take any fruit that falls (and often pull them from the tree itself).
In this video I look at the banana tree and the amazing resources that it provides. Banana trees are a pioneer species – they grow only where the forest has been disturbed or where there is sufficient sunlight (e.g. near rivers or where a large tree has fallen and created a clearing) so this tree (or, strictly speaking, herb) may seem like an odd one for me to suggest learning about. The reason I do recommend knowing about the banana tree is that is so incredibly useful (it can provide fire, shelter, water, food, medicine, cordage) that it would be very unfortunate if you came across one during a survival ordeal and didn’t know how to unlock its potential.
Most people would imagine (understandably enough) that the use of banana trees in a survival situation would come from the bananas themselves. Not so, wild bananas are not good to eat (and chances are they won’t be ripe anyway and, if they were, some animal would already have taken them), can cause digestive problems for those with a weak stomach and the seeds, if ingested, can cause bowel blockage. However, the centre of the stem, the bud and the flowers are all good too eat, can be eaten raw and are easy food to get at.
When I was in Taman Negara I came across some banana trees deep in the forest – a tree had come down and created a clearing and banana trees had magically appeared. Around my house the banana trees grew without any assistance from me, they simply appeared from nowhere and took over. So when people say that you won’t find banana trees in the jungle what they really mean is that you won’t find them where there is a thick canopy and not much light reaching the forest floor – but the jungle isn’t uniform and is constantly changing (sounds like an oxymoron!) – emergent trees come down and then the pioneer species have their day in the sun until the canopy is reformed and they die out again.
But if you need any more persuading then read this article from the excellent ‘eat the weeds’ website – the author describes how his neighbour escaped the Khmer Rouge and (at the age of only seven!) survived for two years in the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam; and one of the key food sources for her during that time came from….banana trees.