When the SHTF, assuming you are able to manage to create a stable situation where you are able to survive day-to-day, those small comforts of life are what you’ll really begin to miss—and what will make the difference between feeling like you’re surviving, and truly thriving.
Little things like real maple syrup. Salt and pepper for your eggs. Fresh butter. Some dark chocolate. And yes, also that morning coffee you’ve grown so accustomed to enjoying to start your day.
In a situation where coffee is no longer widely available, there are a number of easy to identify alternatives you can learn to find in the wild to create your own coffee-like beverages.
While these won’t literally taste like coffee or have the same caffeine (don’t expect them to mimic coffee in a precise way), they provide a great way for you to get a rich, hot, satisfying morning drink to replace the coffee you grew to rely on to start your mornings. Many of these pair delightfully with cinnamon and nutmeg to create an even more delicious brew.
Start experimenting with these now, and fine-tune your process, so you’re that ready when you really need them. Hey, you might even discover a new forager’s beverage that you find out you love in its own right! These can also be combined with your regular coffee to help stretch out the supply and make it last longer.
As an added benefit of making your own coffee substitutes with wild plants, you can cut down on the deforestation, water use, and oil consumption that go part and parcel with industrial coffee production. Foraging is a great way to stretch your stash and live an overall greener lifestyle, allowing you to cut out environmentally-wasteful middlemen and connect more deeply with your own food and the natural world around you.
Each of these are roots, seeds, or nuts, which you can dry and roast, and then grind in a typical coffee grinder before percolating them through hot water like your normal coffee. For proportions of ground material to water, try the same brewing ratio as you would for your typical coffee.
As a general rule, root vegetables are in season during the fall, and nuts can be harvested as soon as they fall from trees. While roots could theoretically be harvested for most of the year, they will be far from prime and probably not worth your time in the off-season.
1. Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinale)
Used for centuries for its medicinal properties, dandelion tea is a forager’s classic. If you roast the roots, however, they can then be ground up and used as a healthful substitute for America’s favorite hot beverage. The resulting brew is less bitter than coffee, and also less acidic.
While the supposed health effects of dandelion root coffee haven’t been widely studied, the plant itself has been found to be extremely healthful, with many medicinal properties and beneficial nutrients. As for the “coffee” drink made from the roasted roots, it is said to have probiotic effects.
The best part about dandelion root coffee, however, is how incredibly plentiful the plant is. As long as you live near yards containing weeds, you probably have dandelions growing nearby!
2. Chicory Root (Cichorium intybus)
Chicory is a ubiquitous sight on many roadsides and highway on-ramps during the summertime. You can pick it out easily by its long, woody, gangly stems and distinctive bluish-purple flowers. As a young plant, it looks similar to a dandelion rosette, which is no accident – it’s closely related to dandelion and radicchio.
I love tossing the flowers into yogurt to liven up my snack, and the leaves are a popular edible as well. The roots, however, are a special prize once roasted and ground, and are one of the most popular coffee substitutes among intrepid foragers.
The brew is said to be good for inflammation, liver function, and gut health, as well as having a beneficial effect on blood glucose. Plus, of all the coffee substitutes you can forage, many naturalists agree that chicory coffee comes closest to the real thing flavor-wise.
The bad part? Chicory is easy to find on the edges of busy roads, but can be elusive to find in the actual woods. In other words, a lot of the chicory that you’ll encounter will be growing too close to the road to be good for harvesting, for risk of consuming the bi-products of automobile exhaust and other chemical consequences of nearby development.
3. Cleaver Seeds (Galium aparine)
Cleavers, also known as “Sticky Willie” and “Goosegrass,” are easy to I.D. — once you have what you think is the right plant, see if it sticks immediately to your hands and clothes! These little clingers are covered in miniscule hooks that make them stick to most things they touch, including themselves.
They’re lots of fun to fling at friends and annoying siblings, but also happen to be edible. And the seeds, coincidentally, can be turned into a hot, pleasing, coffee-like beverage. As a relative of the coffee plant (they’re both in the Rubiaceae family), this isn’t too surprising!
Much like traditional coffee, cleavers have diuretic and laxative effects. The cleaver plant has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb by native peoples. The biggest challenge with harvesting it is getting rid of other plant debris, as all kinds of stuff will stick to your cleavers and won’t want to let go.
On a related note, for a clever little survival use for cleavers, a wad of the stems makes a great filter to get bits of debris out of water. To identify it, look for skinny leaves that form in a whorl around a limp stem. And if in doubt, pluck it and fling it onto your pants to see if sticks!
4. Purple Avens/Water Avens (Geum rivale)
The roots of purple avens can be harvested year-round for a tasty, robust stand-in for coffee. Many like to mix in some milk and sugar, which makes an almost hot chocolatey drink. The leaves are toothed and hairy, with numerous leaflets.
The buds are droopy, reddish-purple and alien-looking, with long stalks and spreading clusters. Flowers bloom into five yellowish petals that form around the purplish centers. Roots are purplish and aromatic.
Seeds emerge as part of a feathery plume or tendril. As the name implies, this plant (related to roses) loves wet soil.
5. American Beech Nuts (Fagus grandifolia)
This deciduous, 35-55 meter tree has bark that is silvery-gray and smooth. Leaves have fine teeth at the end of each vein, but the easiest way to identify beech (other than by its nuts) are by finding the cigar-like buds. Its smooth bark makes it a favorite tree trunk for young lovers to carve their names into.
The nuts fall to the ground in the fall, at which point you’ll be locked in a desperate race against the local mammal and bird population to get to the choice specimens before deer, foxes, bears, squirrels, and all types of other forest creatures steal them all for themselves.
Hidden in the spiky little pods are two or three nuts each. Beech nuts also have an outer coating that comes off easily after roasting. After getting rid of the husks, just roast your beech nut harvest in a cast iron pan and then grind them up.
They’re rich in fat and protein, making for a hearty brewed drink. As a side note, the young leaves and inner bark of the American beech tree are also edible. As is also the case with acorn-producing oak trees, beech nuts don’t fall every year, and some trees will go years without producing any.
For that reason, there’s an extra little sense of reward in finding a good crop, knowing that you arrived at just the right time. In addition, trees don’t start seeding until they’re around 40 years old, so the young ones won’t drop any nuts. Nut production is said to really ramp up around age 60. If only human beings always aged as gracefully as beech trees do!
These are a few of the most popular plants you can use to make a coffee-like beverage, but there are lots of others you can try as well. To name a few: the Kentucky coffee tree, fever wort, and sunflower also make popular coffee substitutes for foragers.
Sure, they’re not really coffee. But by learning more about how to use the plants that surround you, you can start making the most of what Mother Nature has to offer, and live a more rich, rewarding, and environmentally-friendly lifestyle in the process.
Even better, making a coffee substitute is only one of a whole array of uses for each of the plants listed—save for the Purple Avens, which only has an edible root, every plant on this list is a versatile edible and medicinal ally, usable in lots of other ways, from steeping in hot water for tea to cooking into a forager’s frittata.
Author Bio: Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
- Cleavers close-up
- Chicory on road
- Chicory leaves
- Purple Avens flowers/leaves
- Purple Avens overview
- American Beech leaves
- American Beech overview
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