Danger! Danger! Danger!
Recently, I gave a presentation on wild edibles to about thirty kids in a junior high school class. Remembering how bold and adventurous I was at that age, I intentionally put a lot of emphasis on the dangers of recklessly eating wild plants or mushrooms without proper identification. Apparently, I must have overdone it, because at the end of the presentation one of the students said, "Don't expect us to ever to eat anything out there, now, after all of the warnings and scary stories you told us!"
Although I was a little surprised by this reaction, I came away feeling good that the warning had been clearly received. Better safe than sorry!
There are so many nutritious delicacies growing in the wild, that the more of them I discover, the harder it is to retain all of that knowledge. Nature provides the world's largest supermarket! Nevertheless, the danger of accidentally ingesting a poisonous plant is real. Often, I tell people that the more I learn, the less I eat. What I mean by this is that after years of study, I am now more careful to properly identify a plant before eating it. A favorite saying of one of my favorite wild foods experts, Nova Kim of Vermont, is this..., "just a little taste has killed more botanists than anything else." If a trained botanist can make a fatal mistake, then the rest of us must be that much more careful!
A short time ago, I read an article in the newspaper, where an entire eastern European family died in Pennsylvania after eating a stew made from mushrooms they collected in the wild. Overjoyed at finding what they thought was the same delicious edible mushroom they recognized from their home country, they tragically harvested and consumed a deadly look-a-like, and all perished.
In Vermont, there have been fatalities from consuming False Hellebore, a plant that grows abundantly along streams, and is known locally as Bear Corn, Indian Corn, or Skunk Cabbage, (not Symplocarpus foetidus, which is another plant known as skunk cabbage.) In the spring, it can be difficult for a novice to distinguish False Hellebore from delicious wild leeks. The leaves look somewhat similar, and the roots have the same appetizing garlic-like smell. Unfortunately, this plant is deadly!
Here are a few tips for avoiding sickness or worse...
1) Never forage when you're hungry. Your appetite may cloud your judgement and cause you to eat something you shouldn't.
2) Wash every wild edible, even the safe ones, before eating them. A few plants harbor a toxic fungus that can make you ill unless first washed clean.
3) When eating a wild edible plant for the first time, just have a small taste. Even though the plant may be considered a safe edible in your field guide, there is still a chance that you may be allergic to it. After a few days, if you have had no reaction, try a little more.
4) Exercise extra caution when harvesting with a group. Don't get caught up in group mentality or false bravado. Be a leader, not a follower. If the plant in question is not in your field guide, or you're not absolutely certain it's edible, then don't eat it!
A few years ago, two farm workers were found dead in a field with their mouths still full of deadly Water Hemlock. It appeared that while working they had become hungry and decided to sample some of the local weeds. Unfortunately, they picked a bad one.
5) Utilize extra caution when gathering berries. Poisonous Moonstone berries look similar to blueberries, and bright red Invasive Bittersweet berries are appealing to the eye and sweet to taste, but just four berries can kill a child.
6) Last, mushrooms are potentially the most dangerous wild edibles of all. There are a great number that are poisonous, and many that are deadly. Be certain to carefully read my mushroom warning page!
There are also a number of other specific warnings throughout this website. Please read them all and take them very seriously!
The mushrooms in the photo at right are deadly Galerina autumnalis. Eating just one of these would most probably result in death. Unfortunately, they have an edible look-a-like called the honey mushroom. It is delicious. The great danger here, is that both mushrooms can grow together or near each other. Never eat any mushroom without expert identification!
Take no chances. If you're not absolutely certain a plant or mushroom is edible, don't eat it!
All photos are copyrighted and may only be used with permission.
A novice might easily
mistake the plants to the
left as ramps or leeks.
The roots of these plants
even smell garlicy which
adds to the deception.
These plants are called
False Hellebore, or sometimes Bear Corn, and unlike leeks usually
grow on stream banks.
They are extremely
poisonous, having caused
many deaths in the past!