Flip to the back of the magazine and you’ll find a gorgeous spread of some common, wild edible foods that can be found in our area. I love the illustrations by Julia Kuo!
A quick glance at the spread when I picked up my copy, however, revealed a few mistakes. I feel the need to point them out, not to nitpick, but for safety reasons (incorrect identification of plants used for food and/or medicine can lead to serious harm), because my name is on it and I need people to know that I know what I’m talking about (most of the time!) and because I think this is a great cautionary example for foragers and wildcrafters of all skill levels, but especially beginners.
The reality is, mistakes happen and humans are fallible. Herban legends get passed on untested from one foraging book to another until everyone vehemently asserts that common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) must be boiled in multiple changes of water before it can be consumed. (This is actually not necessary.) Talk about eating black nightshade and some people will look at you and wonder how managed to survive such a deadly meal. They’ve confused Solanum nigrum, S. americanum, S. ptychanthum, S. douglasii and other closely allied species with deadly nightshade (Atropa belladona) or bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). I was once told by an experienced herbalist that sumac is not used for medicine and is best harvested in the fall. (It has an exceptionally long history of use as medicine and is one of my favourite astringents. It’s best gathered around here in late July to early August.) Older foraging books often list multiple species of ferns as edible but we now know that many of them have carcinogenic compounds and high amounts of thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine and prevents the body from absorbing this important B vitamin. So now most foragers stick with the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). But even then there are exceptions.
There are some great forums on Facebook that discuss wild edible foods and medicinal plants (I especially like Ancestral Plants run by Arthur Haines). In these groups you have access to some of the best experts in the field (literally) who spend time and energy providing quality information for free. But there are also complete beginners making stab in the dark guesses, and everyone in between. Misinformation abounds on social media and it can be overwhelming to sort through it all.
I have corrected errors in the notes people have taken on plant walks with me. Somewhere in the transmission from my mouth to their paper, details got lost or confused. Not to mention that on plant walks I can’t always provide every single detail about every plant we discuss. I may leave out the odd contraindication (don’t drink red clover if you’re on blood thinners), confuse my scientific names (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum has been changed to Leucanthemum vulgare and maybe I forgot that) or even (shocking!) misidentify a plant. (A homeschool child once pointed out to me that the tree without leaves couldn’t possibly be a maple because it had last year’s linden seeds still attached to a branch. Oops!)
My point is, mistakes happen and when it comes to foraging and wildcrafting those mistakes have the potential to be harmful (Thankfully, most of the time, they are not). Wherever you are on your journey of working with wild plants, it is essential to cross-reference, double and triple check and be absolutely certain you have that 100% positive ID. Don’t rely on a single source of information. Don’t believe everything you read, especially if it’s on the internet. And don’t believe me. While I go to great lengths to ensure that the information I provide is as accurate as possible, it’s still important cross-reference that with other sources. I’ve been at this for nearly a decade now. I have a knack for plant ID and I’ve taught myself some pretty solid botany skills, but in so many ways I still think of myself as a beginner. I’m still learning, making discoveries and yes, making mistakes. And sometimes beautiful spreads in excellent magazines are printed with my words, but things get a little mixed up in the layout.
If you make sure to take responsibility for the wild plants you touch and put in your mouth, do your research and observe the plants closely and frequently, your foraging experience will be safe, healthy and a lot of fun!
Check out these sources for more information on safety and foraging guidelines: