Wild Food Foraging
May 25, 1976. Last summer a forest ranger near here sat down to eat his packed lunch out in the woodsy open. He spotted an interesting-looking plant nearby, broke off a leaf, added it to the inside of his sandwich as an experiment, and ate his lunch. He was dead within 2 hours. A little boy 25 miles down the road from us at Lapwai, Idaho, spotted a big reedy plant that looked just right for whistle making. He carved himself a very fine whistle out of it, blew on it to see if it worked . . . and died.
Those are true stories. They both happened in the summer of 1975, and in both cases hemlock was the cause. Hemlock is one of the most poisonous plants in the world. It belongs to the same family as the plant substance that killed Socrates when it was fed to him in a cup. That was water hemlock, which is native to Greece and causes death within 5 minutes. Hemlock has migrated from Europe to the United States and is spreading all over North America. It likes to grow in shady places and spreads along river and creek banks. The North American kind takes lfi-2 hours to kill you.
Hemlock is a biennial and a member of the carrot family. The first year it grows low and has a very carrot-like top; its energy goes into making a sturdy root, which is its most poisonous part. The next year, energy from that big root pours up into building a sturdy, tall stalk, 5-6 feet high— perfect-looking whistle material. Then it flowers and makes seed at the top of the stalk.
Its flowers and seeds are poisonous too. Some neighbors down the road with a lot of the stuff chopped it all down, gathered it into a pile, and set fire to it. The smoke made their whole family sick. The county weed control agent, Homer Fudder, told them that fumes from burning hemlock were also poisonous. Homer has a personal campaign to try to stop the hemlock and to stop people from dying of it. He told me you can even die if you try to pull out the plant and have a cut on your hand that hemlock juice gets into.
But you say you've got a book that tells you which wild foods are edible and which aren't. Well, right in front of me I have an article called "Principal Food Plants of the United States," published in an utterly respectable wilderness and country living magazine. It says, "HEMLOCK—(all year) young tips used for tea and formerly in root beer; inner bark used for breadstuff; sap, potable." It doesn't distinguish between the nonpoisonous hemlock tree and the poisonous hemlock plant. If that one entry in a list of a couple hundred "food plants" is so potentially misleading, how much can others be trusted? What about the books that describe plants that have "medicinal uses"? I found hemlock in one of those, too. It said it was "good to strengthen male potency."
Take it from a professional author. Don't believe everything you read. So often authors end up simply collecting information already in print—with the ever-present danger of passing on somebody else's error. Or they have to put the ideas in their own words so it isn't plagarizing, and they end up restating something in such a way that the facts become distorted. Or they write down hearsay that simply isn't true. That's scary when the results could be fatal. That's why this book doesn't have a real wild-foods section. You'll find wild foods mentioned here and there within it: nettle tea, poke salet from the South, dandelion root and greens, elderberries and chokecherries—but only when I know from personal experience or from common experience of friends and neighbors that at least part of the plant really is edible, and when it's commonly known and easily identified.
I don't mean to put down the bulk of the wonderful research that has been done on wild foods, but be cautious what you put in your sandwich. A good program on wild foods comes from Miriam Kramer at Wilderness Leadership International: 909-796-8501; 24414 University Ave. #34, Loma Linda, CA 92354; [email protected]; www.outdooreduquip.com. They sell correspondence courses in edible wild plants, using herbs, and wilderness survival. "Dining on the Wilds" is a 6-hr. video set with two manuals.
The Wild Foods Forum is published by Vicki Shufer, Virginia Beach, VA; 757-421-3929; [email protected]. Goosefoot Acres: Center for Resourceful Living publishes a Directory of Edible Wild Plant Educators, sells books, sponsors contests, and publishes a newsletter on using wild foods: 216-932-2145; orders 800-697-4858; PO Box 18016, Cleveland, OH 44118; [email protected]; www. edibleweeds.com. Peter is a Ph.D. ethnobotanist, author of eight books, 250 articles, and inspiration of the National Dandelion Cook-off (first weekend in May; Dover, OH)! For $35/yr, join Defenders of Dandelions, and get Peter's book, Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine, plus T-shirt or tote bag and newsletter, Dandelion Doings.
Could a rancher who had lived in the country all his life make a mistake in his plant identification? Just a month ago, I happened to be standing close by when three innocent visitors to the School of Country Living (Julaine Konselman, a young widow; her 12-year-old only son; and Jack Clark, a local businessman) ate hemlock after a local pointed out a plant he called "Indian celery" and urged, "Try it." (The showing-off-his-"knowledge" local didn't himself partake.)
I wish I'd managed to stop them before they swallowed the stuff. But I did break up their idyllic stroll through a pasture immediately after they ate it, rushed them to town, ran to the drugstore, bought Ipecac (the stuff that makes you throw up), and made them drink it. Jack and Julaine's son threw up, but she didn't. "I'm sorry," she apologized miserably. "I never throw up." Then I recruited friends to rush them the 28 miles to the emergency room of the Lewiston hospital, where all three got their stomachs pumped.
After a night's sleep, they all felt okay—good enough, in fact, that Jack kept wondering if I'd put him through all that misery for nothing. The Ipecac and the stomach pumping was enough to make a person feel lousy, he figured. And the rancher kept insisting it really was just "Indian celery."
So a week later, Jack returned to that pasture, picked a specimen of the exact same stuff he and the others had eaten, and took it to the office of a poison weed specialist at the University of Idaho. When he walked into the professor's office, it was noontime and the gentleman was reading at his desk. Jack set the plant down in front of him and said, "I ate some of that."
The scholar looked up from his book at Jack, and at the plant. His eyes widened. He half-rose from his chair. "How long ago?" he nervously asked.
"A week ago," Jack coolly replied.
There was a long silence. "You ought to be dead," the professor finally muttered. "You're very lucky."
"What is this plant?" Jack asked.
Poison Control Centers
Alabama: Poison Center,
Tuscaloosa: 800-462-0800 (AL only); 205-345-0600. Children's Hospital, Birmingham: 800-292-6678 (AL only); 205933-4050.
Alaska: Anchorage Poison Control Center, Anchorage: 800-4783193; 907-261-3193.
Arizona: Poison & Drug Info Center, Tucson: 800-362-0101 (AZ only); 520-626-6016. Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, Phoenix: 800-362-0101 (AZ only); 602-253-3334.
Arkansas: Poison & Drug Information Center, Little Rock: 800376-4766; TTY/TDD: 800-6413805.
California: Poison Control System: 800-876-4766 (CA only); TTY/TDD 800-972-3323.
Colorado: Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center: 800-332-3073; 303-739-1123 (Denver metro).
Connecticut: Poison Control Center: 800-343-2722 (CT only); 860-679-3456; TTY/TDD 860679-4346.
Delaware: Poison Control Center, Philadelphia: 800-722-7112; 215-386-2100.
District of Columbia: National Capital Poison Center, Washington, DC: 202-625-3333; TTY/TDD 202-362-8563.
Florida: Poison Information Center, Jacksonville: 800-282-3171 (FL only); 904-244-4480; TTY/TDD 800-282-3171. Miami: 800-282-3171 (FLonly); 305-585-5253. Tampa: 800282-5846; 404-616-9000; TTY/TDD 404-616-9287.
Georgia: Poison Center, Atlanta: 800-282-5846; 404-616-9000; TTY/TDD 404-616-9287.
Hawaii: Poison Center, Honolulu: 800-362-3585; 808-941-4411.
Idaho: Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center, Denver: 800-8600620 (ID only).
Illinois: Poison Center, Chicago: 800-942-5969 (IL only); TTY/TDD 312-906-6185.
Indiana: Poison Center, Indianapolis: 800-382-9097 (IN only); 317-929-2323; TTY/TDD 317929-2336.
Iowa: Statewide Poison Control Center, Sioux City; 800-3522222; 712-277-2222.
Kansas: Mid-America Poison Control Center, Kansas City; 800332-6633; 913-588-6633; TTY/TDD 913-588-6639.
Kentucky: Regional Poison Center, Louisville: 800-722-5725; 502-589-8222.
Louisiana: Drug and Poison Information Center, Monroe: 800256-9822 (LA only).
Maine: Poison Control Center, Portland: 800-442-6305 (ME only); 207-871-2950; TTY/TDD 877299-4447 (ME only); 207-8712879.
Maryland: Poison Center, Baltimore: 800-492-2414 (MD only); 410-706-7701; TTY/TDD 410-706-1858.
Massachusetts: Regional Center for Poison Control and Prevention, Boston: 800-682-9211 (MA & RI only); 617-232-2120; TTY/TDD 888-244-5313.
Michigan: Regional Poison Control Center, Detroit: 8OO-POISONI; 313-745-5711; TTY/TDD 800356-3232. Grand Rapids: 800-POISON1 (MI only).
Minnesota: Hennepin Regional Poison Center, Minneapolis: 800222-1222 (MN only); 800-POI-SON1 (SD only); TTY/TDD: 612-904-4691.
Mississippi: Regional Poison Control Center, Jackson: 601-3547660.
Missouri: Regional Poison Center, St. Louis: 800-366-8888; 314772-5200.
Montana: Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center, Denver: 800525-5042 (MT only).
Nebraska: The Poison Center: 800955-9119 (NE & WY only); 402-955-5555.
Nevada: Oregon Poison Center, Portland: 503-494-8968. Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center, Denver: 800-446-6179 (NV only).
New Hampshire: Poison Information Center, Lebanon: 800-5628236 (NH only); 603-6508000.
New Jersey: Poison Information & Education System, Newark: 8OO-POISONI (NJ only); TTY/TDD 973-926-8008.
New Mexico: Poison & Drug Information Center, Albuquerque: 800-432-6866 (NM only); 505272-2222.
Poison Control Centers, continued
New York: Central Poison Center, Syracuse: 800-252-5655 (NY only); 315-476-4766. Rochester: 800-333-0542 (NY only); 716-275-3232; TTY/TDD 716-273-3854. Sleepy Hollow: 800-336-6997 (NY only); 914-366-3030. Mineóla: 516-542-2323; 516-6632650. TTY/TDD 516-9248811; 516-747-3323. N.Y.C.: 800-210-3985; 212-340-4494; TTY/TDD 212-689-9014. Buffalo: 800-888-7655; 716-8787654.
North Carolina: Poison Center, Charlotte: 800-848-6946; 704355-4000.
North Dakota: Poison Information Center, Fargo: 800-732-2200 (ND, MN, SD only); 701-2345575.
Ohio: Central Poison Center, Columbus: 800-682-7625 (OH only); 800-762-0727 (Dayton only); TTY/TDD 614-228-2272. Cincinnati: 800-872-5111 (OH only); 513-558-5111. Cleveland: 888-231-4455 (OH only); 216-231-4455.
Oklahoma: Poison Control Center, Oklahoma City: 8OO-POISONI (OK only); 405-271-5454; TTY/TDD 405-271-1122.
Oregon: Poison Center, Portland: 800-452-7165 (OR only); 503-494-8968.
Pennsylvania: Central Poison Center, Hershey: 800-521-6110, 717-531-6111; TTY/TDD 717531-8335. Pittsburgh: 412681-6669. Philadelphia: 800722-7112; 215-386-2100.
Puerto Rico: Poison Center, San-turce: 787-726-5674.
Rhode Island: Regional Center for Poison Control: 800-682-9211 (MA & RI only); 617-2322120; TTY/TDD 888-2445313.
South Carolina: Palmetto Poison Center, Columbia: 800-9221117 (SC only); 803-777-1117.
South Dakota: Hennepin Regional Poison Center, Minneapolis: 800-POISON1 (SD only); TTY/TDD 612-904-4691.
Tennessee: Poison Center,
Nashville: 800-288-9999 (TN only); 615-936-2034; TTY/TDD 615-936-2047; Memphis: 800-288-9999 (TN only); 901-528-6048.
Texas: Poison Center, Temple: 800-POISON1 ; 254-724-7401. Dallas: 8OO-POISONI (TX only). San Antonio: 800-POI-SON1 (TX only); TTY/TDD 800-POISON1 (TX only). Galveston: 8OO-POISONI (TX only); 409-765-1420. Amarillo: 800-POISON1 (TX only). El Paso: 8OO-POISONI (TXonly).
.Utah: Poison Control Center, Salt Lake City: 800-456-7707 (UT only); 801-581-2151.
Vermont: Poison Center, Burlington: 877-658-3456 (toll free); 802-658-3456.
Virginia: Poison Center, Charlottesville: 800-451-1428 (VA only); 804-924-5543. Richmond: 800-552-6337; 804828-9123.
Washington, DC: Poison Center: 202-625-3333; TTY/TDD 202362-8563.
Washington State: Poison Center, Seattle: 800-732-6985; 206526-2121; TTY/TDD 206-5172394; 800-572-0638 (WA only).
West Virginia: Poison Center, Charleston: 800-642-3625 (WV only).
Wisconsin: Poison Center, Milwaukee: 800-815-8855 (WI only); 414-266-2222. Madison: 800815-8855 (WI only); 608-2623702.
Wyoming: Poison Center: 800-9559119 (NE &WY only); 402955-5555.
NATIONAL ANIMAL POISON CONTROL CENTER: 888426-4435; 900-680-0000.
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