How Do I Know Which Weeds I Can Eat?
– by Sergei Boutenko
While there are countless benefits associated with eating wild foods such as breathing fresh air, exercise, premium nutrition, and more food diversity, there are also some risks. When you are harvesting wild plants for food, you are almost guaranteed that edible plants will be sharing their living space with non-edible ones. These non-edibles may range in toxicity from mild to extreme. If you are anything like me, then you too prefer to avoid any form of poisoning whether it is a mild headache or death. For this reason it is a good idea to first learn how to positively identify wild edible plants and then exercise caution when gathering them for food.
Which Plants Are Safe to Harvest?
Over the five years I have been traveling around the globe giving presentations about wild edible plants I have learned two things: first, people are eagerly seeking knowledge about wild edibles and secondly, there is a lot of confusion about which plants are safe to harvest. I have found that the term “poisonous” is very loosely defined and is easily swayed by personal biases and educational background. For example, experts coming from backgrounds of toxicology, botany, and medicine claim that there are exponentially more plant poisonous plants than other experts who come from Native American teachings. Unfortunately, when these inconsistencies of professional opinion mix with ill-fated, Hollywood movies such as “Into The Wild” they breed unnecessary fear, which prevents the mass populous from ever venturing into the world of free food.
Thus far, my research has lead me to the believe that out of thousands of healthful, edible plants growing in North America there are only a handful of poisonous ones. There are approximately 150 poisonous plants that are not recommended for consumption by the American Association of Poison Control. Out of these 150 plants there are only about 50 plants that are considered to be highly poisonous and may lead to death. The rest are classified as mildly poisonous. Thus, meaning that out of 150 plants, 100 of them may cause nausea, headache, and /or stomach upset, but will not kill the eater. And only 50 plants have the potential to harm the consumer to an extreme degree.
Learning Which Plants Are Poisonous
I think that this is a very encouraging statistic because it is relatively easy to learn to identify and stay away from 50 plants. This can be accomplished in less than a month if you were to learn two plants per day. Once you have learned to identify the 50 most poisonous plants, your chances of getting poisoned to death are severely decreased if not eradicated completely. Keep in mind, that many of the so-called “mildly poisonous” plants are considered edible depending on which book you reference. For example, I recently found common mint categorized as mildly poisonous in a book called “Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America.” Does this mean this we should not longer drink mint tea? What do you think?
Fear is an important ingredient in the recipe for personal wellbeing and safety. When channeled correctly, fear can force us to question our judgment and make the best, most educated, guess. I think that harvesting wild edibles is like crossing the street in a cross walk, it is safe, but you still want to look both ways prior to stepping out into the street! I prefer to avoid any sort of poisoning be it mild or severe.
Educating Yourself About Wild Edibles
Let us now consider a few tried and true techniques that will further minimizing your chances of getting poisoned.
First, knowledge is power! The best way to stay safe is through good old-fashion education! The Internet is an invaluable tool for this. Using the Internet, you can track down a wild crafter in your area and take a wild food workshop from him or her! I recommended the hands-on method because it enables information to stay with you longer. For example, during one edible foods workshop I was taught that taking a few minutes to study each wild edible would help me remember it forever. I sat down with a dandelion and began to notice how many leaves it had, what shape the leaves were, if it had any marking or discolorations, etc. After this exercise, I will never have any doubts about what a dandelion looks like!
Another way to educate yourself about wild edibles is to purchase a good book on the subject. I have purchased most of the books published on this topic and have been disappointed by most of them due to the poor quality of their photos and confusing descriptions. When buying a book, make sure the one you settle on has clear, color photographs. It is also wise to think about book size, because ideally, you want a book compact enough to take with you when you go hiking.
Lastly, you can use the internet to help you identify plants. For example, if I am find a plant I am unfamiliar with, I will take a picture of it so that I can do an internet search when I get home. Because to me the plants’ name is still unknown, I describe what it looks like to the search engine, i.e. five purple petals, two green leaves, etc. As an added precaution, I might mention the geographical area where I found the plant: mountains, desert, by a lake, Northern California, Southern Oregon, etc. When I hit the “search” button it generating thousands of possible matches. I look through the images the search engine generated until I find one that resembles the picture that I took. From this search I get a name, “wild violet.” Now, I look up wild violet in one of my favorite wild edible books to determine if it is safe to eat!
- Start Small – 0ur nature as humans leads us to jump without looking into something when we find out it’s good for us. While many commonly known edible plants are great for your health they will be foreign to you at first. I recommend that you always approach new food cautiously (start by eating small amounts) until you know that you will not have any adverse effects from it. Once you have confirmed that this food makes you feel good, then have at it!
- Don’t Mix Your Weeds – again in the spirit of avoiding any sort of reaction it is a good idea not to mix the wild edibles you harvest during your first few harvests! If you mix your edibles and then have a reaction, it will be very hard to tell which plant caused it. So, do your self a favor and try eating a wild edible mono diet, i.e. one edible at a time until you are absolutely sure you are safe!
Below is a list of the MOST POISONOUS plants in North America. If you are curious about wild edibles, then I suggest that you familiarize yourself with the ones that are most prevalent in your area. Enter the names of the plants into an Internet based search engine for see what they look like.
Aconitum, Autumn crocus, Angel’s trumpet, Azalea, Bittersweet nightshade, Bleeding heart, Black locust, Black nightshade, Buttercup, Caladium, Caster Oil plant, Daffodil, Daphne, Darnel, Datura, Deadly nightshade, Deathcamas, Delphinium, Dogbane, Doll’s eyes, Dumbcane, European Holly, False Hellebore, Foxglove, Hemlock, Henbane, Horse chestnut, Ivy, Jequirity, Jerusalem cherry, Jimson weed, Laburnum, Larkspur, Lilies, Manchineel, Mayapple, Monkshood, Moonseed, Oleander, Poison-ivy, Poison-oak, Pokeweed, Privet, Southwest coral bean, Star of Bethlehem, Water hemlock, White snakeroot, Yellow flag, Yellow jessmine, Yew.