Friends or Foes – May Foraging Class
If you’ve ever looked at a familiar backyard weed and wondered, “So, is that edible or toxic?” then this class is for you! Our instructor, Holly Poole-Kavana, introduced us to the idea that nontoxic plants don’t exist. She defined toxicity as a spectrum of the measure of how much of a food/herb/substance it would take to harm or kill.
She gave us wonderful examples of substances at different levels on the toxicity spectrum. At the mild end of the spectrum are substances we eat or drink without thought in our daily lives. She noted that water, if we drank six liters at a time, can result in water poisoning. One plant, coffee, can have varied reactions depending on the dosage and the person. For example, half a cup of coffee can make someone feel awake. One cup can make some people feel twitchy. . Drinking ten cups in rapid succession can make someone feel very sick. Seventy-five cups can kill a person.
Spices are midway on the toxicity spectrum. I use fennel, turmeric, and various peppers with abandon. However, if I ate a big plate of those spices at one time, they could make me very sick.
Further along on the toxicity spectrum are aspirin and tobacco. Many people use these substances frequently even though they can cause serious harm, especially if taken in large quantities at once.
When foraging in the wild, versus our kitchen pantry, we can use several tools. Most important is knowledge of plants we should not ingest. For foragers in our area, Holly recommended getting to know the most toxic plants, including false hellebore, water hemlock, foxglove, poison hemlock, and jimson weed. Next, increase awareness of how our bodies feel after eating foods. We can also learn the organoleptics of the plants (how the plant looks, smells, and tastes) to measure each plant’s intensity compared to other times we found or ate the plant. Before starting to forage a new plant, be prepared to make a positive identification, and confirm the best stage to harvest that plant and the traditional preparation methods.
Holly introduced us to several potential friends. Although I’ve started to learn a few backyard plants this last year, I had never tasted Garlic Mustard. I was pleased to find it has a bright peppery taste. Holly noted its white four-petaled flower with four tall and two short stamens, and heart-shaped leaves. I’m hoping to soon spice up some salad with this plant.
Poke is known by as a toxic foe, but, especially in Southern cuisines, it is an important spring green when harvested at the correct stage and prepared in a particular manner. I remember my grandmother talking about poke salad when I was young, although I’m not sure if I ever tasted it. In very small doses, Poke root and berries can be used by skilled herbalists as powerful herbal medicine. Holly noted that although Poke is an excellent example of a plant known for both helpful and toxic constituents, it is especially important to learn from those who have experience harvesting and processing it safely.
Wild Cherry, or Black Cherry, has earned a reputation as a foe because livestock have sometimes eaten a large quantity of the tree leaves and died from cyanogenic compounds that make a pleasant almond smell. It is a great example of the need for dosage to be specified in the toxic label since these compounds can be safely metabolized in low doses.
Holly called this the ‘scratch and sniff’ tree. I was pleasantly surprised by the faint almond-y scent when we scratched a twig. Although this tree’s cherries are edible, they are not as sweet as other cherries and their pits shouldn’t be swallowed. The berries are popularly used in jams or vinegars.
The tree is most famously known because its bark is used in a medicinal herbal syrup for spastic cough.
We hiked up a hill to meet a small patch of the famous plant, Poison Hemlock. Socrates was infamously killed by ‘hemlock’, which was actually Poison Hemlock, and not the Hemlock tree. Although this member of the parsley family appeared unassuming at this point in the season, ingesting only five to ten leaves can be fatal. Holly recommended foragers learn to be respectful of plants in the Parsley family.
Spring Tonic Vinegar
We made a spring tonic vinegar from nearby Cleavers, Chickweed, and Garlic Mustard covered in apple cider vinegar. The apple cider vinegar (ACV) will extract helpful minerals and other constituents from the plants. My vinegar will be stored on a cool dark shelf. After a month, I’ll strain it and use it on salads and by the spoonful on days when I need an extra boost.
Let’s get out there and meet our neighborhood plants!
Written by Charis Han-Storms
Charis is studying herbalism, foraging, and gardening under amazing teachers at Fox Haven Farm, Retreat & Learning Center, Sacred Plant Traditions, and Wild Ginger Herbal Center.
She is thankful for all the women, from a variety of traditions, who cultivated relationships with the plant world and preserved this knowledge and path for future generations. She spends an inordinate amount of time checking on seedlings, searching for new books at the library, and exploring gardens and wild places.