Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Positive Identification: A Cautionary Tale

“Hello Nightshade, you clever bastard!”- Me, realizing that the delicious “lambsquarter” sprout I was examining was actually a poisonous look-alike.

Spend any serious time in the foraging community, or speaking with fungiphobic city dwellers, and you’re sure to hear a tale or two of misidentified wild foods and the poor souls who did not live to talk about it. A friend of mine made this mistake with a deadly Satin’s Bolete, thinking it to be a King Bolete, and poisoned himself and his roommates by ignoring the signs…luckily they made it to the hospital and survived…though they were at 40% kidney function when they reached the E.R. Positive identification is the subject of today’s post.

As I mentioned before in my Lambsquarter omelet post, lambsquarter among many other wild foods can be confused with poisonous plants if one ignores the details. I had not tasted lambsquarter until this year, but had always been curious. This season I was intent on trying this wild and abundant edible, but first that meant hitting the books. A good forager is sort of a nerd in ways; start us talking about ecology, niches, seasonal abundance, botany, etc. and it’s hard for us to stop. This is because good foragers are typically very well read. It doesn’t matter if you are a professor of mycology or a ditch digger who loves wild foods, if you are a good forager you clearly also love to learn. I am a visual learner in many ways and so much of what I know has come through experience with wild edibles in the field, but just as important has been examining countless photos and of course reading…even between the lines. Before harvesting lambsquarter I perused dozens of photos of the plant in several stages of development, looked up how to prepare it (and if there were techniques that were necessary to make it edible or palatable), habitat and distribution, and most importantly the look-alikes. The lambsquarter omelet was fantastic!

Yesterday I saw one of these plants going to seed which sparked my curiosity pertaining to the edibility of the seeds. Again I perused the interweb, but what I found gave me chills. The seeds are edible, however when cross checking my references I came across a post of a new forager who had “a lambsquarter plant” and was asking how to “extract the seeds from the black berries on it.” My jaw dropped as I franticly read the first response fearing I was too late, luckily someone had already commented “Lambsquarter doesn’t have berries. YOU’RE ABOUT TO EAT NIGHTSHADE!!!!” I have seen black nightshade that, before its distinctive white flowers and dark berries are present, looks very similar to lamsquarter, but the rule I live by (maybe why I am still living) is check it twice in the field and once more in the kitchen. It turns out that black nightshade berries are edible, but can easily be confused with deadly nightshade, especially if one has not seen the color and shape of the blooms that preceded the fruit.

Black Nightshade


Countless times when foraging with newbies I have found mushrooms in the basket of varieties I am not familiar with that happened to look very much like the hedgehogs we were pursuing. It was only by checking under the cap in the kitchen as we cleaned our bounties that I saw the gills in time to discard these imposters. Educating ourselves on the dangers associated with any wild harvest, even beyond plants and fungi, is the difference between life and death. If you want to give your money to the local tribe (hopefully some makes its way into the schools), go ahead and hit the casino, but NEVER gamble with your life!

Several times I have had to stop folks from harvesting and cooking tasty mussels in the middle of summer quarantine. Bivalves such as these, filter-feed on natural plankton which in the summer months bloom in such large quantities that certain groups containing the toxin domoic acid become a primary food source for these shellfish. As a result if you eat a mussel or clam in June, you may be ingesting a concentrated dose that can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) and send you to the hospital…if you’re one of the lucky ones. All it takes is checking the county department of health’s website to see if bivalves are in quarantine, and you know if it is safe to proceed or not.

A Sign That Should NOT Go Ignored!

Delicious Feast for the colder months...
but those bivalves can be deadly in the warm months!

The long and short of my rant is this…don’t be dumb and dead, be smart and enjoy a one-of-a-kind forager feast with friends and family instead! Always be proactive in educating yourself on the wild foods you seek, some require special cooking or preparation, some are toxic in key seasons, some areas are more likely to be polluted, and some have dangerous if not deadly look-alikes. Finally, if you are now too scared to forage and just want to play it safe, know this… last year I told the produce manager at a local Whole Foods that if he valued his job he’d better get all the cilantro off the shelf in the next few minutes. At least five bundles were bunched up with deadly nightshade…bottom line…KNOW YOUR WILD EDIBLES AND ALSO KNOW YOUR HAZZARDS!!!! Keep the old ways alive! –Kevin Smith

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