Damon Billington is an intern with Hunt Utilities Group for agrivoltaics and agrobotics. We are glad to feature some of his other work in this week’s blog: nature writing and photography.
So, you want to start foraging? Before you do, you should be well aware of the dangers that come with it. Here’s hoping that knowing these dangers and taking them to heart will fill you with more respect for nature and what you should be taking from it. Here we will be looking at three different wild plants, all of varying levels of edibility.
First, we will look at an easily recognizable edible with no toxic look alike. Here we have the woodland strawberry. There are three species of strawberry native to Minnesota: woodland, wild, and barren strawberry. All of them have a preferred habitat and slightly different fruits. Wild and woodland strawberries have white flowers, but wild strawberries tend to have larger fruit. A barren strawberry is interesting because it develops yellow flowers, making it easier to distinguish from other native species. It does, however, make it look more like the only invasive look-alike, the mock strawberry.
The mock strawberry was introduced to the area through poorly managed decorative garden beds and has developed a foothold in some areas of the state. Don’t let the different species and the look-alike make you hesitant. All these species are edible. But please remember that these are also food for the animals in the area and you should take only what you need. All the strawberry species look similar to the strawberries you find at the store, with the main difference being their seed to fruit ratio. Wild strawberries to me often look like a pin cushion, with the seeds sticking out of the sides.
Now onto something that is genuinely dubiously edible. When you hear the name elderberry, you may think of elderberry wine or syrup. It’s been used to treat coughs and colds for a long time. That’s not the elderberry we are talking about now. Here we have the red elderberry, one of two native elderberry species in Minnesota. All parts of the plant are toxic if consumed raw. These plants contain not insignificant amounts of lectin and cyanide. Now, this cyanide is not in large amounts, with a quarter-pound containing less than 25% of a lethal dose. That’s not to say that eating these raw is okay.
Eating even moderate amounts can lead to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea severe enough to land you in the hospital. The First Nations people have known how to safely consume all parts of this plant for thousands of years. As outlined in “A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants” by Lee Allen Peterson, the trick is heat. By heating whatever part of the plant you wish to consume the lectin and cyanide is broken down and can no longer cause illness. These berries were frequently mixed with other harvested berries, mashed, and wrapped in skunk cabbage leaves to later be roasted and then dried. This would make a very nutritious and edible fruit bar.
Next, we move to something that is very much not edible at all—bittersweet nightshade. You might recognize this plant as the star of the popular movie and book series The Hunger Games, where it played the role of allowing two people to win the game at one time. This isn’t quite the same plant as that. Bittersweet nightshade isn’t as deadly as the aptly named deadly nightshade. However, it is still enough to make you sick at almost any quantity and potentially cause death, with its primary victims being pets and children.
The toxic aspect of this plant comes from the chemical solanine, which causes a slew of symptoms including but not limited to nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, throat burning, heart rhythm issues, nightmares, headache, dizziness, and joint pain. The plant also includes dulcamarine, which can cause dryness in the mouth and eyes, blurred vision, photophobia, confusion, fatigue, and heart issues. All in all, this is a common plant that is best appreciated from a distance.
I hope this has opened your eyes to the fact that while nature can provide, it can just as easily take away. I find it easy to forget that, especially here where nature tends to be more chill than somewhere like the tropics. Ultimately, it is important to see and respect the natural world around you because even if you are collecting something you think may be edible, it could very well ruin your day.