My mother used to tell me, “Only believe half of what you see, and nothing of what you hear.” It was a good adage in the era preceding the Internet. Today, a caveat should be added – “And very little of what you read.” This is particularly true when it comes to claims of health and nutrition benefits for wild plants.
Ironically, many of North America’s edible wild plants actually were domestically harvested in Europe: dandelion, horseradish, hawthorne and so on. However, many of the claims of edibility or health benefit for other wild harvests should be treated sceptically, if not suspiciously.
Several years ago, I purchased a book on edible wild plants of Canada, and set out to sample as many of these culinary delights as possible. I had been raised eating wild foods, such as pigweed and dandelion, and relying on medicinal benefits of Seneca root, common plantain, white willow and spruce needles. Yet, I wanted to expand my arsenal of edibles. The author of this book claimed to be an authority on harvesting plants in the wild.
I should have been alerted to the potential for error with the first trial. He claimed that cattail roots were delightfully tasty, and had a root like a small potato. I don’t know where he grew potatoes, but it must have been meagre soil, indeed! The vast majority of cattail roots are miniscule bulbs, about half the size of an egg. These are first- and second-year roots. Yes, a few are the size of new potatoes, but you need to sift through the sands for ages to find these diamonds.
The next misstep by this author came with his claim of the ease with which we can harvest thistle roots. “Simply wash, peel and boil these roots for fifteen to twenty minutes,” he stated. I washed, I peeled, I scraped, I boiled, and I boiled, and I boiled. For over two hours, these easy-to-cook roots simmered and bubbled. When I placed them in front of my son and myself, the only benefit they provided was that they made us eager to devour the rest of the meal. At no time in the cooking process did they become tender. I have chewed on softer birch bark than these roots offered.
Of course, a simple statement that one needs to select first-year roots would have been adequate. Since that experience, I have eaten thistle root often. I have moved from boiled root ( a somewhat bitter, yet bland experience) to a sautéed root, peeled and spice with thyme or wild sage.
While the misinformation in this book may be somewhat amusing, relying on the misinformation on the Web can be dangerous at worst, confusing at best. In my own realm, for instance, I have personally tested each of the plants about which I have written, and researched toxicity. Yet, my reaction to consumption is subjective. I eat copious amounts of morels in the spring, without unpleasant reaction, Yet, others may become ill with one small morel. My own experience is not sufficient to stand in the place of scientific authority, though.
After publishing my various articles, I have searched the Net, only to find my pieces re-published by others, under their own name, claiming personal experience and knowledge. How often are the stories we read based on mere plagiarism, and without substance or validity?
The best safeguard is to research at least three competing articles on each plant, and follow up by checking more reliable authorities on toxicity, such as university websites and reputable clinics around the world. This method offers good comfort as to poisonous or toxic elements in any wild plant. The reliability of the culinary value, though, will provide you with more than sufficient adventure, as you discover some of the bizarre menu suggestions on the Web. Good eating!