Wildcrafted…really?

Posted on Aug 15, 2012 in Botany, Featured | 1 comment

Can you eat any of the plants in this picture?  Really?  How do you know?

This post from the always excellent Rowley’s Whiskey Forge got me thinking about this.  He posts a really cool recipe for a liqueur called mistela de chimajá. I couldn’t resist–I had to go look up the plant.  But more about that in a minute.

First, some background:  So the foraging/wildcrafting movement has met the craft distilling movement and the result is that people want to go out into the wilderness, or into a vacant lot, or into the woods, and pull a plant out of the ground and drop it into some high-proof spirits and extract some flavor from it.  You know, dandelion bitters, honeysuckle liqueur, whatever.

It’s a nice idea–mostly. There are just a couple of problems with taking plants from uncultivated spaces–meaning, spaces that aren’t farms or gardens. The first is that some wild plants are kind of scarce, and pulling a few out of the ground to make a batch of bitters might actually hurt the plant population–or the wildlife population that depends upon it.

And the second reason is that unless you are really, really sure about what you’re doing, you might actually be extracting poisons when you infuse your plants in alcohol.  Alcohol is a very good method for extracting poisons from plants.  And keep in mind that plants generally don’t want to be eaten, which is why they manufacture poisons in the first place.  I’ve heard people who are really into foraging say things like, “Oh, I eat everything I pick, and I’ve never been poisoned,” as if not getting poisoned is all about being down with the plants, or being a true believer.  That’s a foolish statement that overlooks the fact that nature is powerful, and that it is in a plant’s nature to manufacture poisons that punish anyone who tries to eat it.  If you were a plant, isn’t that what you would do?

Okay, so back to mistela de chimajá. The name chimajá refers to a number of plants in the genus Cymopterus. They are broadly called “spring parsley.”  They’re a member of the carrot family, Apiaceae.  The long taproot is what’s used to make the liqueur.

That right there should be enough to really, really slow you down.  Because the carrot family is one of those nefarious plant families with lots of criminal relations.  Hemlock, the plant that killed Socrates.  Aconite, or monkshood, which has killed many people who mistook it for parsley.  Giant hogweed, a nasty creature with vile, caustic sap.  If a plant has a long taproot and finely cut, lacy foliage, it’s probably in the carrot family.  And if it’s in the carrot family, you need to proceed with caution. And if it has a taproot, you need to remember that plants tend to concentrate their poisons in the taproot as a form of defense.

So what do we know about Cymopterus?  We know that one species, C. watsonii, causes severe photosensitive reactions in livestock that eat it. This can include everything from mild sunburn to really nasty blisters.  The always reliable Jepson manual also notes that some species are toxic to livestockOne of the few reliable papers on edible species like C. montanus notes at the end that they still need to be tested for toxicity.

So–if you go out foraging for “spring parsley,” which species are you planning to harvest?  Can you tell them apart?  Can you even tell Cymopterus from other, more distant relations in the carrot family?  And given that botanists themselves don’t know for sure what a toxic dose would be for humans–do you?

My vote?  Skip it.  Leave the spring parsley in the field.  I don’t dispute the notion that there is an edible variety, or that the cool recipe that Matthew Rowley turned up on his blog is in fact something that people once made and enjoyed.   But I could spend a lifetime working my way through the plants that I know to be edible and safe before I ever got bored enough to start tinkering around with wild, untested, and possibly dangerous herbs.

Want to try this out with an edible substitution?  How about bitter dandelion root? Or–a close relation–cilantro root?

One Comment

  1. Hear, hear!! Excellent advice.
    I suggest that people really get to know their local flora beyond generic field guides. Even the most thorough, unless focussed, tend to omit little-knowns for better or worse.

    Get to know other gardeners, especially the old farts who’ve been around since before Nam.

    Ask questions, no matter how stupid you may feel asking them. Most areas have excellent blogs or other online resources avaiable to explore, and if nothing else, Yahoo Answers and Dave’s Garden are worth a gamble if you need an ID or recommendations.

    Most importantly, get out there and explore the empty lots and alleys, not just the carefully maintained parks.

    If not for these items, I’d have no idea that yaupon, amaranth (“pigweed”), or yarrow were good homebrewing herbs. They all are literal weeds where I live.

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