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poisonous? or not?

A story about poisonous--or not poisonous--plants, under the cut. Today I was late setting off on my dog walk and ran into my Cambodian neighbor, so we walked together. On the way we passed some pretty luxuriant cow vetch, just preparing to bloom...

(image courtesy of Wildflowers of Prince Edward County)

"We eat this in my country," she says, "both the leaves and the flowers." And she breaks some off and eats some and offers some to me. I love wildfoods, and I love finding new ones, and cow vetch is so omnipresent, if that's edible--wow! But in the back of my mind I'm remembering how the mushroom poisonings around here mainly come from old Polish grannies thinking that the mushroom they've picked is the one they remember from back home... only, in fact, it's not. A-n-n-d... they suddenly find they need new livers. Nevertheless, I down the proffered flowers, which just taste like green stuff, the way so much wildfood does.

We walk the rest of the way home, but just before we get there my throat is feeling really itchy, and I'm coughing. Probably just because it's allergy season, but all the same...

At home I checked online. Seems that vetches (genus Vicia) come in both poisonous and non-poisonous varieties. Vicia cracca, the Latin name for what I (and lots of others) call cow vetch (but the plant with that Latin name also gets called "bird vetch" or "tufted vetch" in everyday-speak), appears to be edible. On the other hand, Vicia stativa, or spring vetch, is apparently poisonous. And Vicia villosa, which is known as hairy vetch or large Russian vetch, supposedly has edible seeds and leaves, but a note says that in a laboratory the seeds were found to be potentially toxic, though no one has ever been poisoned from them.

So, I don't think my neighbor will poison herself, but I doubt I'll incorporate cow vetch into my wildfood diet.

Meanwhile, I have added false hellebore (by which I mean Veratrum viride, not Mrs. Grieve's Adonis autumnalis or Adonis vernalis) to the list of poisonous-to-eat wild plants living in my vicinity. One website says of it, "False Hellebore contains the alkaloids jervine and cyclopamine that cause depressed cardiac activity, a burning sensation in the mouth, and headaches in humans" (http://mwrop.org/W_Needham/False_Hellebore_040411.htm).

(My own photo, from earlier this year. It's the plant more or less in the center)

It grows in the swamp, along with water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), which I look at in awe, as my book says it's "our deadliest species. A single mouthful can kill." Its flower is very similar in looks to Queen Anne's Lace (wild carrot, Daucus carota), but its leaves are very different. It gives me a morbid thrill to see it growing every summer.

This is water hemlock (someone else's photo)

And for comparison, here is Queen Anne's lace (also someone else's photo):

You can't see from the photo, but Queen Anne's lace has lacy leaves, like a carrot, whereas water hemlock has leaves that look sort of like sumac leaves. Also, Queen Anne's lace has a hairy stem, whereas water hemlock has a smooth stem.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 31st, 2006 03:22 am (UTC)
Can I just say that I don't think anything labelled "vetch" can be a good thing to eat.

It reminds me of "kvetch".

Which is never a good thing.
May. 31st, 2006 05:29 am (UTC)
I love it! Now I'm going to be thinking of the plant grumbling next time I see it.

("Why do I have to be a vine? Or if I have to be a vine, why can't I be a bigger one, like a grape vine? Why do I have to grow this way; why can't my leaves come in earlier? Why do I have to have bluish purple flowers; I would prefer red...")
May. 31st, 2006 02:26 pm (UTC)
("Why does that lady have to eat me?")
May. 31st, 2006 02:50 pm (UTC)
LOL!! I really was laughing out loud when I read that :D
May. 31st, 2006 03:51 am (UTC)
Ah yeah there are some varying accounts of some herbs I use from the wild, where one will say prickly poppy is poisonous and yet Mexicans have been using it forever for certain things so I use it, but carefully. It is not something I want to do a lot of as it is opiate but it is handy for cramps sometimes.

I am glad you did not get poisoned. It is always a little risky out there. I love this entry. It was a nice story.
May. 31st, 2006 05:32 am (UTC)
I loved what you wrote about the prickly poppy! I've always wished to try a nice, safe, mild perception-altering herb--but I've always been too chicken :-( I'm afraid even of pot because you have to smoke it--and I'm afraid of getting stuff in my lungs....)
May. 31st, 2006 12:49 pm (UTC)
You could always try a little bit in some brownies... ;)
Jun. 2nd, 2006 07:14 am (UTC)
haha--it's true! Well, one day maybe, when my personality changes from coward to true adventurer! :-)
May. 31st, 2006 01:14 pm (UTC)
Oh there are other ways to do pot heheh, come over and we will have Alice B, Toklas brownies. Ah I have to quit smokingit when I quit cigarettes I think. I have to quit all smoke. It is hard on me. I may make a tincture of it. It is pretty mild then but still has the health benefits, the pain relief etc.
May. 31st, 2006 04:34 am (UTC)
we use so many herbs on a daily basis that we don't ever seem to go out looking for them ourselves. We have tiny shops, even now, that sell various outlandish herbs and spices. I know that I treated my daughter's acid burns with one such herb and she has NO marks on her face today. Her arm was treated by allopathy; admittedly, the burns were a little more extensive; but she still bears the scars. The name of the plant is "maashakkai"...it is the fruit of the plant which is made into a paste with water and applied to the burn.

I have used "poolankizhangu" (a root) in the herbal powder that I used to bathe my infant daughter with, as she has always had sensitive skin. I still use "shikaakai", not detergent-based shampoo, to wash my hair. I don't know if this, or heredity, makes for the fact that I have not even started greying, at 52!

All the best with your herbal experiments...and may you live to tell the tale! And thanks for posting the photos of the plants too.
May. 31st, 2006 05:27 am (UTC)
I wish I grew up with genuine herb lore like that, instead of all from books! That's especially interesting about your daughter's burn--amazing!

Thanks for your good wishes regarding the experimentation. I try to be careful, though one time I did cook up mushrooms that made me and two of my children sick, much to my shame!
May. 31st, 2006 02:28 pm (UTC)
I don't ever it anything unless it comes out of little rows in my neighbors garden or in the bins at the grocery store!! I don't know enough about the differences to tell what's what. Thanks for the tips.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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