Foraging can be a very rewarding pastime and can add a whole new element to a walk in the country. At this time in the spring the scent of wild garlic fills woodlands and kitchens evoking memories and filling stomachs across the land.
However, this idyllic picture is soon shattered as there can be darker side to this botanical and culinary hobby. This year I’m sad to say I’ve come across many accidental poisonings from first time foragers. All have ingested small amounts of Arum maculatum or as it is more commonly known Lords and Ladies or Cuckoo Pint in the belief it was a lush green salad leaf. This has led to swelling and burning of the mouth due to the presence of oxalate crystals in the plant. To me this highlights a real gulf between television and the media’s representation of foraging as a safe and trouble free past time people can pick up easily. The reality is that without plenty of research, time and diligence and careful the process of elimination you can get things wrong.
In the case of lords and ladies the very fact that it burns the mouth on contact ensures that very little (if any) is ingested and it therefore often does no real long term damage. If you mistakenly eaten a small amount of the plant you should try and spit out all of the plant and repeatedly rinse the mouth with water. If symptoms persist or problems occur with breathing or if the burns are severe you should seek medical attention immediately.
Other plants to watch out for those in the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae or carrot family. Many cultivated edibles such as parsley (and of course the carrot) belong in this family as do tasty wild food plants such as Alexander’s and fennel. However this family also includes such nasties as hemlock and hemlock waterdrop wort which can potentially be fatal. For this reason Andy and myself always advise new foragers leave this whole family alone building up identification skills with safer plants first. Growing edible and poisonous plants from seed is one method of ensuring identification and at least one if not two seasons of observation (without eating) will help even more.
Foraging is fun and a great way of trying new foods you simply wouldn’t come across in normal life (have you ever seen Stag Horn sumac lemonade for sale?). Once you know what you are doing it is perfectly safe, I’ve had no cases of food poisoning from wild food but plenty from eating out.
There is one simple rule to go by if you are not sure its edible don’t eat it. Despite claims on the contrary PLANTS WON’T TELL YOU IF YOU CAN EAT THEM OR NOT. If in doubt book on a course nearby (one of ours if you are in the South West of England) and be sure check out the credentials of who you book with.