Before you make that salad, you better be sure exactly what every plant is that’s in it. Ignorant urbanites are dying for trendy taste sensations, literally. Or, at least ending up in the emergency room. What’s better than going out in the local environment and foraging for some of your food? You get out in the fresh air and sunshine while gathering natural and organic goodies for your table. Getting back to basics is great but its a good idea to have a field guide with you to help identify what you find.
Which plant is which?
This time of year, with the weather warming up, folks like to get outdoors and explore nature. The more practical types bring a few supplies and go foraging for food. Sometimes, Dr. Chris Holstege warns, “what they’re finding is poisoning them.” One plant can look much like another, especially when they change appearances as they grow. Holstege works as medical director of the Blue Ridge Poison Center at UVA Health in Virginia.
Local residents have been out picking what they think are wild leeks, called “ramps.” They were close. Instead they came home with “false hellebore, a highly toxic native species with leaves that — to the uninitiated — resemble the tops of wild leeks.”
In his 22 years with the hospital he’s seen plant mismatch cases before but the trend is increasing. We’ve “only had two cases prior to this past year” but over the last few months, aspiring foragers have, according to one outlet, “mixed false hellebore into spaghetti sauce, sautéed it in stir fries and sprinkled it over ramen.”
Some of the worst cases “led to hospitalizations, with symptoms including vomiting, cardiac arrhythmias, dangerously low blood pressure and even seizures.” Not only that, they won’t have dinner guests for a long time.
It has a toxin, the doctor relates, “that opens up our neuronal and our cardiac sodium channels.” The good news is that it gives a warning.
“The patients that we’ve talked to, they talk about, ‘Yeah, we went foraging, we started to eat it, and our tongues started tingling.’ That’s because your neurons are set off, so you get this weird sensation that only gets worse if you keep going.” Some ignore it. After all, leeks are a pungent plant.
Socially distanced activity
All across the country this year, doctors are reporting around a 25 percent increase in plant poison cases this year where foragers mistake Ramps for other, less friendly plants.
Poison control centers agree that they are getting more calls too. They think it’s because “the pandemic has driven interest in foraging as a safe, socially distanced activity” that gets people out of the house.
Kyle Morse spent a decade cooking and watched ramps spread from fancy restaurants to home tables. Ramps, he notes “are prized for their versatility. With a flavor that’s often described as a cross between onions and fresh garlic, they’re served pickled, in pestos, on top of pastas, compounded into butter and more.”
Wild plant consumption may be trendy but Morse knows an acquaintance who ended up in the hospital after confusing ramps with the similar-looking poison.
Another plant which frequently gets mistaken for ramps is highly toxic Lily of the Valley. “The risk with foraging is that people tend to eat much more of the dangerous ingredient when it’s incorporated into food.
Even children are more likely to be poisoned by a parent feeding them the foraged ingredients than they are to find and consume large amounts of them on their own.”