Date of the last update: 17.12.2021
There are many valuable and tasty plants that are nutritious and medicinal in a small dose but can be harmful to our health in large quantities. There are a few important rules to follow when foraging plants, either their parts or as a whole.
Table of Contents:
- How to use edible wild plants safely?
- Foraging principles
- How to prepare
- Overview of poisonous species easily confused with edible plants
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How to use edible wild plants safely?
This post is about wild edible plants, which can also be found in studies about poisonous plants, as several plants can become edible if appropriately prepared. The reason is also changing knowledge about plants, new toxicological studies and ethnographic studies that prove that particular plants have been a regular food source for various peoples over the centuries. There are many valuable and tasty plants that are nutritious and medicinal in a small dose but can be harmful to our health in large quantities.
Before bringing any plant from the field or meadow, you must be absolutely sure it is edible. Thus, the species must first be identified without any doubt and only then used. But remember, if one part of a plant is described in the literature as edible, this does not necessarily apply to other parts of that plant.
When collecting whole plants or just their parts, you need to follow a few rules. Do not collect plants from areas where the soil is saturated with nitrogen, such as the vicinity of rubbish dumps. Plants growing alongside busy roads are contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms and exhaust fumes containing lead, so they should not be collected within a protective strip of up to 100 meters from the roadside. Do not forage for plants near railway lines, cultivation farms, on the edges of fields where chemical sprays have been applied, near industrial plants and other places threatened by the fallout of harmful substances. Pick only healthy specimens, not attacked by pests or diseases.
Wash the collected plants carefully, especially if they are to be eaten raw (risk of ingesting parasite eggs), especially those from damp meadows and marshes (risk of contamination with fasciolosis), around human settlements (Ascaris lumbricoides) and forests (echinococcus). It is best to scald them with boiling water.
Eating the so-called wild vegetables is becoming a way to achieve a healthy lifestyle, attracting the attention of many potential consumers trying to obtain higher levels of bioactive substances from such vegetables rather than from conventional vegetables. Currently, this topic is regularly discussed both in popular science magazines and reputable scientific journals. However, special care and caution are required before recommending wild plants for edible purposes and demonstrating their functional and nutritional properties. Partial analyses of any specific substances found in plants indicated as edible, and relying on results highlighting only preferred properties without reporting potential toxicity associated with other unanalysed components of the plant, is a misleading procedure that may induce consumption without considering other likely species-specific toxic effects.
A comprehensive safety assessment of wild plants newly introduced for consumption is required before being generally considered safe, especially if they are to be consumed in larger quantities. Danish researchers have developed a strategy for assessing the safety of wild edible plants that have not been evaluated to date, along with appropriate methodologies for selected plants used culinarily in Scandinavian countries. Four of Scandinavia’s most typical food plant species were studied: common nettle, white quinoa, chickweed, and field sorrel. All bioactive components of these plants were analysed in relation to typical food plants to determine the so-called “substantial equivalence” (SE). The maximum daily intake for all four plants was set at 50 g fresh weight/day. The developed methodology can assess the safety of all newly introduced edible wild plants in the diet.
I would like to present the foraging principles as a few main points: the quintessence of several tips from various literature sources reviewed while preparing for this post.
- Never collect plants that are under species protection or that seem to be rare in your area.
- Always leave the majority of plants of a given species intact.
- When collecting individual parts, do not destroy whole plants
- Take only what you need and harvest as carefully as possible to make sure that the species can survive in nature
How to prepare
Wild edible plants can be prepared in many ways. The most popular include salads and “spinaches”, mushed, pastes, vegetable soups, sauces, and pickles. They can also be dried for tea or used directly as a seasoning, stewed, baked and fried. Use them to make preserves and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks
Overview of poisonous species easily confused with edible plants
When harvesting wild edible plants for culinary purposes, you need to be absolutely sure that you identified the plants correctly. Most plants are neither edible nor poisonous. They are merely untasty and not very nutritious. A few plants can poison you, and only a few are fatally poisonous after ingesting small amounts (e.g. a few leaves or a few fruits). Some of the most dangerous plants are the monkshood, white and green veratrum, red and green hellebore, cowbane (northern water hemlock), hemlock, European Scopolia (or henbane bell), Datura stramonium (thorn apple), Black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), belladonna, yew, autumn crocus, lily of the valley and mezereum. Every plant forager must first learn about the most dangerous poisonous plants. The leaves of hemlock and cowbane are mistaken for edible celery plants, while the leaves of autumn crocus and the lily of the valley can be mistaken for bear garlic and Goatsbeard. However, most of the plants listed above are quite rare and characteristic.
- Łuczaj, Ł. (2013). Dzika kuchnia. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Nasza Księgarnia, p.6
- Kremer, B. P. (2011). Dzikie rośliny jadalne i trujące. Warsaw: Bellona, p.6
- Lanska, D. (1993). Polne rośliny w kuchni. Printed in Slovakia: Warta, str.6
- Guil-Guerrero, J. L. (2014). The safety of edible wild plants: Fuller discussion may be needed. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 35 , pp. 18-20.
- Guil-Guerrero, J. L. (2014). The safety of edible wild plants: Fuller discussion may be needed. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 35 ,18-20.
- Mithril, C., & Dragsted, L. O. (2012). Safety evaluation of some wild plants in the New Nordic Diet. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50 , 4461-4467.