Safe to eat? Don’t take a chance

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Wherever we are in the world, providing that there are trees and plants around us, nature tempts us with her own supermarket of fresh fruit and vegetables. The problem is that although a lot of this larder can be eaten, there is a good proportion which is inedible or poisonous; and just tasting or swallowing even a small piece of some of these can cause great discomfort, stomach pain, and even death. As none of these comes with a warning label, how do we know what we can and cannot eat?

Avoid before you begin
There are some common pointers which help you to determine whether a plant is potentially poisonous. Avoid those plants which have milky saps (an exception being the dandelion) or hairs, spines or thorns; avoid any beans or bulbs; any foliage resembling carrots, parsnips, parsley or dill; leaves with a three-leafed pattern; and grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs.

Universal edibility test
Although it is extremely time-consuming, there is a universal edibility test which one can try (see below), but before I describe how the test should be performed, bear the following in mind. The reason the test is time-consuming is that every part of the plant must undergo the same test procedure. Do not assume that just because one part of the plant is edible, that all parts of it are; some plants can have both edible and non-edible portions. In addition, do not assume that just because a part was edible when cooked, that it is also edible when raw. Each piece must be tested raw, before being eaten raw.

Make sure there’s enough
Do not waste time in testing whether a plant is edible or not if it is not in abundance in the area. The test for each part of the plant takes several hours, so it is in your interest to test a plant which is plentiful, rather than waste time on one which is sporadic.

The test
The test should be done on an empty stomach. This is to ensure that there is nothing in the stomach which could dilute the effects of any poison it may contain. Do not eat or drink anything during the test.

Separate the plant into its component parts: leaves, buds, flowers, stem and root etc., and then test only one part of the plant at a time. Do the test in the chronological order as set out below.

  1. Inspect: Make sure the part of the plant being tested is fresh, and not wilting, slimy, or otherwise unappetising in appearance.
  2. Smell: Crush a small amount between the fingers. If it smells of bitter almonds, peaches, or has any strong or acid odour, discard it.
  3. Irritation: Squeeze or gently rub a small amount of juice or sap onto a tender part of the skin – the inside of the upper arm or the wrist is ideal. If no discomfort or itching is experienced, proceed to the next level. If discomfort is detected, discard the plant.
  4. Lip, mouth and tongue:
  5. a) Touch a small portion (a pinch) to the outer surface of your lip to test for burning or itching. Wait 15 minutes, and if nothing has been detected, then
  6. a) Place the plant part on the tip of the tongue, holding it there for 15 minutes.
    b) Place the plant part under the tongue, holding it there for 15 minutes.
  7. c) If there is no reaction, thoroughly chew a small portion and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. (Do not swallow it.) If no burning, itching, numbing, stinging, or other irritation occurs during those 15 minutes, then swallow it. Wait five hours, eating and drinking nothing.
  8. d) If any ill effects occur during this period, induce vomiting, drink a lot of water, and swallow some charcoal which will absorb the poison, then consider the plant inedible.

If no ill effects occur, eat a small handful of the same plant part, prepared in the same way. Wait a further five hours. If no ill effects occur, then that part of the plant, prepared in that way, can be considered safe.

Don’t forget that each part of the plant must be tested in the same way, whether it is eaten raw or cooked. Although cooking will render some poisonous plants edible, this does not apply to all plants.

Even when you have found a plant to be edible, eat it in moderation until your body becomes accustomed to it. Consuming large quantities of many types of plant material can give rise to stomach-ache, nausea, cramp, diarrhoea, or worse − a very bad case of wind! Think of what the likes of cabbage and Brussel sprouts do…

Further, do not harbour the common illusion that just because a monkey or another animal is eating a plant, that it is safe for us to eat. These animals may have specialised digestive systems which can cope with certain poisonous plants.

On a final note, this test does not apply to fungi. Only positive identification will determine if the fungus is an edible or a poisonous type. Many species carry toxic peptides, a protein-based poison which has no taste, and can be deadly if eaten. As the saying goes, ‘If in doubt, leave it out.’

Don’t take chances with fungi.
By Paul Donovan

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