Words of Caution on Wild Edibles

elderberry
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) Photo: Chris Schnepf, University of Idaho/Bugwood.org

In the October 2013 Forest Stewardship Notes, I gave information on how to collect and use elderberries.  The information was based on years of harvesting and using the fruit myself. I also drew on a number of other authors to support my experiences with their research. I was recently contacted by an individual who had a bad experience with elderberries. His words of caution are very valuable: When you harvest elderberries make sure that you only use the berries that are completely ripe. The elderberry bunch of fruit will often contain both ripe and green fruit. The ripe fruit will have a clear glossy finish. The younger fruit will often have a bluish blush or coating.

Not all people react to wild fruits the same. Use an old survival technique if you are eating anything for the first time. Take a small sample of the fruit. See if you have any bad reaction on your tongue or throat. I will wait a couple of hours to see if I have any stomach distress. I also watch my breathing and my heart rate. If all goes well then later you can cautiously consume a little more. If a trip to the forest will include trying new foods, it doesn’t hurt to pack along an emergency kit with the necessary substances in it to assist you if you find yourself in distress. It may be as simple as over-active bowels or upset stomach.

Of course, the essential item to insure a safe wild-crafting experience is KNOWLEDGE. Positive identification of the plant is the absolutely vital first step. While the majority of bad reactions are due to spoilage, under- or over-ripeness, or individual sensitivity to otherwise-edible plants, there are also a few extremely poisonous species in our Washington forests. Mistakes with these have proven fatal. There are many great books and websites on plant identification. But some of my best sources of practical information are the men and women who harvested native edibles, not just for fun but to improve their family’s diet and extend the food supply. Getting to know these plants is a great opportunity to tap into this generational knowledge, and develop an ever greater appreciation of your own woodland resources.

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forest Products Specialist
freedj@wsu.edu