The importance of familiarity is no foreign concept to the forager. This is perhaps best illustrated by Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae). Like any extended family, its members range from those who join you every Christmas, to the toxic individuals that you’d rather avoid. Both familiar and foreign, they are found in every corner of Britain, ranging from some of our most loved vegetables to our deadliest plants. Growing in the monocultured fields that feed us and hiding in the forest glades we have forgotten, one need only step outside the door to encounter a member of this family.
When identifying the Apiaceae family, familiarity is key. What looked like Chervil when picking it might prove to be a fatal garnish upon eating it. Similarly, the difference between Hogweed and its giant cousin might be challenging to identify in their spring growth, but the consequences of consuming the wrong one could be dire. Both Umbelliferae – named for their ‘umbels’ of flowers – Hogweed and Giant Hogweed hold much in common apart from, unsurprisingly, their size. Reported to be very tasty, and packing more protein than curly kale, the former is a delicious and nutritious food-for-free. Pick the wrong shoots though, and the sap of the latter will cause severe phytophotodermatitis, meaning the skin can no longer protect itself from sunlight and erupts in blisters and burns.
In the valley behind my home there is a forgotten stream that winds its way quietly through avenues of ancient hazels. It’s bed is speckled red with terracotta sherds – all that remains of the market gardens that once stood there – and its banks are lush with vegetation. Walk these banks and one might see what looks like Parsley swaying in the breeze. Bruise the plant's leaves and it smells much like Parsley too, and its tuberous roots, exposed by the stream, could easily be mistaken for Wild Parsnip. Like with any plant, it would be illegal to uproot without the landowner’s permission – though the hapless forager who makes this mistake would have bigger problems on their hands than an angry farmer descending upon them.
Known by Hemlock Water-Dropwort, ‘dead man's fingers’ or ‘dead tongue,’ a bite of this plant's root is enough to kill a cow. Credited with Socrates death, it is laced with neurotoxins that wreak havoc on its consumer, including renal failure, spasmodic convulsions, paralysis and asphyxiation. Perhaps the grisliest of its attributed effects is the “sardonic grin:” facial spasms that leave a malevolent rictus smile pulled across the victim’s face in death.
Many of us know of the possible toxicity of mushrooms – their deadly potential well documented in our lore – but the same edict of familiarity is as important when foraging for flora as it is for fungi. Cases of misidentification of plants are commonplace in our history, and one need only make a misplaced assumption about what herb they think they’re picking to be exposing themselves to a dangerous fate. Case in point: Apiaceae.
Hedgerow, (2010). by Wright, J. London: Bloomsbury
Know Your Carrots., by Williams, M. Galloway. URL: [gallowaywildfoods.com]
Hemlock Water Dropwort. by Wild Food UK URL: [wildfooduk.com]