Plant Profiles

Sweet Peas (Lathyrus sp.)

DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or otherwise use any plants without doing your own research. I will not be liable if you misidentify a plant or follow misinformation I give (although if I give misinformation, please let me know!).

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Sweet pea is often grown as an ornamental, or simply grows wild as a weed in lawns.

Commonly found in horticultural gardens everywhere, it’s no wonder many people have asked whether sweet peas are considered edible. Unfortunately, the answer most commonly given is: “No, it’s deadly poisonous.” While it’s always good to take multiple trusted sources as likely true, the problem is that people dig no deeper. Does the sweet pea have poisonous qualities? Yes, but the plants that don’t have poisonous qualities whatsoever are few and far between.

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Sweet pea pods can be shaped like bean pods or pea pods, or entirely different. (Image used under creative commons license)

Why is there so much confusion, with some people claiming it to be edible and others to claim it will take your life? There is an amino acid within the plant that, when the plant is consumed in excess quantities over a long period of time (a study found that it takes approximately 30% of your diet comprised of sweet peas over 3 months or more to cause damage), it can cause a neurodegenerative and muscular wasting disease known as lathyrism. However, no fatalities have been directly attributed to sweet peas, and most people are unlikely to subsist solely off of them when there are many other sources of food around.

Identify

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Note how the stems have winged edges. In cross section, the stem will have a shape similar to that of a squinted eye. (Image used under creative commons license)

The winged stems are host to both leaves and tendrils. The leaves can grow in an alternate or opposite pattern and are occasionally succulent. The plants can be hairy or smooth, as can the pea pods, which grow in a variety of shapes. The flowers are like all other plants in the pea or bean family, and can be many colors, ranging from blue to pink to purple. The key feature to ensure you have the right plant is to look for winged stems. While there are a few members of the Lathyrus genus which have round stems, they are few and far between and best avoided to ensure you don’t consume a toxic lookalike.

Usage

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Sweet peas have the distinctive bisymmetric flower common for plants in the Fabaceae (pea and bean) family.

The flowers can be eaten raw or cooked, and add a colorful garnish to salads and other foods. The tips of the vines and the young shoots, leaves, and tendrils can be eaten cooked. The most nutritious part of the plant, the pods and their seeds, can technically be eaten raw (though they’re usually tough) and are best cooked. Fried in butter with a splash of vinegar and lemon juice and topped with parmesan is the best way to go, but in case you’re in a survival situation they’re still quite tasty plain. The roots of one species, Lathyrus tuberosus, grow tubers which can be eaten cooked.

And, as usual, make sure not to subsist entirely off of these just to be safe. Happy foraging!

Wild Food Experiments

Experiment: Wild Cherry Biscuits

DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or otherwise use any plants without doing your own research. I will not be liable if you misidentify a plant or follow misinformation I give (although if I give misinformation, please let me know!). P.S. This is not a plant profile, but rather an experiment in which I attempt to see if I can make something known to be toxic edible.

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Nanking cherries, Prunus tomentosa

I’ve always loved cherries. I’m pretty sure most people who’ve tried cherries like them. Even more than my love of cherries, however, is my intense love for learning the ways of prehistoric and ancient bushcraft. So when I heard about a way of cooking them that was likely done in mesolithic times to get the maximum energy and shelf life out of these fruits, I knew in my heart that it was my destiny to try this.

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Wild cherries are typically smaller than their cultivated counterparts, but often much more flavorful

I decided I would use Prunus tomentosa, the Nanking cherry, as this is an introduced species and therefore not particularly good for native habitats. In addition, it’s the easiest cherry for me to access in my vicinity, so I took advantage and grabbed a branch laden with the fruits.

Now the original steps call for simply grinding the cherry, seeds and all, then baking wrapped in a leaf in a very hot fire. However, as I don’t currently have convenient access to woodland where I can build a decent fire, I decided to take some extra precautions and then bake in an oven.

In South America, there is a root crop known as cassava (Manihot esculenta). It contains a multitude of cyanogenic glycosides (in the case of cassava, it’s linamarin), which your body digests into hydrogen cyanide. Amygdalin and prunasin are the primary cyanogenic glycosides in the Rosaceae family, to which cherries belong. Cassava is often finely ground or diced and then soaked in water in order to remove the glycosides (and in laboratory tests it has been shown to be highly effective). I figured that just in case the warmth of my oven wasn’t enough to drive the chemicals off, the water would certainly serve as a backup.

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Water mixture. It was left to soak overnight to ensure maximum removal of glycosides

So I ground the cherries and mived them with water and left it overnight, replacing the traditional jar lid with a permeable paper towel to ensure the cyanide wouldn’t all be released once I opened the jar and kill me. When that was done, I proceeded to makeshift a baking cup from foil and pour in the mixture, setting my oven to preheat at 225°C.

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This ended up taking a long time

The biscuit ended up taking 2 hours to bake at that temperature. It ended up being slightly soft, with a lot of crunchiness from the seed casings. It had a very good flavor, tart, but with a hint of sweetness and a nutty flavor reminiscent of almonds (not the bitter almond flavor commonly associated with cyanide). It’s not a flavor you’d expect to get from cherries. Best part is, after eating the entire thing, I have experienced no symptoms of cyanide poisoning, despite the fact that this many cherry pits would be enough to hospitalize me. The next time I try making this, though, I’ll try it in an actual fire without added water to truly get that mesolithic feel.

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Not the most appealing thing to look at, but definitely worth the effort

Why would an early human use something that, raw, would normally kill someone? Not only would it taste delicious (they didn’t often come across sweet things like is so common in modern society), but it’s a good way to preserve the sugar of the fruit and starches of the seed for future use in times when calories were not something so easy to come across. In addition, the seeds contain many vitamins and minerals which are important to cellular function. Most of the vitamins also store well after this method: though the vitamin C is lost, they likely ate many other fruits which had an abundance of vitamin C: for example, in the areas where these foods were eaten, sea buckthorn is commonly found (which supplies a massive amount of vitamin C year round).

So is this something I would recommend you try? Most definitely. I do, however, recommend as well that you do your own research before trying it and only try a small amount in case you’re allergic or accidentally mess up the process. Happy foraging!

Side note: Why, in modern society, would we have moved from these tart biscuits? Here’s my thought process: The first wheat products other than bread are finally being made in the middle ages, namely pastry. Since wheat provides plenty of calories, there’s no longer a need to eat cherry pits. People started removing the seeds from the now larger cultivated cherry to use in the modern version of this treat: the pie. But that’s just what I think. I’m probably wrong.

Plant Profiles

Blue Mustard (Chorispora tenella)

DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or otherwise use any plants without doing your own research. I will not be liable if you misidentify a plant or follow misinformation I give (although if I give misinformation, please let me know!).

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Chorispora tenella in its preferred habitat: waste ground

When I was growing up, there were these pretty purple flowers all over my back yard. I asked my mom what they were, and her answer was: “They’re a tenacious weed and a pain in my behind.” I know what she would have said if I weren’t 6 at the time. In any case, it turned out that the weed she had been pulling for years was an absolutely delicious edible food! How lucky I was to find that one out.

If you ask anyone what they think of this plant, whether or not they even know the name, they’ll probably tell you it smells terrible. While it does have an off smell which is the trademark of this plant. I, honestly, find it pleasing to smell. Either way, the smell is distinct and can definitely help a beginner forager identify this plant.

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Notice the alternate, spirally arranged leaves and fuzzy look

I enjoy this plant as is raw – though you may not enjoy the texture of the trichomes (small hairs) – or mixed into other foods. Its taste can range from biting to incredibly mild, but it has a distinct flavor which is hard to compare to anything else. It does well in stir fries and omelettes and is surprisingly tasty mixed into dishes such as curries. If the flavor is too strong for you, boiling it for a small while will certainly take care of that (as it will with most mustards).

So let’s go over the details.

Identify

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Flowers are like any other mustard

It’s a small, sprawling herb which forms in clumps or large swaths of ground. It rarely grows over 10cm tall. The leaves, generally growing no longer than 4cm, are arranged alternately and spirally along the stem. The flowers are small (up to 1cm) and purple or blue, with 4 petals and 6 stamens typical of the Brassicaceae (mustard) family. The smell is unlike any other plant, so break open a leaf if you need to confirm its identification.

It arrives in late winter to early spring, and can stay until winter arrives again. It prefers any disturbed or waste ground which are generally not ideal areas for foraging. Hedgerows, old lots, yards, or (best for wild foraging) margin areas of habitats. It can tolerate shade or shine and can even grow in acidic or basic clay soils: it’s a hardy plant.

Usage

You can eat the leaves raw (trichomes can be irritating) or cooked. Their flavor is distinct. The seedpods and flowers are also edible raw or cooked. I haven’t tried the roots, but as with practically any mustard, they are likely edible as well (and I have read that they are).

This plant can be eaten at any stage and any time of year.