Can you eat any of the plants in this picture? Really? How do you know?

This post from the always excellent Rowley’s Whiskey Forge got me thinking about this. He posts a really cool recipe for a liqueur called mistela de chimajá. I couldn’t resist–I had to go look up the plant. But more about that in a minute.

First, some background: So the foraging/wildcrafting movement has met the craft distilling movement and the result is that people want to go out into the wilderness, or into a vacant lot, or into the woods, and pull a plant out of the ground and drop it into some high-proof spirits and extract some flavor from it. You know, dandelion bitters, honeysuckle liqueur, whatever.

It’s a nice idea–mostly. There are just a couple of problems with taking plants from uncultivated spaces–meaning, spaces that aren’t farms or gardens. The first is that some wild plants are kind of scarce, and pulling a few out of the ground to make a batch of bitters might actually hurt the plant population–or the wildlife population that depends upon it.

And the second reason is that unless you are really, really sure about what you’re doing, you might actually be extracting poisons when you infuse your plants in alcohol. Alcohol is a very good method for extracting poisons from plants. And keep in mind that plants generally don’t want to be eaten, which is why they manufacture poisons in the first place. I’ve heard people who are really into foraging say things like, “Oh, I eat everything I pick, and I’ve never been poisoned,” as if not getting poisoned is all about being down with the plants, or being a true believer. That’s a foolish statement that overlooks the fact that nature is powerful, and that it is in a plant’s nature to manufacture poisons that punish anyone who tries to eat it. If you were a plant, isn’t that what you would do?

Okay, so back to mistela de chimajá. The name chimajá refers to a number of plants in the genus Cymopterus. They are broadly called “spring parsley.” They’re a member of the carrot family, Apiaceae. The long taproot is what’s used to make the liqueur.

That right there should be enough to really, really slow you down. Because the carrot family is one of those nefarious plant families with lots of criminal relations. Hemlock, the plant that killed Socrates. Aconite, or monkshood, which has killed many people who mistook it for parsley. Giant hogweed, a nasty creature with vile, caustic sap. If a plant has a long taproot and finely cut, lacy foliage, it’s probably in the carrot family. And if it’s in the carrot family, you need to proceed with caution. And if it has a taproot, you need to remember that plants tend to concentrate their poisons in the taproot as a form of defense.

So what do we know about Cymopterus? We know that one species, C. watsonii, causes severe photosensitive reactions in livestock that eat it. This can include everything from mild sunburn to really nasty blisters. The always reliable Jepson manual also notes that some species are toxic to livestock. One of the few reliable papers on edible species like C. montanus notes at the end that they still need to be tested for toxicity.

So–if you go out foraging for “spring parsley,” which species are you planning to harvest? Can you tell them apart? Can you even tell Cymopterus from other, more distant relations in the carrot family? And given that botanists themselves don’t know for sure what a toxic dose would be for humans–do you?

My vote? Skip it. Leave the spring parsley in the field. I don’t dispute the notion that there is an edible variety, or that the cool recipe that Matthew Rowley turned up on his blog is in fact something that people once made and enjoyed. But I could spend a lifetime working my way through the plants that I know to be edible and safe before I ever got bored enough to start tinkering around with wild, untested, and possibly dangerous herbs.

Want to try this out with an edible substitution? How about bitter dandelion root? Or–a close relation–cilantro root?

What are your thoughts on wild harvesting?


  1. As someone who studied wildcrafting for some time at a reputable herb school some 30 years ago, that is a bit of a scary thought. I never eat a plant unless I’m reasonably sure of what it is, and I have to be ABSOLUTELY sure with certain plant families, like the carrot/hemlock family or the lily family. I do see plants that I recognize all over the globe, but it’s taken years of hands-on id-ing to get to that point. The ethics of wildcrafting are so important as well. Are there many large stands of the plant, or are you pulling up the only one? Are you harvesting a part of the plant that will help its growth, or one that will cut it short? Is it an at-risk species? (see united plant savers at-risk list) Then there are sources of pollution, etc, that you could be magnifying when you create your infusion. I take harvesting a plant in the wild very seriously, and try to slow down and check in before I harvest. It’s easy for me to react like a curmudgeon, though, and just say that’s bad. perhaps this is an opportunity to expand awareness…

    • I do not harvest…except from my own vegetable garden… and recognizable berries in the wild.

      We do have Queen Anne’s Lace on our property, along with Jerusalem Artichokes, Angelica, Teasel and Burdock. All are sold to those who want them through catalogues. It’s the QAL that is officially a noxious weed and on the list for eradication here. Yes, that is because of the cows being affected by it and the farmers have the voice. (I think it is pretty, of course! But that is a different matter) I have never tried eating any of the above. Oops, I was once served Jerusalem Artichokes.

  2. Harvesting from the wild can be fatal. When I studied native plants a few years ago we were told about a white water rafting expedition in Colorado some years before. The group camped out and the leader harvested some carrot-like plants for their campfire dinner. It killed several people in the party. A friend of mine wanted to show me this gorgeous plant growing in her yard and it was beautiful–and it was poison hemlock (I had just learned to I.D. it and it had the obvious red blotches on the stems). I’ll echo The Lazy Composter & Amy–you should only eat what you’re absolutely certain of and decimating wild populations can be a problem. On the other hand, humans have been wild harvesting since they came into being and there is a lot out there that can and should be utilized and enjoyed in a non-damaging way (including wild mushrooms). Just study first!

  3. I’m the same – unless I’m 100% sure what it is, I don’t eat it. Or I take a ton of pictures and go home and attempt to identify it.
    Sandra’s story about the deaths in her camp is a scary reminder that not all vegitation is meant to be consumed. As much as a “wild man” I like to be seen as, I don’t take chances when it comes to picking ingredients from the wild.
    I did startle my boyfriend when I picked some garlic mustard and started to chew on it. He thought it was poison ivy… but then again he thinks EVERYTHING is poison ivy [oriental bittersweet, pole beans, virginia creeper, forsythia, black walnut… etc] and when I do point out the actual culprit, he says I don’t know what it looks like… heh.

    I’d like to add: Ramps. Yum yum ramps…

  4. I grew up in the South eating wild plants – polk salad, sheepgrass, berries & fruits of all kinds. But this Western landscape is still foreign to me after 20 years & I’m still feeling my tentative way into the edible wilds. Blackberries, crabapples, prickly pear, & the wild or escaped plum & fig I’m good with. But when it comes to greens and roots ? They kind of scare me. I fully intend to find some classes to teach me more about the really wild foods, but that doesn’t seem to fit my schedule any time soon. Sad, since it’s long been a goal of mine to learn to be able to forage more than occasional foods from the land around me.

  5. As a toxicologist who works on food poisons daily, this is an excellent point. One of the ways I detect poisons is by extracting into an organic (like alcohol) first. However, I also have to say I have been more then a little intrigued with the wild plant harvesting movement and would love a mentor in my area to learn from!

  6. My boyfriend was a trifle shocked when I pointed out a Euphorbia in the yard and told him casually that if he happened to fall into it or something and broke a stem, not to get the sap in his eyes because it causes (temporary!) blindness. “We have something in the yard that makes you go BLIND?!”

    I explained, as gently as I could, that we have many things in the garden and environs that are quite bad for you because Plants Aren’t Nice. I think he was not so much surprised by that as by the fact that so many ornamental plants would be a very bad idea to eat.

  7. I live in a high valley desert area and like Laura, grew up munching on a few wild plants that my parents taught me were safe.

    Since I’ve grown, I have purchased several local plant, shrub & tree ID books. I never pick anything unless I’m absolutely sure I know what it is, and even then I stay away from the wild carrot family. I only pick small amounts from plants that are abundant in an area, and only what I’m sure I will use. I also leave a few areas ‘wild’ in my yard and garden and happily use the dandelion, mallow, chickweed, plantain and clover that pop up there.

    Wild harvesting is a gift from your local land that shouldn’t be abused or stumbled into without proper plant knowledge. Look, photograph and research before you ever pick!

  8. We have always had Queen Anne’s Lace on our farm over the years, but this year for the first time, I identified a small patch of poisonous hemlock, right over our septic tank. The 2 are really similar if you’re not paying close attention. Personally, I wouldn’t try to eat either, but even handling the toxic stuff to eradicate it can present problems. We don’t use a lot of herbicides, but this would be one of those times.

    That said, it’s immensely satisfying to forage and eat wild foods one knows are ok (although I leave mushrooms to the experts, too). What a sad thing if humans lost a knowledge gained over many thousands of years.

  9. I just wanted to add there are lots of safe-to-eat and nutritious plants (some call them weeds) in most backyards–I have dandelion, lamb’s quarters, purslane, burdock, to name four–and all are highly nutritious. Humans have subsisted for millions of years on an enormous variety of nature’s offerings; the fear factor is very real but needs to be kept in perspective.

  10. Among people who forage for mushrooms, we often say that there are bold mushroom hunters and there are old mushroom hunters, but there are no bold AND old mushroom hunters. 🙂

  11. I wish I knew of more wild plants that I could safely eat. Right now, it’s just purslane and low bush blueberries. Purslane grows in my garden anywhere the dirt has been disturbed, and it’s very tasty, too.

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