On Mistakes: Or, How to Screw Up and Die

ImageOne of the local alternative weekly newspapers here, the Willamette Week, ran a story on poisonous wild berries this past week. At first I was psyched to see it, and then as I read it I was bummed to see many inaccuracies. For example, they mistakenly reported that bittersweet, Solanum dulcamara, is poisonous to sniff the scent of and also a potentially lethal hallucinogen. Bittersweet is not poisonous to sniff. It is poisonous to eat but is rarely lethal (fortunately), and it is not generally regarded as a hallucinogen, and has no ethnobotanical history of use that way, which one would generally expect if it had any potential in that regard. It could be considered a deliriant, technically, but that’s not the same thing and there are few if any reports of poisonings that discuss this as a symptom. When I asked the newspaper for their source, they sent me to a museum website in Nova Scotia. The website had mistakenly stuck information about Jimsonweed, Datura stramonium, in an article about Bittersweet. The museum writer, not paying any attention to Latin names for the plants, apparently got confused and must have assumed that they were the same thing (even though they don’t look alike). The newspaper, in turn, made the usually-safe assumption that a museum website was a reliable source and repeated their error.

That wasn’t the end of it. The newspaper reporter also mistakenly wrote that uncooked elderberries are safe to eat but that at the same time they’ll poison you and become cyanide in your body if you eat too many. Obviously, that doesn’t make sense. They were confusing the caveat about the need to cook red elderberries with the edibility of other species, and were confusing the chemicals in the leaves with the chemicals in the berries. All parts of elderberry except for flowers and fruits contain compounds that become cyanide in the body. Uncooked red berries simply cause stomach upset; raw blue or black are fine. And they’re really tasty, too. When I told the editor about all these mistakes, he told me I was wasting his time and that it was all just semantics. Wow, Willamette Week. I used to respect you. (For accurate info on elderberry, click here). Edited to add: To their credit, they’ve agreed to run corrections. And the editor apologized to me. [Also edited to add 7/17/13: Blue elderberries (Sambucus cerulea) can also make you sick if eaten raw in large quantity.]

Meanwhile, another forager blogger recently wrote about trying to eat a plant she referred to only by its common name of “Skunk Cabbage.” It’s a good thing she said it tasted bad because it wasn’t that plant at all but instead a highly poisonous plant that looks similar, Veratrum viride, also commonly called False Hellebore. “Skunk cabbage” is a common name that can refer to multiple species, but usually out West it means Lysichiton americanus. When some astute readers pointed out her major mistake on Facebook, she explained that someone in her community had said it was edible so she trusted that, and avoided addressing it on her blog. After a lot of pressure, she eventually posted a blog entry mentioning that there had been a misunderstanding, but didn’t tell her readers the Latin names of the plants or explain how they could avoid doing the same thing. Wow, did this ever bug me! If you’re a source of information for people, you have responsibilities to them, and those responsibilities are supposed to trump your sore-ass ego.

Sure, being wrong can really be embarrassing sometimes, especially when you’re in a position of authority on a subject. Recently, for example, I believed a friend new to foraging who casually told me that a plant in her yard was belladonna, so I called it belladonna whenever I saw it around town, until someone else more knowledgeable pointed out to me that actually it was bindweed, Convulvus arvensis, a plant in the morning glory family, and not belladonna, Atropa belladonna. (Both are poisonous). I could’ve averted my mistake by fact-checking my friend’s initial comment and looking it up by Latin name. That would’ve lead me to images that clearly didn’t match. (This mistake was not on my website. If it had been, I would have corrected it).

Screw-ups like these are very common. It is extremely easy to make mistakes in the world of plants, because there are so many plants out there, and also so much bad information out there. In fact, it’s so easy that I almost don’t trust someone who hasn’t screwed up. And that’s one of the reasons why I am a big fan of the very responsible forager blogger Wild Food Girl, who should be commended. She is very reliable, but on the rare occasion that something turns out to be incorrect, she promptly runs corrections and takes full accountability.

The moral of this story is two-fold: 1) Always use the Latin name of the plants you’re interested in, not the common name. 2) Be discerning. Just because you read it on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s correct, and sometimes even published books are wrong. Which are reliable? I have a list of recommended field guides on my Resources page.

Also feel free to check out my ever-expanding Search Plants! page, which lists all the plants I’ve written about in my five years or so of blogging here. I’m perpetually updating it and it’s currently got 50+ entries. It may well double as I catch up with adding the back entries. Click the names, not the photos, to go to old posts.

And, hey – I definitely want to hear your thoughts on this one. Comments?

28 thoughts on “On Mistakes: Or, How to Screw Up and Die

  1. I have read the comments here. Big moment for me as a student was on a walk with john kallas. I asked him what something was, he kindly responded, “I don’t know.” Another timea student asked him what a domestic plant they saw was and he kindly responded, “I’m not as familiar with domestic plants. I don’t know what that is.” He made humility and integrity acceptable to all present. Very refreshing in this world.

    Becca, I would be very comfortable learning from you blog, classroom, or other (I already have). The very integrity many here are talking about is a must for me to give my money. Your recommendations led me to most of the books in my wild food library (minus thayer and kallas, I actually found out about you through sam thayers site). Thank you for standing up for honesty, integrity, and thorough research. When I’m ready to start dabbling in medicinal stuff I’m comin yer way.


  2. Latin names are incredibly good to know to avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings. On the other hand I can understand why some people feel that learning Latin names can be intimidating, boring etc etc. I struggle with this sometimes too…. What I find really helpful (in all walks of life) is to add meaning and relevance. Often by the side of my bed you’ll see the book The Names of Plants by David Gledhill (http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Names_of_Plants.html?id=NJ6PyhVuecwC&redir_esc=y). As described here, the intro is interesting, but it’s very useful just to dip into the second part at spare moments. There you’ll find an extensive glossary of generic and specific plant names as well as components of these. The origins of each term/component are explained concisely, adding a rich layer of meaning to ones understanding. I’m sure there are a number of books like this, but I’ve found this one particularly useful.

  3. Reading your post today I thought, “Why step outside Portland, Oregon for id of wild plants. We have some great people mentioned above.”

    It reminds me of the story of the raft guide who thought he knew “wild carrot.” He served it to the group. He was wrong, and because of that mistake, everyone died on that trip! Don’t eat, what you don’t know.

  4. Hey Becky. Great writing. This reminds me of a time that I gathered Claytonia sibirica believing it was Claytonia perforatum. I had never heard of the Siberian miner’s lettuce before. I remember noting that it looked and tasted a bit different but I went ahead and ate a bunch anyway. I was lucky that they are both edible. I always think of that now when I am identifying plants as a reminder to know exactly what I am picking.

  5. Great post! Thank you for bringing this issue up. The amount of misinformation that gets passed around in the plant world is staggering and it is because of many of the situations you brought up. Kudos to you for calling out the editor and not sit silently by. I don’t trust the majority of our edible and medicinal plant books because much of the information is taken from previous authors who were mistaken to begin with! My motto when teaching anything but especially plants is “Don’t take my word for it” (lovingly borrowed from “The Reading Rainbow”). Research, research, research! And please Becky don’t hesitate to point out any mistakes on my blog!

  6. I really appreciate the point you’ve made about honesty and owning up to mistakes. I teach wild foods cooking classes, which usually involve some sort of plant walk, too. In the past, the plant walks made me nervous because I felt a certain pressure to know every plant. It was only after I came to terms with my own place in the journey, and was able to say to students, “I’m a wild foods enthusiast, but not a botanist. I know the plants I eat pretty well, but I don’t know every plant. You might be able to teach me something, or we could look up a plant in a field guide or botanical key together,” that I started to really feel comfortable. Botanical terms and binomials needn’t be intimidating. Not only will they keep us all safer, they’re a great source of learning the relationships between plants, which leads to a greater potential to identify.

    Thank you for speaking up.

    • Butter,

      I love that you say that to your students. I tell people, “I know a lot of these, but we might come across something I don’t know and if so I’ll research it and get back to you.” I think I’m gonna revise that and adopt some of your wording, if you’re cool with that. 😉 I think setting expectations is really important. I also feel that pressure and do struggle with feeling super uncomfortable if I don’t know something. People sometimes project expectations at me that I’ll know everything and I think they get disappointed if I don’t. I think it’s important to knock myself off any pedestal and reveal myself as a perpetual student with a good amount of experience as a researcher and plant nerd — but not a botanist who knows everything.

      • I had a real turning point last year when someone on my blog called me a phony (long story, but I guess he assumed there is only one type of juniper in my area). Turns out he was wrong, and a jerk. But I had to ask myself what I’d do if he was right. That time will come. I will make a great big mistake, a public mistake. How I stand up to that situation matters. Not only does it inform my own character and future, but ripple throughout our community, and tells other people what choice to make in the same situation.

        Another thing I learned in walking and talking with my buddy Wild Food Girl is knowing when to say, “I’m not the right teacher for you.” I’ve had a huge leap of growth this year in settling down with my knowledge, both what I do and do not know, which helps me deal with the “what’s that? what’s that? what’s that?” people on my walks. My own mission is to help people actually bring wild foods into their kitchens and really use them, even if it is only one plant. That’s something I can do, and do well. So, I’m totally with you, laying myself out there as a lifelong student and plant nerd, who is willing to share – thoughtfully, lovingly, and with a generous spirit.

      • Screw whoever called you a phony, you most certainly are the realest deal.

        I like also your suggestion of examining fit. It’s true, some people might be wanting a botany teacher instead and it’s a good thing to point them in that direction if it happens.

  7. Becca,
    I have huge issues with this. I used poorly constructed books with little to no info on the plants I was identifying (even though they were in the book). Inaccurate, confusing, and poorly designed books almost made me give up. Books by John kallas and samuel thayer came to the rescue. Things like this piss me off. They are the reason foraging is not embraced and why many won’t try it. I almost gave up. That would have been unfortunate since I have gained so much appreciation for the world we live in from foraging.

    Sam thayer is right when he concluded more people would demand our planet be taken care of if more people foraged. Ignorance and misinformation in this regard are the enemies of freedom, health, and true environmentalism.

    • Marc,

      Thanks for your comment. It really is frustrating that even some books are inaccurate! But as you said, yes, thank goodness for Sam Thayer and John Kallas. And Steve Brill too, and also Thom Elpel, among others!

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