One 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?