Foraging is a wonderful, magical and marvellous thing, and I hate to bring an air of negativity into something that feels so natural, but there is another side to it that needs mentioning to anyone new to the joys of a good forage.
I grew up picking wood sorrel as I spotted it and helping myself to blackberries, damsons and whatever else took my fancy. We foraged field mushrooms and made elderflower champagne, sloe gin, hedgerow jelly.
As each season passed there was so much to find and enjoy, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t make occasional mistakes. I though I knew what I was looking for, but I can tell you about the year that I made elderflower champagne with ash flowers (I hadn’t noticed the two trees were intertwined and had someone helping me pick who put in all the small white flowers they came across), or the time I made sloe gin with damsons and it was so sickly sweet that it was undrinkable (you need a lot of sugar to counteract the bitterness of the sloes, but damsons are naturally sweet and delicious), or the time I arrived home with a pile of field mushrooms only to spot an interloper in their midst when preparing them.
Foraging isn’t like growing things, you have to be careful to see what’s there, not what you expected to see.
Those who make their own tinctures will tell you that some can be powerful and all will affect people differently. Caution and moderation are the watchwords of the sensible forager.
What spurred me to write this warning, was hearing about someone who decided to start taking an evening tincture of foxglove leaf.
Foxgloves have been used in medicine for centuries. They contain several chemicals that affect the heart, the most commonly known being digitalis. Extracted and purified this is an important heart medicine still used today, but the dosage is key and you cannot calculate dosage when making your own tinctures. Digoxins are dangerous poisons.
Foxgloves don’t just contain this one thing that can kill or cure, they contain many layers of nastiness; emetics, hallucinogenics and of course various digoxins. The person who began a regimen of foxglove tinctures hospitalised herself and was lucky to have not done worse. There is no part of a foxglove that is not poisonous, from root to flower they are deadly.
You may wonder why I am labouring the foxglove-point, but I learnt the hard way just how dangerous they can be. My daughter once ate a foxglove leaf and she was so incredibly lucky to survive it. It was a traumatic and terrible time. She went to sleep on a Saturday and woke up many days later in a hospital hundreds of miles from home. Once the poison was in her and the antidote had been given, there was nothing we could do but wait and see if she had taken too much. Beyond a certain limit there is nothing anyone can do, and no one could predict when the toxin levels in her blood would peak.
You can read more about that experience here, and learn more about poisonous plants at The Poison Garden.
When it comes to foraging, knowing the difference between one leaf and another can be a life saver. If you are not sure, then do not pick it. Make sure that all children know not to eat things without checking with an adult first.
This year foxgloves are growing in my garden. The bees love them, they are beautiful, and the fault was entirely ours for not showing enough respect.
I am careful to grow edible plants in one area of the garden, and inedible ones elsewhere. I am careful to make sure that my children – who are now old enough to understand – know never to eat something without checking with me.
Safety must come first. There is much we can learn and enjoy, that nature provides, but most of all she must be shown respect and appreciation.