As a wild edibles enthusiast, there are times when I do have to provide a warning prior to consuming a wild edible. For example, if you are allergic to the cashew family, it would not be a healthy choice to drink staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) tea. If you have a heart condition, I would caution you about consuming common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), even though after steaming it, the cardiac glycosides are rendered inert. And I would point out that if harvesting the immature stalks in the spring, to be sure not to pick dogbane (Apocynum), milkweed’s toxic quasi-look-alike. It’s just best practices, that if there is a known issue about a plant or a poisonous look-alike, you let others know so that they can make up their own minds about whether or not to introduce a new edible or medicinal into one’s diet.
Plants do not come with warning labels.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) is the precursor to garden carrots. Heralding from Eurasia, this hairy-stemmed, feathery-leaved biennial has naturalized to North America. Also known as wild carrot, the plant grows in fields and other disturbed soils. Wild carrot blooms mid-July through August with seeds produced in late August through September. The flower is a flat umbel which has many small white flowers and often a central dark maroon flower. When the flower is going to seed it forms a bird’s nest cup-shape. The cream-colored taproot smells “carroty” but is tough and fibrous, so chewing on it is a chore though steaming the roots will tender it up a bit. In the spring young aerial shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. Umbels can be frittered or chopped raw into salads. And while wild carrot seeds can be used to flavor foods and medically for flatulence and colic, if one is pregnant and wants to remain such, one should avoid using the seeds for seasoning as seeds are also used as a contraceptive. Infusions of leaves can be used in the treatment of kidney stones, for cramps of the urinary system, and as an antiseptic mouth wash. Wild carrot has poisonous look-alikes, one being poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). All look-alikes have a smooth stem so look for the hairy stem for help in proper identification. Remember: “Queen Anne has hairy legs”.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) in Asteraceae is a multi-branching perennial with pinnate (lobed and feather-like) leaves, reaching up to 3’. Flowers resemble mini-daisies and chamomile, forming a yellow disk with white petals and bloom June through September. Though native to western Asia, feverfew can be found throughout the world and grows in disturbed areas throughout New England. As its name suggests, a tea made from feverfew can be used for sweating out fevers and mitigating migraines. A hot compress of the leaves can be used topically against inflammation of the organs. This plant has been used as an emmenagogue and an abortifacient because it can cause uterine contractions. Feverfew may cause allergic reactions in some, including contact dermatitis, nausea, and adversely impact those on blood thinners.
Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), in Berberidaceae (barberry family), is a native New England perennial with long thin smooth stems, thrice-compound, thrice-lobed green leaflets. And actually, the center leaflet is also thrice-lobed. The green 6-petaled flowers with yellow filaments and anther form a loosely branched cluster on a long stalk, blooming April-May (you may notice the purple flower buds first). Bright-blue berries ripen during the summer. Blue cohosh grows in rich moist deciduous forests. Roots are harvested in the fall as the plant is dying back and ground to make a tea to treat colic, sore throat, cramps, and start menstruation.
Rue (Ruta graveolens) in Rutaceae heralds from southeastern Europe and is mainly found in flower gardens in the USA due to its unique bluish and slightly silvered pinnate leaves and star-burst flowers of 4-5 petals. Around the world it has been used medicinally, culinarily, as an insect repellent, and a room deodorizer. Rue’s yellow to greenish-yellow flowers bloom June to September. You know when a recipe calls for a pinch of something? Well, rue would be one of those somethings. All aerial parts can be used as a strong bitter, flavoring soups, sauces, pickled vegetables, and teas. In higher dosages rue is toxic. Handle with gloves because the sap contains furanocoumarins, a chemical which when exposed to UV, sensitizes the skin to light and causing dermatitis and even blisters. Ingesting rue can cause miscarriages and uterine hemorrhaging due the compound methyl nonyl ketone and is considered a dangerous abortifacient (meaning: of all the abortifacient herbs this one is highly toxic to the user). One of rue’s constituents, the flavonoid rutin, is effective in combating fragility of the capillaries and has been used as an antispasmodic and as an eyestrain treatment. In companion planting, rue is used as an insect repellent, protecting surrounding flora, such as roses and raspberries.
So why would one consume an herb that may have adverse side effects? As with any food or medicine, individuals have to weigh the benefits of consuming the plant for their health condition vs the possible side effects.
A note about emmenagogues and abortifacient herbs: With Roe v Wade being overturned, many women may turn to plant medicines to bring on their periods or cause an abortion. It is vital to learn how specific herbs work on one’s menstrual cycle and internal system to know what plants are relatively safe to ingest and how to take them. For example, though American pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) in Lamiaceae (mint family) is non-toxic and can been taken as a tea to bring on a delayed period, ingesting it as an essential oil is toxic. Just because it’s more concentrated, doesn’t mean it will be more effective. Please do not go it alone. Seek counsel from an herbalist you trust and the support of loved ones. There are more emmenagogues and abortifacients available out there in the outdoors so do your research for what is available to you in your bio-region. Another option is a menstrual extraction which you and a group of friends could learn to do together. There is no law that states you cannot remove your blood from your womb.
Blessings in your connections to the world around you as you forage and more deeply understand your place in Nature.
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
A shorter version of this article appears in the July 2022 edition of The Ashfield News.
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Herbal Healing for Women by Rosemary Gladstar
A Handbook of Native American Herbs by Alma R. Hutchens
A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants by Arnold & Connie Krochmal
Northeast Foraging by Leda Meredith
Hygiea: A Woman’s Herbal by Jeannine Parvati