First, the tasty.
Knotweed (also known as smartweed) is blooming in our Park right now. It is fairly insignificant looking but it packs a heck of a punch! It is spicy. Peppery hot. Indigenous people and early European settlers used it to flavor their stews and salads.
When you chew a leaf (only a bit, it is really, really hot) at first there is no sensation. Then the heat starts to build and it just keeps on keeping on. I have never swallowed knotweed because even though I know it is safe to eat, I worry how much it might burn on the way down.
The distinguishing charactaristic of the plant is the way the stem consists of a series of joints. Its in the family polygonum, a word derived from Greek; poly means many and goni means knee or joint.
I like to think of knotweed as fall pepper. Spring pepper is Virginia peppergrass which isn’t quite as hot. Truthfully, isn’t near as hot!
Then the deadly.
Also blooming in our Park right now is white snakeroot. It has a bunch of other common names, but snakeroot is the one that most conveys that this is not a plant to take a nibble of. Ageratina altissima contains tremetol. Cows that graze on too much of it will be fine for a few weeks, but then will begin to tremble, grow weak and constipated. Death usually follows.
People who drink the milk (or eat the meat) of an affected cow will become sick with an illness the early European settlers called milk sickness. Thousands of settlers died of milk sickness. While native peoples knew of the dangerous properties of white snakeroot, the information wasn’t fully absorbed by European populations until the 1900s. Among the many victims of milk sickness was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham’s mother.
This Saturday I will be leading an nature walking tour in the park. Join us and as I talk about how our native landscape shaped our history, I will point out knotweed and white snakeroot and give you a chance to taste one of them. Having read this article, you will know which one to choose!
As this post illustrates, plants can be tasty, medicinal and poisonous. If you don’t know what it is (and really, really for certain), don’t eat it!