DPNC to teach trekkers what not to eat

The berries of the pokeweed plant are quite poisonous, but the plant’s greens are safe to eat.
The berries of the pokeweed plant are quite poisonous, but the plant’s greens are safe to eat. Courtesy Gerhard Elsner/ Wikipedia

Maybe it's the locavore movement, or the chance to feel like a kid again, happening upon a treasure of wild raspberries while exploring a patch of woods with a neighborhood buddy.

Whatever the reason, foraging for wild edibles is growing in popularity among urbanites, suburbanites and rural dwellers alike. Helping oneself from nature's produce aisles has become so trendy even New York City park rangers have been directed to be on the lookout for those who would turn public lands into communal pantries and tell them to stop.

"There's such a renewed interest in wild eating, in what grows in your back yard," said Maggie Jones, executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic. "People really want to know about it, and it's really fun."

In the past few years, the nature center has offered several programs about foraging, some tailored around a specific group of wild edibles such as mushrooms or the onion family. But a class being offered Friday, "Whatever You Do ... Don't Eat That!" addresses the flip side of the foraging craze, teaching would-be hunter-gatherers what not to eat, including how to differentiate poisonous plants from their edible cousins.

"There are a lot of look-alikes, and it's important for people to realize how easy it is to confuse them if you're not a botanist," said Jones, who is a botanist and especially enjoys wild mushrooms. "Many things that are poisonous taste bitter, but some taste sweet, or taste good."

The red berries of the aptly named deadly nightshade, for example, might be especially appealing to children, and they have an appetizing flavor. It's a relative of potatoes, tomatoes and other edible members of the nightshade family, but contains toxins that cause illness, Jones said.

Thornapple is another common weed that produces a fruit that will make anyone who eats it very sick. Poke weed greens are edible early in the growing season, Jones said, but the berries it produces are "very poisonous."

During the program, which will take place at the center's Coogan Farm property, Jones also will point out wild members of the carrot and onion families that don't belong in anyone's salad, as well as plants such as wild grapes that are edible to humans but will sicken a dog.

While Jones will share titles of some of her favorite guidebooks, she recommends that anyone new to the hobby go collecting a few times with an experienced forager before trying it on their own.

"You can't be too careful," she said.

j.benson@theday.com
Twitter: @bensonjudy

IF YOU GO

What: "Whatever You Do...Don't Eat That!" guided walk

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Coogan Farm, 162 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic

Cost: $12.75 for Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center members, $15 for nonmembers

To register: (860) 536-1216

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