As a person addicted to making green smoothies for breakfast every day, I often put a handful of fresh or frozen berries into the blender for flavor and for their excellent nutritional benefits. In my garden I grow blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, aronia berries and also native elderberries.
I’ve read about how rich in antioxidants and enzymes these berries are, especially elderberries, and often use them in pies, scones, jam, and have canned their juice. Elderberries aren’t particularly sweet, so I have always cooked them in some form with sweetener added. However, with my current interest in consuming a larger percentage of my food in raw or fresh form, it was surely only a matter of time before I stepped outside some fall morning to pick a cluster or two of ripe elderberries to put into my raw smoothie. Well, I can assure you it’s not going to happen after all!
Here’s what author Amy Stewart says about elderberries in her book, “Wicked Plants”: “This fruit, popular in jams, cakes and pies, is much more dangerous when consumed raw. In 1983 a group of people attending a retreat in central California had to be flown by helicopter to a hospital after drinking fresh elderberry juice. Most parts of the plant, including the uncooked fruit, may contain varying levels of cyanide. Generally, people experience severe nausea and recover.”
Maybe I wouldn’t have consumed enough to kill me, only make me very sick. Still, I am very glad to know I have been spared this experience by educating myself further about dangerous plants. And there are many such plants in our American West environment, as well as numerous dangerous plants we can easily encounter in our travels.
I have written on the subject of poisonous plants twice before, but every time I do, I am astonished at the things I didn’t know. For instance, I was taught as a young girl to cut off before cooking any part of a potato that had been exposed to the light long enough for its skin to turn green. What I did not know is that this green skin can be a sign of increased levels of solanine, a poison which can bring on burning and gastrointestinal symptoms and in rare cases, even coma and death. The message here is, don’t put raw potatoes, especially green ones, in your smoothie!
Here’s another perfectly safe common food that can be dangerous if eaten raw or undercooked: A harmful compound in red kidney beans called phytohaemagglutinin can bring on severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. “People usually recover quickly, but it takes only four or five raw beans to bring on these extreme symptoms. The incomplete cooking of raw beans in a slow cooker is a common source of red kidney bean poisoning,” says Stewart. So use the high heat on your slow cooker when making chili con carne for dinner.
Celery stalks are another big favorite of mine for green smoothies. They are loaded with great nutrition, but I now know that people who eat large quantities of celery and go out into the sun or to the tanning spa, can be at risk for skin burns from the phototoxic compounds produced by many plants in the carrot or parsley family. More commonly, skin contact with many of these plants, combined with sun exposure, can cause a severe rash. Caution is advised when working with celery, dill, parsley and parsnips. Wearing kitchen gloves when preparing these vegetables might be a sensible move, especially if you are going out into the sun soon after.
The most dangerous plants in this family are water hemlock, poison hemlock, giant hogweed and cow parsnip. “These wild plants contain neurotoxins and skin irritants, but they so closely resemble their edible cousins that tragic mistakes have been made by hikers and cooks,” Stewart writes.
I’ll continue to enjoy celery in my smoothie, just not every day!
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in the At Home section. Gloria Kupferman is one of three columnists featured.