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identifying the plant source of an edible seed from Iraq

I know these salted nuts are called ‘sissi’ in Iraq, where they are a traditional snack, but what plant do they come from?














Because of the distinctive spiny tips on the husks, I think these are seeds of Gundelia tournefortii. The plant is native to rocky soils of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean, and is a type of thistle called ‘akkoub’ in Arabic, and ‘akuvit ha-galgal’ (possibly meaning wheeled thistle because it forms tumbleweeds, or perhaps thistle tough enough to ensnare wheels) in Hebrew. Its English common name is tumble thistle. The species is named for Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, author of the 1717 book Relation d’un voyage du Levant, fait par ordre du roy  An illustration from the book depicts it.

Not only are the seeds edible, but so too are the immature inflorescences (similar to artichoke). Over-harvesting of the unopened flowering heads by commercial enterprises can lead to broad swathes where plants are not given a chance to flower and produce seeds. Conservation efforts are underway in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and elsewhere in the region to make sure this important seasonal food plant is cultivated and harvested sustainably.

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On the edibility of fiddleheads

Are Bracken fern fiddleheads edible? The very old Euell Gibbons edible plant books say it’s o.k. but I’ve heard rumors that it is toxic and shouldn’t be eaten. Do the edible Ostrich Ferns grow in western Washington? I have lots of sword ferns, but nobody seems to mention if they are edible.


The fern whose fiddleheads are most commonly (and perhaps most safely) consumed is the ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris. According to Sue Olsen’s Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns, this plant will grow “in the severe and forbidding climates of Newfoundland and Alaska,” but they do not do well in areas with hot summers. We do occasionally have hot summers in Washington State, so that could pose a challenge, but if you suite the plant in an area with some shade, it might survive a heat wave.

The University of Maine Extension has a factsheet entitled “Facts on Fiddleheads” which mentions the health risks associated with their consumption, and offers tips on how to avoid illness. Note also, this Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page on Ostrich Fern Poisoning.

An article in Fine Gardening discusses which fern fiddleheads are safe to eat.
“Throughout the world, several types of fiddleheads are eaten, though most contain toxic compounds. The most commonly eaten and most esteemed fiddlehead is that of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris, USDA Hardiness Zones 2-8), often simply called fiddlehead fern. The ostrich fern is the safest fern to eat, even though it, too, can contain toxins. The fiddleheads of cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) can also be eaten, but all are at least mildly toxic and can cause nausea, dizziness, and headache, so it’s probably best to avoid them. The safest way to eat fiddleheads is to stick to ostrich ferns and to eat them in small quantities.”

Below is information specifically about bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum.

Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants by Lewis Nelson et al. (New York Botanical Garden, 2007) says that all parts of the plant are toxic. The toxin is thought to be ptaquiloside, a sesquiterpene.

From the Earl J. S. Rook website (no longer available online):
“Most commonly used today as a food for humans. The newly emerging croziers or fiddleheads are picked in spring and may be consumed fresh or preserved by salting, pickling, or sun drying. Both fronds and rhizomes have been used in brewing beer, and rhizome starch has been used as a substitute for arrowroot. Bread can be made out of dried and powered rhizomes alone or with other flour. American Indians cooked the rhizomes, then peeled and ate them or pounded the starchy fiber into flour. In Japan starch from the rhizomes is used to make confections. Bracken fern is grown commercially for use as a food and herbal remedy in Canada, the United States, Siberia, China, Japan, and Brazil and is often listed as an edible wild plant. Powdered rhizome has been considered particularly effective against parasitic worms. American Indians ate raw rhizomes as a remedy for bronchitis.
Bracken fern has been found to be mutagenic and carcinogenic in rats and mice, usually causing stomach or intestinal cancer. It is implicated in some leukemias, bladder cancer, and cancer of the esophagus and stomach in humans. All parts of the plant, including the spores, are carcinogenic, and face masks are recommended for people working in dense bracken. The toxins in bracken fern pass into cow’s milk. The growing tips of the fronds are more carcinogenic than the stalks. If young fronds are boiled under alkaline conditions, they will be safer to eat and less bitter.”

The book Ecosystems and Human Health by Richard Philp (CRC Press, 2001) states that “considerable evidence exists that bracken fern produces bladder cancer in cattle that eat excessive amounts when better fodder is unavailable, and in rats fed large amounts of it. Because the young shoots, called fiddleheads because of their curled shape, are eaten as a delicacy in many parts of the world, including Canada and Japan, there has been concern over potential for carcinogenic effects in humans. At one point, it was suggested that the relatively high incidence of bladder cancer in Japan might be related to consumption of bracken fern. Epidemiological studies, however, have failed to demonstrate such an association, and it is now felt that eating fiddleheads does not constitute a risk factor for cancer.”

This Northwest gardener, Paghat, also discusses the toxicity and edibility of bracken fern:


“While causality for human illness from eating bracken is not proven, plausibility is present. Toxins break down in cooking, but the traditional light frying or quick parboiling is insufficient to break down potentially harmful chemical components. Bracken should be cooked at high temperatures to be safe, and are quite easy to prepare correctly in woks.

It is not recommended to eat rare bracken under any circumstances because of the statistical increase in cancers in countries where brackens are a consumed in high numbers. Ostrich Ferns are of such low toxicity as to be far preferable to meet the dietary interest in fiddleheads. But as a well-cooked food item eaten only occasionally, there is no indication of risk from bracken. Plausible risk is restricted to the accumulative effects over time from consumptions of high amounts of bracken parboiled or so briefly cooked as to still contain toxins.”

Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) growing in the wild is seldom browsed by herbivorous animals because the rough foliage is fairly repellent. That specific epithet ‘munitum’ in the scientific name means ‘armed.’ You may have seen information about Native Americans roasting the rhizomes and eating them, but this was a famine food resorted to when other resources were scarce. (The leaves were used to line fire pits for cooking, according to Frank Tozer’s book, The Uses of Wild Plants, 2007). I would not take unnecessary risks experimenting with plants that are not typically considered edible.

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Leafy goosefoot

While taking a walk in the neighborhood, a weedy-looking plant caught my eye. It had nubbly, deep red fruit all along the stems and was quite dramatic by contrast with the tattered-looking leaves. The gardener said it was leafy goosefoot. What can you tell me about it?


Leafy goosefoot refers to Chenopodium foliosum (or its synonym Blitum virgatum, as well as a related species, Blitum capitatum). Another common name is ‘strawberry blite,’ not to be confused with blight of any kind, but derived from the genus name Blitum. The leaves do resemble the footprint of a goose. Those nubbly strawberry-like fruits that are produced from summer to early autumn are edible, with a mildly sweet flavor or–according to a 1794 issue of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine–“in their taste they have nothing to recommend them, though not pleasant they are harmless.” The leaves are also edible and similar in both appearance and flavor to spinach, which is why another name for the plant is ‘strawberry spinach.’ It has value as a beneficial plant for wildlife, and it has a history of being used to make dye and ink.

Strawberry blite is a wild and weedy plant that can tolerate harsh conditions, as demonstrated by its ability to grow in landscapes ravaged by wildfire.


Douglas fir tea

There seems to be a new fad of local foragers making tea from the needles of Douglas fir and Grand fir. I am guessing there are Native American origins to this practice. How safe is it, especially in an urban environment? Are there supposed to be benefits to drinking this kind of infusion?


There is a deep tradition of ethnobotanical uses of various parts of both Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Grand fir (Abies grandis). Nancy Turner’s book, Thompson Ethnobotany: Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia (Royal British Columbia Museum, 1990) says that “a beverage tea was made by boiling Douglas-fir twigs with their needles. This tea was said to have tonic and diuretic properties.”

Turner says there is a great deal of confusion surrounding both the English common names and Thompson Indian names for various fir species. This makes it difficult to know which species were intended for which uses. An infusion made from the boughs of a species that might be Grand fir (Abies grandis) “could be drunk for any illness.” In Ethnobotany of Western Washington (University of Washington Press, 1973), author Erna Gunther notes both distinctions and confusions between Abies grandis and Pseudotsuga menziesii: according to the Green River informant she consulted, tribe members boiled Grand fir needles as a tea to treat colds, but a Swinomish informant believed Grand fir and Douglas fir to be the same species.

Douglas fir and Grand fir are not mentioned in Toxic Plants of North America (George Burrows and Ronald Tyrl, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), but a plant’s absence from a list of toxic plants does not mean that it is risk-free. Common sense says it would be best not to gather needles from urban trees that are not your own, since there is no way of knowing whether those trees might have been sprayed with pesticides, or exposed to air pollutants.

According to Stephen Facciola’s Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants (Kampong Publications, 1998), tea made from young foliage and twigs of Pseudotsuga menziesii is both refreshing and high in vitamin C. He says that the young branch tips of various species of Abies, including A. grandis, are used as a tea substitute.

I could not find reliable information about the recommended quantities of needles to water, ideal length of boiling time, or chemical properties of needles used for tea. Elise Krohn, author of Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar: The Gifts of the Northwest Plants (self-published in 2007) has information on her Wild Foods and Medicines blog about “making evergreen tree tip tea.” My advice would be to proceed with caution and consult a medical professional in case a coniferous tisane might have potential interactions with other substances. (Even a popular beverage like Earl Grey tea can be problematic due to the Citrus-derived bergamottin which interacts with some medications).

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Growing wild garlic or ramps

Could you tell me about wild garlic, or ramps? What is the best planting location for it, and how is it used in cooking?

Ramps, or Allium tricoccum, is sometimes referred to as wild leek or ramsons (which may also refer to Allium ursinum). An article about this plant from North Carolina State University (no longer available online) mentions ramp or ramps festivals, most of which are held in the southeastern U.S., where this plant is native. According to Alliums: The Ornamental Onions by Dilys Davies (Timber Press,1992), ramps thrive (or grow rampantly) in damp woodlands or hillsides. The author says that neither Ramps nor Ramsons “should be introduced into the civilised areas of the garden unless a takeover is acceptable.”

Another consideration is that the leaves resemble lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), which is poisonous, so you would not want to grow the two plants close together. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, this Allium itself has toxic properties (but relatively low toxicity), and should only be consumed in small quantities. The leaves, bulbs, and bulblets all have edible uses:
“Gather leaves during spring and fall. Gather bulbs in the second year when they are large enough to use like cultivated onions. Flower stem bulblets are collected during the summer. Use as domestic onions, for seasoning or raw in salads. Bulbs can be used raw, boiled, pickled or for seasoning. Their strong taste can be reduced by parboiling and discarding the water. […] use flower bulbs to flavor soup or for pickling.” (Poisonous Plants of N.C.)

on the edibility of columbine flowers

I’ve been reading up on permaculture and exploring the edibility of common ornamental plants. Several books I’ve looked at suggest that columbine flowers (Aquilegia canadensis and Aquilegia vulgaris, specifically) are edible. I have my doubts, since columbine is in the family Ranunculaceae, which I would generally consider poisonous. What do you think?

I think you are right to question your sources. Although some species of Aquilegia have ethnobotanical uses as food, you should still proceed with caution. I found information about edible and medicinal uses of Aquilegia formosa. Daniel Moerman’s Native American Food Plants, Timber Press, 2010, mentions that the Miwok boiled and ate the early spring greens, and that children of the Hanaksiala tribe sucked nectar from the flowers. In her book Ethnobotany of Western Washington (University of Washington, 1979), Erna Gunther mentions medicinal and edible uses of this species of columbine. The Quileute tribe used the sap to aid in healing wounds, and Chehalis children sucked “honey out of the flowers.” However, The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy Turner and Patrick von Aderkas (Timber Press, 2009) lists Aquilegia species as toxic:
“Most [members of the Ranunculaceae] contain irritant protoanemonins; columbines contain cyanogenic glycosides.”

Columbine is included in University of Vermont Extension’s list of “Potentially Harmful Perennials.” St. Olaf College’s page on wild columbine points out a common confusion between the blossoms of honeysuckle and columbine:
“Young children often mistake Columbine for Honeysuckle, pulling off the flowers and biting the spurs in search of nectar. Though no official records of toxicity have been reported for Columbine, it belongs to a family which contains other toxic species. Caution is advised.”

The Plants for a Future database of edible and medicinal plants lists a number of species of columbine. Here is their page on Aquilegia canadensis. I don’t find myself convinced by the statement that “the flowers are probably perfectly safe to eat.” The entry for Aquilegia vulgaris says that the flowers are “rich in nectar, they are sweet and delightful, they make a very attractive addition to mixed salads and can also be used as a thirst-quenching munch in the garden. The flowers are also used as a tea substitute.” It is worth looking at the sources cited at the end of this entry, to decide if you feel they are trustworthy. To summarize, when in doubt, don’t eat the columbines (or any other plant whose edibility is debatable)!

The Neighborhood Forager

Neighborhoon Forager cover Robert Henderson dedicates “Neighborhood Forager” to Euell Gibbons, “…who invented the genre that sustains me, literally and figuratively.” This handbook for living from nature is based on the author’s considerable experience harvesting and using the native and naturalized plants near his home in Rosedale, British Columbia.

Excerpted from the Sprng 2007 Arboretum Bulletin.