Fatal Foraging

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Foraged foods are being found on more and more dinner tables. They're even sprouting up on menus at some of the region's restaurants. But experts urge you to know what you're eating, because foraging can sometimes turn fatal.

"It's becoming very trendy," said Ben Luce, who recently bellied up for breakfast with his family during a recent trip to their Vermont camp.

On the menu -- eggs, toast, and ramps that were harvested in the nearby woods. "Which are an oniony garlicy wild onion," Luce said.

The trendy treats growing in the wild were buttery and yummy, but soon into a hike right after the meal, they knew they'd made a big mistake. "I suddenly felt I couldn't walk very well, that I had lead weights on my feet basically. And then the nausea set in, and the nausea was overwhelmingly extreme," Luce said.

A photo of that hike captured the moments just before he and his wife got very ill. At that time, they didn't know it was almost their last. "I was completely incapacitated," Luce said.

Nausea led to sweating and vomiting. And then their heart rates and blood pressure dropped suddenly. They started to pass out and Luce began to lose his vision. "I really was in jeopardy at that point," he said.

They realized the ramps were not ramps at all, and a family member who hadn't gotten quite as sick yet called the Poison Control Center. "Poison Control told us then it was a cardiac issue and we had to get to the ER," Luce said.

Those ramps turned out to be false hellebore, a plant that can be mistaken for ramps when it's young. Luce and his wife were dying. "I felt like death was grabbing me around the throat. It really felt like a hand was grabbing me and seizing up the muscles here, causing the convulsions going on," Luce said.

His wife's blood pressure dropped to 20 over 40. They spent 24 hours in ICU and it took two weeks to fully recover.

Doctor Eike Blohm specializes in toxicology at UVM Medical Center and the Northern New England Poison Center.

Reporter Darren Perron: How dangerous is this?
Dr. Eike Blohm: It can range from mild toxicity to life-threatening toxicity and death.

Blohm says that 70 percent of poison cases from eating plants or mushrooms are related to foraging mistakes.
From 2014 to May of this year, 18 people got sick from false hellebore alone --14 of those cases in Vermont. In that same time frame, 237 adults got sick from wild mushrooms -- 44 were Vermonters.

But Doctor Blohm says the numbers don't accurately reflect the enormity of the plant problem.

Reporter Darren Perron: So these cases are vastly under-reported?
Dr. Eike Blohm: Yes. A lot of people get a little sick. They stay at home. They don't come in. When they do come to the emergency department, often times the actual cause is not recognized, therefore it's not reported. Even if the cause is recognized, if the Poison Center is not notified it's doesn't get tracked.

Doctors often misdiagnose these meal mistakes. Patients present with symptoms similar to viral illnesses. And even if it is identified -- depending on the unsafe edible -- treatments vary. Some poisonous plants and mushrooms have antidotes, but some have no treatment at all." If you are new to foraging and you go out by yourself, that is incredibly dangerous," Blohm said.

Richard Witting isn't new to foraging -- he's skilled at it and known as a wildcrafter. He's been harvesting wild mushrooms and plants for more than 20 years.

"This purple flower growing around here is dame's rocket," Witting pointed out. "In the early spring the greens are great for salads -- the flowers are a nice garnish."

Witting is also a chef and used foraged foods at his catering company and taught a course on wildcrafting. He says plants like Japanese knotweed not only provide a food source, they also make use of an invasive species. "In its young stage it's a cross between rhubarb and asparagus," he said.

Witting says the sudden popularity of wildcrafting stems from the farm-to-table food movement and the push for sustainable, locally-sourced foods. And cooks looking for new flavors now feature wild foods at many restaurants.
But with the "do's" also come the "don'ts," he says. "Assume it's poisonous until you know better," Witting said. "Identification is key. You need to know how to identify a plant and mushroom. Learn its characteristics. If there are look-alikes."

He and Doctor Blohm point out the top five most dangerous wild-dining blunders.

1. The Amanita -- an extremely toxic mushroom.
2. Lily of the valley -- sometimes mistaken for wild garlic.
3. False Morels -- confused with actual morel mushrooms.
4. Hemlock -- which can look like wild carrots.
5. False hellebore -- the ramp-like plant which made Luce sick.

Reporter Darren Perron: Will you eat foraged foods again?
Ben Luce: I think the moral of this story is if you're going to forage for wild foods you have to know what you're doing. I guess it all comes down to, as they say -- and as a physics professor also -- do your homework.

Dr. Eike Blohm says he doesn't eat foraged foods, even if offered at restaurants, and he advises against it unless you are certain it was harvested by a professional like Richard Witting.