I was reminded of this last week after we did some elderberry foraging. We had gathered more than ever before, thanks to some new locales Urban Nature Gal scouted out, and I was making a batch of elderberry jam.
*WARNING, THIS STORY GETS A LITTLE GROSS*
First, a few facts to set the scene:
Elderberries are mildly toxic. Some people have a reaction to this mild toxin that causes vomiting. Most of the toxin is in the stems, seeds, and leaves, though, so the fruit is pretty safe.
Heat destroys this toxin.
I often eat raw elderberries on the trail and have never had a problem with that.
As I was saying, I was making jam, and as usual, a foam developed on the top of the mixture. This is common, and I skim it off when I want the jam to set well or mix it back in if I don’t mind something more syrupy. That day I skimmed, but the foam had a good amount of juice, which just seemed a waste. There were also way too many seeds to make jam, syrup, or tincture, but I figured I could use it in my cookies.
Next day, I made my famous wild buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. As I was looking for toppings, I saw the foam and decided to see how it tasted. So I spread it on my pancakes. Delicious. I was delighted and could not wait to bake some elderberry shortbread cookies.
Two hours later I was doubled over the toilet, vomiting for all I was worth. After a few minutes I laid down in bed but soon was back up and in the bathroom as my body periodically ejected all matter from my stomach through any means necessary over the next few hours.
So what happened? Urban Nature Gal and I spent the afternoon figuring it out.
Did I pick the wrong thing? No. I KNEW FOR A FACT I had picked elderberries, so I knew I was going to be okay. Otherwise this story would have included a trip to the hospital. Like I’ve said before, ALWAY KNOW WHAT YOU ARE PICKING.
Why did I get sick? You may have noticed above, the toxins of elderberries are in the stems, leaves, and SEEDS. The foam created concentrated the seeds from about 6 quarts of fruit into a 1 pint container. That’s a lot of seeds.
But heat destroys the toxin? TRUE. But the pot I had held 6 quarts of fruit, plus the sugar and lemon juice for the pan. It was a big pot. And the foam that was created on top of the mixture was at the top of the pot, where everything is coolest. Because I wanted the foam to develop, I wasn’t stirring, so the top stayed just cool enough that the seeds stayed toxic. Once the foam had been skimmed, I stirred the mixture until it came to a boil to evenly cook the entire thing.
When I put the foam on my pancakes, I was literally spreading concentrated elderberry seeds in all their toxic glory on my breakfast.
Needless to say, the foam went right into the compost, and I spent the rest of the day in bed, taking activated charcoal to ease my tummy.
That’s the fun of Urban Nature Man: When I screw up, I tell you about.