Why have we shifted so far away from nature? Is it ease, is it laziness, or is it that we are so far removed that we fear what is out there (the plethora of man vs nature shows and movies is only part of the evidence of this)?
I think it’s a combination of all of it and it’s something we can change more easily than we think. I’ve been talking online a lot about learning to forage and have spent the past couple of weeks trying to identify various plants growing around my own home (I live on a rented lot). While walking my dogs, I’ll snap pictures with my phone of something I don’t know and upload it to Facebook to ask for help identifying them. I don’t want to fear nature. I want to reconnect with and embrace it, and foraging is a great way to start. I’ve not foraged yet, just learning the plants around me first.
I have not talked about this outside of the virtual world because I’m not ready to do it yet… or so I thought… sometimes one just needs a sudden shove in the right direction to get them going. I will say that I wish my shove hadn’t been so scary though!
Last night, as I was cooking dinner, my two younger sons (ages 9 and 5) took the dogs out, one at a time, after feeding them their dinner. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when they came back in after walking the second dog. I went about prepping dinner and getting it into the oven (our new fav meatloaf recipe, but almost doubled since we are a family of five and two pounds of beef would never feed us all), then hopped on my computer. My husband and 9 year old son walked into the kitchen from the back bedroom and my husband checks his throat, which is apparently really red. He gives him a little throat spray and my son grabs a bottle of water and starts chugging it as they return to the back bedroom. Suddenly, I hear my husband in the back bedroom telling my 9 year old to hurry up and “go tell mommy, now!”
He comes into the living room and informs me that he ate leaves off a tree while walking the dog. I immediately checked his throat and sure enough it was super red and irritated, but not swelling, which was a really good sign. If he were going into anaphylaxis or if it were more serious of a poisoning, then he would have already presented with more serious symptoms and I would have called an ambulance. But since a sore throat was his only symptom, I had him take me outside and show me the tree he ate from… Great… it was a tree that I had been trying to identify but hadn’t yet. Perfect, que fear and twinge of panic. I grabbed my phone, took a few pictures and uploaded them to Facebook. Then I got the links to each picture and made a post in a Facebook group called “Edible Wild Plants” along with an urgent plea to help identify because my son ate the leaves and has a very red and painful sore throat.
One of my friends replied that he didn’t know trees but would do what he could to help me identify it. And he busted his butt too! (Friends are amazing! Thank you, S.T.A.!!!) The sap was milky white, something that he explained was typically a bad sign in foraging. I decided to taste the leaves myself to see if they were bitter… and they were pretty nasty – Bleck! I had only chewed them for a couple of seconds and spit them out, but by the time I got back inside my house (less than a minute) my throat became scratchy and irritated.
I went back outside and had my son walk me through his steps one at a time and the reenactment revealed that he was trying to tell his little brother how healthy it is to eat plants (my youngest avoids veggies like the plague). So he took a few leaves and began to chew them but spit them out, as did my youngest. Then he tried to chew more leaves, but spit those out and my youngest never tried the second time. My youngest had zero symptoms. When he tries something new (always very reluctantly) he barely puts it in his mouth before spitting it out so, for once, I was glad he had done so! So this told me that my 9 year old had only chewed the leaves and not swallowed so I knew that the sap was what we were dealing with.
I had gone outside and taken some pictures of a more mature tree of the same species nearby so we could look at the fruit – which was waxy on the outside and still not fully developed but full of a milky substance. We both searched the web and found tree identifying programs (including on Arbor Day’s site) that gave us no answers.
After about ten harrowing minutes, he and another friend that saw the same plea on my own profile, identified the tree as a Chinese Tallow Tree. And, yes, it’s toxic. So with that information I could call poison control (in the U.S. 1-800-222-1222). I told them that my son had eaten the leaves off a Chinese Tallow Tree after which she had to put me on hold to look it up, as she had never heard of it. After about only a minute she came back with great news! It’s only mildly toxic and the result can range from irritating to mild burns. Que huge sigh of relief. At this point, it had been about half an hour since he had tried the leaves. He and I both had sore throats for about two to three hours but it cleared up fine after that.
Thankfully, this wasn’t more serious. I sat down with him and explained how dangerous it can be to eat some plants and that it’s safer to not try a plant if we don’t know what it is. It’s not like the garden where I intentionally plant what is safe to eat. I also, at a later time to drive the point home, told him about the Death Angel mushroom (which doesn’t grow here but is a great example of why it’s not okay to eat something just because it is in nature).
What are the positives out of this incident? Well, for one, I finally know what this invasive and aggressively growing tree is (they are everywhere around here and it’s impossible to control them at this point). Another is that I took the dive and bit into a plant I didn’t know (but knew wouldn’t kill me, even if it was poisonous, based on my son’s only symptom of a sore throat). The last is that, while this plant drives me crazy because of how viral it is in spreading, it does actually have medicinal and utility uses!
The leaves great for treating boils and other infected wounds (draw out infection) and the wax around the fruit is used in soap and candle making, hence the common name of “tallow” tree. There is some controversy over whether or not the oil is safe to use (say in place of tallow) but I would play it safe and not eat it or use it in cooking! Their is also the fact that this plant makes really great biofuel, which is a huge issue in regards to natural and sustainable fuel sources without tearing up the earth for oil and coal and natural gas OR ruining the soil with vast fields of monoculture (like GMO corn made for non food purposes – read: biofuel).
***Do NOT mess with the oil inside the fruit and seeds as it seems to be carcinogenic!*** (great, but, I only opened one seed, this one time – pretty sure a one time exposure won’t doom me though).
It is NOT native to the United States and was introduced here by Benjamin Franklin in the hopes of cultivating it for its many uses. It didn’t take long for it to spread and is now invasive, growing in many places around the country.
For information about this tree and its uses, please visit “Chinese Tallow Tree / Eat The Weeds”.