Mortal danger in fruits of the forager
Published 20/11/2016 | 02:30
A toxicologist has written in a scientific journal that the wild plant of false or white hellebore (veratrum album) caused the death of Alexander the Great in 325BC.
He drank a bowl of wine laced with an infusion of the leaves and took 12 days to die, in agony. History suggests he was deliberately poisoned - white hellebore, a violent irritant, was used to poison the tips of arrow-heads - but it could have been a case of mistaken identity.
Another Balkan plant with similar leaves was popular with the Greeks when fermented. A foraging servant in unfamiliar countryside could have made a mistake. Alexander, ruler of the then world's largest empire, was 32.
Eating leaves and rhizomes of wild growths or using them in some heady brew is hazardous and not as widely publicised as the dangers of wild fungi, and needs careful technical identity checking.
I think of a neighbour, a Belgian named Claude, who lived in an old building on Portugal's Atlantic coast. He was a regular forager, collecting berries and leaves in the countryside.
My identification skills were limited to the fruit of the arbutus from which a potent drop of pure spirit could be made. I never tried sampling the work of others.
Claude was a person of priestly demeanour who had been a teacher. We used to exchange pleasantries while trying to pick up Wi-Fi in the lobby. At times it eluded us because, we surmised, the service provider had not been paid.
One day he brought in some plastic bags of greenery and offered me samples. I politely demurred as when I had declined an offer of books in French. "You read French of course," he said.
I mumbled into my beard.
The green stuff was olive leaves and artichokes, "necessary for the liver", he informed me. "Nothing better than the leaves from green olives for liver, blood pressure and cholesterol," he declared. "You boil them for a few minutes and then drink the juice quickly. I will give you some - but you won't like the taste."
I did not take up his offer. Had he heard of milk thistle for the liver?, I inquired. One can get capsules in health stores.
"Oh yes," he replied. "I take them every day as well. It is because of all the beer I drink. It is dark and brewed by monks."
The drinking was news to me as I had never seen him in the local bar. Then, the following autumn, Claude was gone from the radar. He didn't turn up from Brussels at the apartment he owned. In fact, no one has been seen coming or going there for the past couple of years. I inquired but nobody seemed to have any news, except a Flemish angler, who said he believed he had died - I hope not from some leafy brew.
A store in the building is filled with boxes and bicycles, belonging to transient tenants. There is also property whose owners, like Claude, have not returned.
When I go to retrieve some belongings from the pile of dusty abandonment it is not without a feeling of sadness that some owners will never reclaim them.
Joe Kennedy was writing from Portugal.