After a sweaty and dusty safari, my family relaxed in the pool of our camp in Masai Mara, Kenya. Don’t let the term “camp” fool you. The tents were as large and luxurious as hotel rooms. Above my father and sister’s heads was a tree we had seen here and there on our travels through Kenya. It had green golf-ball sized fruits and I was hoping they were edible. My father thought the leaves were similar to a mango tree and perhaps the fruits were immature mangoes. I wasn’t so sure. My dad’s eyes aren’t what they used to be. I asked my sister to check out the possible mangoes. I expected her to do a proper fruit inspection.
You should never, ever, eat an unidentified plant. You could poison and kill yourself. But my family does it all the time. Here’s how I make a decision.
- Visually inspect the plant. Does it look like food? I have looked at so many plants that are food and not food that I’ve started to recognize some patters between edibility and poison. Some of these recognitions are unconscious. It just looks like food or just looks like poison. (This is about as unwise as it sounds.)
- Smell the plant. Does it smell like food or like cleaning fluid?
- Break apart the plant or fruit. Once again visually inspect the internal structure and smell the juices. If it still looks and smells like something good to eat then,
- Dab your tongue to the plant.
- If it doesn’t taste bad, rake off a tiny, itty bitty portion with your finger nail and put that in your mouth.
- If it tastes good, go ahead and eat it. Make sure you stick around other people for the next 24hrs in case you keel over from a toxin.
But do as I say, not as I do. Don’t ever do this. As John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures says, “Just because something tastes good, doesn’t mean it’s food.”
My sister did not do a proper fruit inspection. She plucked a fruit, chomped down hard on that little green ball, screamed, dropped it, and took off running toward the lodge. I got out of the pool and sniffed the mystery fruit through the cracks my sister’s teeth had made. It smelled very peppery. I would never have put that in my mouth.
“What is this?” I asked one of the attendants.
“Brush teeth,” he said.
A fruit from a toothbrush tree, one of several kinds of trees known for their astringent properties and used to aid oral hygiene. This particular tree was probably a Warburgia ugandensis or Pepper Bark Tree. Let this be a lesson. Don’t stick odd things in your mouth. (Although I plan to continue doing so, as is everyone else in my family.)