“Plants are tricky. Many are edible, but one false mouthful and you’re dead,” writes Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games (2008), a book I liked instantly because the protagonists of the impoverished District Twelve are foraging wild food from day one. Katniss and Gale make it their regular mission to sneak into the forbidden forest, collecting plants and hunting for food, both to sell and to nourish their families.
And, just like in The Hunger Games, I think I, too, might eat well if society as we know it ceases to exist. Well—plants, in any case. I’d probably have to turn Gregg into a hunter if we were really going to make it, and that could be a hard sell.
But anyway, just in case you one day need to know which plants in The Hunger Games make sense to eat and which do not, here’s a 1,200 word diatribe on the subject—just be sure to read it before your internet goes up in flames.
The Woods at the Edge of the Seam
In the woods, Katniss and Gale gather and eat wild strawberries, dandelions, blackberries, greens, nuts, wild plums, and soft, inner pine bark. All of these are true wild edibles, though “greens” and “nuts” don’t give us much to go on. In her mother’s wild medicinal book, Katniss also finds notes on wild onions and pokeweed—of which the former is delicious but has toxic lookalikes (Seebeck, 1998) and the latter has edible young shoots only, while its other parts are potentially deadly (Brill, 1994).
Nobody actually eats the pond lilies in The Hunger Games. At the game’s start, after several hard days and nights searching, Katniss finds water, drinks deep, and then decides, “Tomorrow I’ll stay here, resting, camouflaging my backpack with mud, catching some of those little fish I saw as I sipped, digging up the roots of the pond lilies to make a nice meal.” A few hours later a wall of fire chases her from the spot and she misses her chance to eat pond lily roots. Thank goodness!
You see, if you are an obsessive reader of wild food books like me, you might be aware of a controversy surrounding the eating of pond lily roots. Foraging expert Sam Thayer (2006) writes that although “a large number of wild food references contain accounts of the various water lilies of the genera Nuphar and Nymphaea …the rootstocks and tubers of most, if not all, species of Nuphar and Nympaea are poisonous.”
Much of our early modern wild edible knowledge was drawn from ethnographic accounts, and some say that Native people ate pond lily roots. This explains in part why wild edible guides and modern writers are comfortable perpetuating the information. Why should you have any reason to suspect it not to be true unless you have a bad reaction from eating a pond lily tuber yourself?
Sure enough, in Botanic Notables: Plants of the Hunger Games, Anna Laurent provides an informative review of the book’s plants and their uses, including this point: “Collins does not mention the species, so the lilies of The Hunger Games could be any species of the most common three genuses—Nuphar, Nymphaea, and Nelumbo, all of which have edible rhizomes.”
When I wrote Thayer about it (2012), he explained that of the three genera listed, only Nelumbo is not toxic. Nelumbo lutea, or American lotus, has edible tubers (Nature’s Garden, 2010). Nelumbos are similar in appearance to water lilies because of their big, round leaves which sometimes rest upon the surface of water—but the leaves do not have a cut-out like water lilies, among other differentiating features.
“There may be some part of North American Nuphar or Nymphaea rhizomes edible at some time of year without leaching, but I haven’t discovered it, nor can any person I have asked personally attest to what it is or which species,” Thayer wrote, adding that “most of the rhizomes can be rendered nontoxic through leaching, but are toxic unless leached.”
“The ethnographic record is definitely wrong in some instances,” he said, confusion between Nuphar, Nymphaea, and Nelumbo being a prime example.
In the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Lee Allen Peterson says to use the large rootstocks of water lilies (Nymphaea spp.) or pond lilies (Nuphar spp.) like potatoes. For the latter, he writes, “if the flavor is too strong, boil in 2 or 3 changes of water.” Although boiling can be one way to leach toxins, there is no warning as to potential toxicity in either case—so now I am very curious if a 30-minute boil of either of these babies might have poisoned me had I gotten up the gumption to jump into a pond and squirm my feet around in the muck to collect, cook, and eat said tubers before I suspected any differently.
“But this is fiction,” Gregg asserts defensively, waving The Hunger Games at me, when I start harping on the subject.
“Sure, but dandelions, strawberries, and wild plums are not fictionally edible, so if the reader lumps pond lily tubers into the category of ‘real edible wild plants’ learned from the book, and they are poisonous, then he or she could be in trouble,” I retort.
I am reminded of the epiphany I had back in college when my friend Mark sat me down and told me that not everything we read in books is true.
NOT All Nightshades Will Kill You
Another important wild plant to The Hunger Games is nightlock—a fictional plant with deadly dark berries whose name is likely derived from a combination of nightshade and poisonous hemlock.
“My father’s voice comes back to me. ‘Not these, Katniss. Never these. They’re nightlock. You’ll be dead before they hit your stomach,’” the protagonist recollects. Eating nightlock berries is how Foxface dies after stealing them from Peeta, who unknowingly collects the wrong berry. Later, Peeta and Katniss threaten to eat nightlock berries to force the Gamemakers’ hands into freeing them both.
Since there is no similarly-named plant with which to confuse nightlock, the berries are clearly fictional. And if, by imagining the existence of poisonous berries, readers awaken to the possibility that not all wild plants are safe to consume off hand, I figure that’s a good thing.
While poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) are indeed deadly poisonous, however, nightshades are a bit more complicated.
“It seems that everybody has heard of ‘deadly nightshade’ and written off the entire family (Solanaceae) as too scary to contend with,” Thayer writes in Nature’s Garden before listing widely eaten family members—potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, and tomatillos among them.
In the wild, too, there are numerous black nightshades often lumped together as Solanum nigrum that have edible parts. I’ll leave Thayer to the details of the Solanum nigrum complex, but the point here is that while there certainly are some toxic nightshades, there are also numerous species of wild and cultivated nightshades that are edible too.
Fiction is Probably Not Your Best Source of Wild Food Advice
If not everything we read is true, then fiction of course falls into that category too. I guess the moral of this story, then, is that fiction is probably not your best source for wild food advice. Knowing that, The Hunger Games makes for a good wild edible read, a veritable post-apocalyptic soap opera drama featuring everybody’s new favorite hobby—wild food.
Fascinating. And I think you make a good point because so many people become very involved with their favorite fiction, many engaging in fantasy and role-playing.
that was SO good!