The common names of plants tell a lot about a plant, and sometimes they just offer subtle hints, and sometimes they may even lead one astray. In Thompson Ethnobotany, by Nancy Turner and others, the roots of the twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius, a close relative of the lily-of-the-valley) are described as “very poisonouos” and the fruits as “not eaten”.
I was in Alaska teaching a class of 3rd graders about plants. I was waiting for my group to assemble prior to a hike. One little Tlingit tyke was sitting down with some twisted stalks piled in his lap. “Hey George, want some cucumber plant? Tastes just like cucumber.”
I was instantly rebuffed by the term “cucumber plant”, which seemed an irresponsible name for a poisonous plant.
I sat down beside him. He was busy peeling the stems with a penknife. Carefully pulling out the peeled inner stem, he offered me a bite. Trying to remain calm, I dreaded the worst. “Um, no, I am not sure you should be eating those plants – they might be poisonous.”
One of the other kids took my piece. “We love cucumber plant. We eat it all the time”.
Rudy added, “Yup.” And then he looked at me with a look of what can only be described as pity – pity for my ignorance. And then he added, “George, haven’t you ever seen watermelon-berry before?”
Another kid added, “It’s called watermelon-berry because the berries look like watermelons.”
Great. Another common name that belongs in the garbage can. What in God’s name is wrong with the name twisted-stalk?
There seemed to be sort of a showdown brewing between me and Rudy, so I asked the other kids, “Can one of you go find Rudy’s mother?”
Fortunately she appeared quickly, although Rudy had eaten another inch and another piece was passed to a cute girl sitting in a circle around Rudy. I told Rudy’s mother that Rudy was eating wild plants without permission.
She sat down next to Rudy and took the plant, leaving the knife in Rudy’s hand. Briefly admiring the plant, she said the following. “Do you want to know what this plant is? This is what we call cucumber-plant – because it tastes like cucumber. It is a very popular native food. Everyone nibbles it in the spring. It’s also called watermelon-berry because the berries look like watermelons. Here, have a piece.”
A one-inch-long shoot was floating before my lips gently balanced on the tips of her fingers. I looked around me and all the little smiling faces were nodding, probably in the joy of knowing that the locals were much smarter than the visiting botanist. I looked at the plant. I looked at the kids. I managed to cover my dread with a feigned look of curious anticipation. I took a wee, tiny taste.
There was only one thing I could say under the circumstances. “Wow!!!! Tastes just like cucumber.”
Required disclaimer: The stems of the Alaskan plants are soft-hairy, not glabrous like our Washington twisted stalks, and even though the different varieties have been subsumed in Flora of North America, it is just possible that there are varietal differences after all (ours used to be called var. chalazatus) that might explain why it is poisonous in one area and relished in another. Or, as with any number of plants, it might be negligibly toxic in the parts eaten, and given and the normally small amounts consumed. In coastal Alaska, it is one of the first spring greens, and some minor irritation might be forgiven when other greens are still scarce. In any case, the roots contain compounds that cause catharsis and the berries and seeds likely contain similar compounds.