For many years in my 20s and 30s, I worked as a landscape architect, which I greatly enjoyed. One of my largest projects was for a wealthy bachelor who owned several thousand acres of ranch land and chose a pristine location at the base of a bluff to build his home. He spared no expense: Stonecutters chiseled limestone blocks from the bluff behind the home’s site to create building materials for the house; workers dismantled a house in France for the 17th-century building’s massive doors; and artisans covered the bathrooms with Italian marble.
My first job was to rebuild the remains of the bluffs, featuring two 50-foot waterfalls with pools below and thousands of carefully selected plants. I spent two years there planting wildflowers, herbs and wild, edible water plants around the spring-fed ponds.
After the house was complete, the owner hired a private chef I’ll call Peggy, and her caretaker/chauffeur husband, Bob. Peggy knew I was enthusiastic about edible wild plants and culinary herbs, so we occasionally exchanged recipes, and when the homeowner was throwing a lavish party, Peggy would invite me in beforehand to taste and give her my opinion.
When spring arrived, lovely purple violets swept along the bluffs and creeks below the house. One day Peggy asked me to show her how to candy violets. I brought in a basket of violets, frothed up an egg white and we quickly had a few dozen violet blossoms drying on waxed paper.
“I had no idea it was so easy,” Peggy said with delight. There was to be a big party in a few days, a political fundraiser that would include the governor of the state, the attorney general, and other bigwigs, and Peggy had decided to use candied violets to decorate the desserts she was preparing. Bob would gather the blossoms, so I showed him a patch of violets near the house.
“Oh, yes, I can see. I know what to pick,” Bob said. His confidence reassured me.
On the day of the party, Peggy called out to me from the front door of the house. “Come and check my violets, I need your opinion.” When I got into the kitchen, I saw huge platters of candied flowers, piled high. There were thousands of them, and I complimented her work.
“Something’s wrong,” Peggy replied. “Taste one and tell me what you think.” I popped a couple of flowers in my mouth. Suddenly, my throat and tongue turned numb. Peggy handed me a glass of water and asked, “Is this the way they are supposed to taste?”
After I spat the remainder of the mystery blossoms out, choked a bit and drank some water, I managed to say, “Goodness, no. What are they? They aren’t violets, that’s for sure.”
We turned to Bob, who’d never knowingly hurt a flea. “Those are the ones you told me to pick,” he said.
“Show me where you picked them,” I said, still not certain what the mistake could be. Peggy and I followed Bob past the golf green, along the nature trail at the base of the waterfall until he pointed and said, “Here. This is where I picked the violets.”
My mouth dropped open. We were looking at no bed of violets, but a tennis court-sized bed of Vinca minor. Bob had assumed that anything with a lavender flower had to be a violet.
I had no idea if Vinca minor was edible. From the numbness in my mouth, I thought they might be poison. Imagine the headlines in the morning news, I thought: “Governor killed by flowers at party.”
Peggy must have heard me thinking. She looked at me and said, “It just will not do to kill our guests. I have to come up with a Plan B — stat!”
Years later, I learned that Vinca minor isn’t poisonous, but it certainly isn’t recommended as food. The politicians wouldn’t have been killed, but they would have been mighty uncomfortable. A narrow escape, for certain.
The lessons were many: Always know the identity of a plant before you eat it. Don’t judge a flower by its color. Don’t send someone to do your most important tasks unless you know for certain they know what they’re doing. And for heaven’s sake, taste before serving — in plenty of time for Plan B.
Jim Long eats violets, nasturtiums and the occasional rose petal, but not a single Vinca minor, at his beautiful farm, Long Creek Herbs, in the Ozark Mountains. Connect to his website by visiting us at www.HerbCompanion.com.