I live with my Italian boyfriend Daniele in an old barn in the mountains about an hour north of Lake Garda, and a 10 minute walk from a small mountain village called Ono Degno, which has about 200 residents. About half of them are over 80. I have some new hobbies, including trying to become an Instagram influencer with photos of Daniele’s farm animals, and collecting wild edible herbs. Having always lived in San Francisco, where you can always find cool things on the street, I’m a person who loves free stuff and loves food, so foraging for plants you can eat is right up my alley. The problem is, not every wild plant is edible, and some are deadly. I knew enough to not go foraging for mushrooms by myself, but wild plants seemed pretty safe.
One night last Spring, I made pizza from scratch and used our neighbor’s cheese made with grass-fed cow’s milk. I also went out and foraged for different salad greens that I learned about from Daniele and his family. We also had factory-farmed sausage from the chain grocery store, which Daniele insisted on cooking downstairs on the fire pit. Our meal was pretty delicious.
Finishing our magical meal with the foraged greens, I showed him a photo of a small white wildflower I had never seen growing in the forest behind our barn. Being a cow farmer and tree climber, Daniele is very much into safety. He started telling me about some poisonous flowers. There is one small purple flower that blooms in the fall with a bright orange stamen, very similar in appearance to saffron, called Colchicum autumnale, also called “meadow saffron” or “naked ladies.” It looks like saffron but is in the Colchicaceae family, where true saffron is in the Iridaceae family. Italians have been poisoned and have even died after mistaking it as such and using it to make risotto. It causes multi-organ failure from colchicine toxicity, similar to arsenic poisoning, with no antidote. It grows where his cows graze, but they stay away from this plant, or so we think.
Unfortunately, animals sometimes fall victim to poisonous plants. There is also a large plant with beautiful purple flowers called Aconitum napellus. Native to western and central Europe, it starts growing at around 1000 meters above sea level (around 3000 feet). Like C. autumnale, in late summer it grows where his cows graze and reaches over a meter in height. A farmer near our village allegedly lost three sheep last year because they accidentally ate it, and a local dentist put some leaves in his mouth on a hike and ended up in a coma.
Before the mountain was deserted, before the road was built in the 1960s, most people had cows or goats and everyone would make sure the flower didn’t grow, because otherwise the animals would occasionally eat it and die. But now, most people who stayed on the mountain, instead of working on the land and raising animals, work in factories down in the valley. As a result, the flower they call mapell in dialect is everywhere.
With Daniele that night, I looked up the plant online. A. napellus, also known as wolfsbane or monk’s hood, is probably the most toxic plant in the world. According to Wikipedia, “in large doses, death is almost instantaneous.” Wait a minute, did I just read that correctly? Daniele’s toxic plant was legit.
If you even TOUCH the plant you can die: the toxins can be absorbed through your skin. You’ll start feeling some tingling where you touched the plant, then it will go up your arm, to your shoulder, and eventually to your heart, where it will lead to a dangerous arrhythmia. If you get to the hospital quickly enough, you’ll get supportive care, which is a nice way of saying, as with meadow saffron, that there isn’t an antidote. They’ll monitor you and give you some intense cardiac meds, maybe put you on a cardiac bypass, but you will probably die. Jesus Christ.
I started wondering why this plant exists. I found that it was used by the Ancient Romans to poison and kill people. And if you were found growing it in your garden 2000 years ago, you could easily be sentenced to death. People also used to dip arrowheads in a tincture from the roots to kill wild goats. Pretty useful plant, after all!
I also asked some people in the village if anyone used the plant in the past. My neighbor Battista, who was born in the village before the road was built (back when they still used donkeys to haul grains and other goods up the mountain), told me women in the village would harvest the roots and bring them down to the pharmacy for Daniele’s grandfather, who was the pharmacist in town. He isn’t around anymore to ask, but Daniele’s aunt, who is also a pharmacist, doesn’t know what he did with it, but that he probably just wanted to study it. Interesting.
Aconitum napellus has been used in both Western and Eastern medicine for centuries. It was taken as an anesthetic to treat ailments like “gout, rheumatism, ascites, skin diseases, stomach cancer, fever, epilepsy, and tuberculosis.” Today in Italy, it’s illegal to make anything pharmaceutical out of this plant.
I also talked to a villager named Mingo, who was born around 1940, about mappel. In the summertime, people used to live up in the Malgas (mountain pastures), where they brought the cows in June. They milked the cows and made cheese every day. They used the root of mappell and boiled it with water and would use it for a sore throat or a cold. Mingo told me boiling the root kills the toxin, but he said not to try it myself. In fact, processing the root does make the toxin edible, allowing humans to consume 3-30 grams per person. Up on higher malgas, there wasn’t much water to drink. They would take a leaf of mappell and press it against a piece of paper for a few seconds, discard the leaf and put the paper inside their mouths which would get rid of thirst. He told me not to try this either. Gentle readers, please do not try any of these things.
Back to our pizza dinner. After reading about its toxicity, Daniele told me his cows were resistant to it. He watched Tara, one of our Scottish Highland cows, eat it once. She got glassy eyed for a little bit, but then was fine. How could this be? I was skeptical: how could his cows be resistant to possibly the most toxic plant in the world? I decided to do a little more sleuthing online.
I found an article about research done by Caren Pauler, a postdocoral researcher at Agroscope, the Swiss Federal Institution for Agricultural Research, where she mentions that Scottish Highland cows were resistant to Aconitum. I looked through her scientific papers and Aconitum was not mentioned, so I dug deeper, even finding her email address and asking her directly. She said she watched a Scottish Highland cow eat two entire plants of Aconitum while doing her research. She also spoke with a toxicologist at the University of Heidelberg who said that the microbiome of Scottish Highland cattle may differ from other cattle, and that they very well may be resistant. Daniele later showed me a research paper from the University of Milan about non-native Scottish Highland cows in the Alps and it mentions that the breed has been seen eating entire Aconitum plants without collateral effects.
Pauler also mentions that research from the German research institute Aulendorf that there were less Colchicum autumnale plants — the false saffron — found on pastures grazed on by Galloway cows, a different Scottish breed of cow, indicating that Galloway cattle may forage this other toxic plant. A different family in Ono Degno who owns and runs an agriturismo here has Galloway cows.
In other words, two different breeds of Scottish cows have been brought into our little village and they are able to graze on two different toxic plants which are native to the area, but toxic to humans and other local animals. It seemed odd to me to introduce cow breeds that weren’t native to the area when I first got here, but now I know they are perfect for the mountains here near the Alps. They are rustic, meaning it’s easy for them to give birth on their own, and they eat a lot more plants than the Brown Swiss and Grey Swiss cows that are autochthonous to the area, so they damage the land less because they don’t have to walk as far to forage.
I started thinking about myself.
I came here after volunteering on Daniele’s farm as a WWOOFer and falling in love with him, and I moved to this little village from San Francisco. Here there is one small grocery store, no bar, no restaurant in town (apart from a rifugio about 2 km up the road that our friend runs). I am basically a city person without any real mountain skills. You could say: wouldn’t Daniele be better off with someone from the area, maybe someone who grew up on a farm, who knows how to work with animals, chop wood, or at least can tolerate the cold weather?
I spend a lot of my free time learning about and making things with foraged foods that would otherwise get eaten by birds, wild pigs, or would simply rot. I taught myself how to make tallow soap from the cows’ fat we butcher that otherwise would get tossed, and I’ve made batches of concord grape, elderberry, and quince jam, and even elderflower syrup, which most people don’t make anymore either because it’s too much work or because they just aren’t interested. I helped butcher a couple of rabbits in September. I’m learning about wild edible plants and mushrooms, including some that the locals don’t even eat. I’ve made friends with people in town who have taught me how, above all else, to be a good neighbor, something that is hard to find in San Francisco. I also recently became a volunteer EMT in the town down the hill. Many people might say, how could you live there, there isn’t anything there! But my life is much richer now than it was when I lived in the big city.
I’m different from the mountain folk here, but I have managed to fit in, and like Daniele’s cows who eat plants the local cows don’t eat, I forage for some things that most locals don’t use anymore, and I share what I learn and what I cook with Daniele. The cows and I have something in common. We are both from other places in the world but we are both thriving here in a way that not everyone can.