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24 responses to “The Myth of the Poison Pea”

  1. Liz

    Fascinating article and a great example of the value of experiential knowledge! I find information on plant identification especially helpful and enjoyed the bit of wisdom at the end–variety is the spice of life and everything in moderation, yes?

  2. Rebecca

    1. So, that guy, the ‘Into the Wild’ guy who walked off into the Alaskan wilderness convinced that he could survive in nature for whatever reason, and then didn’t… did he not die from wild pea consumption? Was it lathyrism?

    2. Wonder how this extends to other members of the fabaceae, not counting the ones that are commonly eaten like palo verde and mesquite. I’ve always been cautious about any of them due to said toxicity rumours.

    3. Maybe you should go to your readings armed so that angry a-holes think twice about hurling abuse your way?

  3. Lou


    Are the ones that you see along the roadsides in spring edible?



  4. Heather

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but didn’t Jon Krakauer theorize (in his book ‘Into The Wild’) that Christopher McCandless ate something with similar compounds in it? I thought it was Hedysarum mackenzii (or something close). Not really sure what qualifies Krakauer to do a post-mortem hypotheses here, but I think it’s fascinating that you’re writing about the same plants.

  5. Jesse

    Huh, so those little purple sea peas are edible? They grow right out my door on Vancouver Island, and I was always a little curious.

    I was wondering the other day if I’d ever have a cross hybridization issue between wild peas and my garden peas? Any thoughts on that?

  6. Angela

    One of the pluses of living in France is that you can take your foraged food to the pharmacy and the pharmacist will tell you what is poisonous and what is not….I haven’t done it with peas, but certainly with mushrooms. They still eat a lot of wild food (a law was passed after the revolution for the right to forage, called la cueillette, on common ground). People are much more in tune with what is edible and what is not than in the UK or Western industrial countries. You can also often find foraged leaves in the market, collected by an intrepid stall holder who will tell you how to cook them and what they are good for, (in terms of health) they all have different regional names and often can’t be found in dictionaries. Of course this is slowly dying out as everyone buys their food in the supermarket, but the older generation still have the knowledge.

  7. erica

    Interesting piece, Hank. In the Rockies we have a “wild pea” of the genus Thermopsis. Our local plant expert Cattail Bob Seebeck has a second-hand account of a group that ate the “peas” and got sick, and lists the plants as poisonous. Any thoughts on Thermopsis?

    I have eaten Lathyrus japonicus on numerous occasions, though. Yummy.

    Also, for the folks who commented on “Into the Wild,” Sam Thayer has an interesting treatise on that here: The consensus among those who researched it seems to be that Chris McCandless died of starvation. Krakauer was called on his fabrications and fashioned several different endings to the story, but the original ending was used in the movie despite the fact that it was disproven.

  8. Alli Bey

    I do believe that Chris McCandless (sp?) From the “into the wild” story died from eating, or rather making tea, if my memory serves me correctly,from wild potatoe seeds. Any evidenve of those being toxic?

    Thanks for all the knowledge you provide!


  9. Lou

    Thanks Hank

  10. Lou

    Thanks Hank!

  11. Melany Vorass Herrera

    Thank you for this wonderful piece Hank!! I’ve already referred a half dozen of my readers to this article. The myth is so engrained that I find it very difficult to convince people otherwise. Thank you for this awesome assist!

  12. Laura

    OH MY GOD we have acres and acres of wild peas. We can’t control them. We will never go hungry again!

  13. SamThayer


    Excellent article. Thank you so much! I have seen some L. latifolius growing on a roadside in the national forest about 80 miles from my house (it’s a pretty rare weed in the upper midwest), and now I’ll have to try to remember to stop there if I’m in the area. I want to get to know that plant.

  14. Elaine

    There’s an update from Krakauer in this week’s New Yorker. Looks like it was lathyrism after all, from the wild-potato seeds.

    “To establish once and for all whether Hedysarum alpinum is toxic, last month I sent a hundred and fifty grams of freshly collected wild-potato seeds to Avomeen Analytical Services, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for H.P.L.C. analysis. Dr. Craig Larner, the chemist who conducted the test, determined that the seeds contained .394 per cent beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans.”

  15. Melany Vorass Herrera

    Seems Krakauer is still out there trying to prove his faulty hypothesis:

  16. David Mumm

    Seems like Krakauer’s cited source makes a persuasive case for lathyrism –

  17. Thomas Clausen

    In the October 23rd issue of “Chemical & /Engineering News”, a great deal of skepticism was expressed by various chemists across the country regarding Krakauer’s claim that H. alpinum (Eskimo potato) contains ODAP. The HPLC chromatograms that Krakauer’s lab obtained are vastly different from that found in the peer reviewed literature (that his lab tried to emulate). Indeed, it looks like the lab made a capital error in not adjusting the pH of their solution which is an essential step in running the HPLC experiments. Also, not mentioned in the above article, the sprectrum of the “ODAP” peak in the seed extract was significantly different from that of the ODAP standard.

    The bottom line: There really is no compelling evidence for the ODAP in either H. macKenzei (wild sweet pea) or H. alpinum (Eskimo potato). Krakauer simply had a forgone conclusion and rushed his publication in the New Yorker before having his results examined by qualified scientist.

  18. Stacy

    McCandless probably died from wild potato…here db is a great article on it

  19. Linda

    This is just a “wild” guess, but could it possibly be that the reason this vicious rumor got started about wild peas being poisonous was because some tribal unit wanted to keep them for themselves? Perhaps populations were increasing and the thought of the food supply dwindling was more than the tribe could tolerate… thus the spreading of the rumor that wild peas are poisonous.

  20. Robert Murray

    Where can I purchase wild pea seeds

  21. Tom Dinkel

    For the first 35 or 40 of my 74 years, one of my favorite snacks was the tips and leaves of the sweet peas in our garden (my parents, then mine). It wasn’t until recently I began to hear about how poisonous they are. Why am I still here? I ate them daily every summer in Colorado. I also ingested a large amount of leaves from the Chinese Elm trees. Not only are they filling and abundant, they are tasty. I never carried food into the wilderness. It wasn’t necessary. By the way … I don’t eat wild mushrooms.

  22. Angela

    it was speculated that McCandless died of eating some kind of wild potato, coroner says it was starvation.

  23. RK Henderson

    Hi there, fellow forager! RK Henderson here, author of “The Neighborhood Forager”. I can verify that beach peas are utterly edible. I grew up on the beach, live there now, and have eaten untold buckets of these things. (During one period of my life, I survived for several weeks on nothing but brown rice, seaweed, beach peas, and cheese; my most recent beach-pea enhanced meal was last night.)

    They are not poisonous, in any sense.

    I’ll be posting on this resource next Thursday, 2 July 2015, for anyone interested.


    Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit

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