"Mom, is it true that caragana flowers are poisonous?"
I had been wondering the same thing. Was it true, or was the warning I recalled from my childhood just a precautionary "might-be," or even just something somebody made up? My younger sister recalls some shockingly fanciful stuff that I reputedly declared to her as gospel, back when our age difference was more significant.
Ruth decided to go ahead and try one. She explained that she had seen kids eating them off the hedges as they walked down the street. "I'm not gonna die, Mom."
She announced that it tasted like a very sweet pea. She chewed a bit longer. "No, asparagus."
I didn't notice the asparagus aftertaste, but the first flavour burst is definitely sweet. According to the USDA Plants Profile for Caragana arborescens, under "Palatable Human," the answer is "no." No? Heck, if I was sure they wouldn't hurt me, I'd eat those flowers by the bowlful. The USDA Plants Profile also says, "Toxicity: None," but should I believe them?
When in doubt, check some more sources. That's my modus operandi. Sooner or later I usually find one that specifically addresses the conflicts among the others. Then it's a matter of deciding whose supporting evidence and arguments look more solid.
I must admit, though, I'm beginning to look more favourably on the direct experimentation technique. No ill effects so far...
I wonder, what are the chances of eating a flower with a stinging insect inside?
Ahem. Back to the research. Look what I found! Plants For a Future - a database of "Edible, medicinal and useful plants for a healthier world."
In the entry for Caragana arborescens, it says:
Reports that this plant contains toxins have not been substantiated. The occurrence of cystine in the seeds is doubtful.And furthermore, it suggests that the seeds can be cooked and used in spicy dishes (to compensate for their bland flavour), and the young seedpods can be cooked as a vegetable. Here I've got a potential staple food growing on a perennial shrub right next to my garden! (But - see update below.) It's a nitrogen-fixer, too, so it might be enhancing the soil nearby. Garth's mom took a look at my garden, when I asked her advice about how far to dig out the Manitoba maple roots, and declared that my vegetables didn't stand much of a chance with those "hungry" caraganas right next door. But I had to wonder, why is the grass so lush between them and the garden plot?
Some people hate caraganas. It's sort of a prairie pastime, to complain about them. I can't blame Garth's mom, since she has been struggling for years to eradicate volunteer caraganas from the bush and hedgerows all around her yard. Earlier this spring, when I suggested to Garth that he cut down a caragana that was crowding our path to a shed, he looked positively gleeful.
But at that point, he didn't know you could eat them.
UPDATE - I just looked again at the "Plants for a Future" page about caragana, and way down at the bottom there is a comment from a reader claiming that she nearly died from eating raw caragana pods as a child. Back to the research...
UPDATE 2 - My "check more sources" method is working very badly so far. I have found numerous sites that simply list plants as safe/non-toxic or as poisonous/toxic, and caragana makes appearances on both lists, sometimes even on the same page. What's really frustrating is that none of these sites mention what the toxic compound might be. One direct observation of my own gives me pause. Considering that this obvious legume seed has been available right next to subsistence gardens for a long time, why haven't people developed a tradition of eating it? Could it be that there's a good reason? I read that people in Siberia used caragana seed to carry their poultry through lean times, so it's not like they didn't recognize it as a harvestable crop.