Fishberries are a toxic plant that grows wild in Southeast Asia. While it has been used historically as a medicine to treat things like motion sickness or lice, you must be very careful when handling this toxic Southeast Asian berry.
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What is a Fishberry?
This fishberry is a climbing plant with unique heart-shaped leaves and small fruits that contain a very interesting toxin. Wild fishberry plants (Anamirta Cocculus) produce beautiful white flowers, and the berries grow in large drupes. Fishberries are also known as Indian berries or levant nuts. They are very small, about the size of a pea. When dried, they are brown and wrinkled with a bitter taste and oily consistency.
The taste and flavor of the fishberry aren’t its claim to fame. Rather, it’s the toxin found in the berry called picrotoxin with a host of practical and homeopathic uses, but it can be hazardous to your health if not handled properly.
The History of Fishberries
So, where did the fish berry get its name, you ask? It’s not because the berry tastes like fish! Fishberries have a toxin in them called picrotoxin that stuns fish. When Asian fishermen hit the water, they would sprinkle fishberries on top. The fish would eat the fishberries, and it would shock them, making them much easier to catch. Hence, the name fishberry.
Historically, fishberries are not noted for their fruity flavors but rather for the effects of their toxins. Some breweries incorporated fishberries into their beer to enhance inebriation. Breweries added these dried fruits to the beer to boost its potency. In the 19th century, England outlawed this questionable practice, and adding fishberries to beer comes with a pretty hefty fine.
Can I Eat Raw Fishberries?
No, you should never eat a raw fishberry. While it’s a dried berry that’s used for medicinal purposes, you should never eat a raw or dried berry that hasn’t been diluted. Just 20mg of picrotoxin is considered to be toxic when introduced to your body, which translates to just two to three berries!
Eating these berries raw can cause scary side effects, affecting the central nervous system. The toxins in these berries can cause seizures, slows your pulse, and cause your diaphragm to stop working. Uses of fishberries medicinally typically utilize dried fruits that are then diluted in teas or other substances.
The Uses of Fishberries
Fishberries won’t show up in any fancy tart recipes. The toxin in fishberries, Cocculus indicus, is often used medicinally to help with motion sickness, barbiturate withdrawal, and insomnia.
It also has stunning effects on fish and has historically been used as fish bait to make catching fish easier. It can be used to catch fish or as a natural pesticide. You can also crush the seeds to treat ringworm or lice.
However, one of fishberries most popular applications was in preparing hard multum. English breweries used to add these dried fruits to beer to increase giddiness and intoxication. The toxin cocculus indicus amps the intoxication effects of beer, and this practice was soon outlawed as unsafe.
Where to Purchase Fishberries
Fishberries aren’t something you can pick up at your local grocery store or even your local farmer’s market like cranberries.
Because of the high toxicity of these plants, the only way to get your hands on these toxic berries is to trek deep in the tropical groves of Southeast Asia. They grow wild in India, Thailand, Indo-China, Sumatra, the Philippines, and New Guinea.