This Plant Will Make You Starve — No Matter How Much You Eat
Robert Burke and William Wills were two explorers on a quest to cross the Australian continent. European settlers lived in Melbourne in the south and on the northern coast but had yet to go from one to the other using any inland route. Burke and Wills set off from Melbourne with a troop of men in August 1860. Their expedition did not end well.
Three months in, they ran into a tribe, who introduced them to nardoo, a plant scientists have since named Marsilea drummondii. Aborigines made bush bread by grinding nardoo up into flour, and when Burke and Wills created their own paste out of the plant, they found it made a filling meal — at first. They kept eating the nardoo, pounds and pounds of the stuff every day, but they just grew weaker. They realized they were starving.
The men were suffering from thiamine deficiency. That’s a disease we call beriberi, or that people sometimes dubbed “I can’t,” because that’s what sufferers said every time you asked them to get up. Normally, the treatment of beriberi is simple: Eat grains with vitamin B1. Yet, even if they had some of those grains available, the nardoo Burke and Wills ate would still have starved them.
Marsilea drummondii doesn’t just lack thiamine. It contains massive amounts of the enzyme thiaminase, which breaks thiamine down. So, you can eat all the food you want, and get a nice full belly, but the nardoo will destroy this vitamin in your body. Without thiamine, your body can’t make the chemical that gives cells energy. Your blood can be swimming in sugar, but your tissues won’t be able to do anything with it, and you will quickly starve.
The men knew they were starving, and they documented how they felt. Wrote Willis, “Starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as the appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satisfaction.” He died shortly after.
He needn’t have. You can eat nardoo, if you just cook it correctly. If they watched those Aborigine people prepare the plant, Burke and Wills would have seen you’re supposed to roast it before you grind it, and then you can eat the stuff just fine.
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