The sweet taste of a dead man’s finger

By: Wolfgang Stuppy - 26/07/2013

For the IncrEdibles festival Kew’s resident seed specialist Wolfgang Stuppy is contributing bite-size features about weird and wonderful edible plants from around the world. In the third of the series – the dead man's finger!

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If you get excited by exotic fruits, here’s one that adds a little ‘creep factor’ to the experience. It belongs to an Asian shrub called Decaisnea insignis.

Decaisnea insignis fruit open

The fruit of Decaisnea insignis, also called 'dead man's finger' (Photo: W. Stuppy)

  • Freaky blue fruit The freaky fruit of Decaisnea insignis is kind of a secret delicacy. It’s been enjoyed for centuries by the Lepcha, the indigenous people of Sikkim, but outside its natural range (China, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Myanmar) the dead man’s finger is little known for its edible fruits.

Decaisnea insignis fruit cluster

The fruits of Decaisnea insignis are always borne in clusters of three (Photo: W Stuppy)

  • Like a cold human finger About 7-12 cm long, soft to the touch and covered in an eerily skin-like peel, the fruit of Decaisnea does really feel like a cold human finger, hence it’s common name ‘dead man’s finger’.
  • The taste of a dead man’s finger The weird fruits easily split along a straight line to reveal their translucent gelatinous pulp into which a large number of flat black seeds are embedded. The jelly-like pulp is the edible part, not the hard seeds. It’s flavour is very pleasant and subtle, mainly sweet, perhaps with a hint of melon or cucumber.

Decaisnea insignis fruit unzipped

Unzipped - the fruit of Decaisnea insignis opened up along its ventral suture, like the slaughtered animal, ready to be gutted. Yum! (Photo: W. Stuppy)

Danger! Don’t just eat any dead man’s finger!

Just to avoid any potentially dangerous confusion, it must be said that there are other species, unrelated and not all plants, commonly known as Dead Man’s (or Dead Men’s) Fingers, one of them deadly poisonous. Oenanthe crocata, a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), is known under the common name ‘Hemlock Water-Dropwort’, but is also sometimes called ‘Dead Men’s Fingers’ (on account of the shape of its tubers). All parts of this plant are poisonous and occasionally lead to fatalities. Looking similar to Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) or Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), it should be hard to confuse Oenanthe crocata with Decaisnea insignis. However, since Oenanthe crocata is deemed one of the most poisonous plants in Britain, a word of warning seems appropriate here. After all, as my colleage Steve Davis pointed out, in recent years Kew has received frequent enquiries concerning Oenanthe crocata, including a case of someone being admitted to A&E, and several cases of livestock or pet poisonings. Other ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’ are Xylaria polymorpha (a fungus), Alcyonium digitatum (a species of soft coral) and Codium fragile (a seaweed).

- Wolfgang Stuppy -

To find out why the dead man’s fingers always come in bunches of three and who its natural dispersers are read the full story here


IncrEdible festival attractions

Tutti Frutti Boating Experience

Take a ride on the Tutti Frutti Boating Experience with Bompas & Parr and enter the secret banana grotto, beneath Pineapple Island!

Food and Drink

Taste our Amazing ice-cream, take part in the IncrEdibles Tasty Trail, enjoy an IncrEdibles Barbeque, sample ales, beers and ciders from around the country, and more ...

Family Fun

Join in the Rose Garden Tea Party, get the little ones' faces painted, and more ...

IncrEdibles Attractions

Explore the The Global Kitchen Garden, discover something tasty in the Tropical larder, pick up spicy chilli recipes at the Flavour Fiesta, and more ...

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