September 06, 2012
Four Toxic Plants To Avoid - 0
by Tim MacWelch
As Indian summer approaches, the wild foods that got our ancestors through the winter seem to be everywhere right now. Late-summer berries and early-fall tree nuts comprise the largest plant-food payload of the entire year and are both available to the careful forager, with “careful” being the operative word. With this abundance of food also comes some additional risk from gathering the wrong plant’s berries or the wrong tree’s nuts.
Here a quick list of four plant parts that you better leave right where they are.
Buckeye trees are common through the mountains of the mid-Atlantic and much of the Midwest. The large, meaty looking nuts contain some unpleasant surprises within: a bitter tannic acid (which can be removed), a poisonous glycosidic saponin called aesculin (which cannot be removed), and possibly a narcotic alkaloid. Though some native cultures had tricks to process the nuts for human consumption, buckeyes have a long history of poisoning both people and livestock.
The shiny, purple black berries of pokeweed can be very enticing to look at. Upon crushing a berry, you will see a purple-pink juice and lots of tiny dark seeds. The poisons in the plant are called phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin, and are most concentrated in the roots, followed by the leaves and stems. Smaller amounts are found in the fruit and seeds, and there have been confirmed fatalities from eating the berries. Although you may find a recipe or two for pokeberry jam, and while some people do consume the cooked berries, my advice would be to avoid pokeweed altogether.
Horsenettle is a common tomato relative that grows wild through much of the east. It bears toxic green fruit that resembles a cherry tomato. The berry turns from green to yellow and becomes more toxic when mature in fall. The plant's toxins cause abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea and can be lethal.
Black nightshade has small groups of toxic green berries that can cause nausea and vomiting and may be fatal when consumed in large quantities. The berry turns black and becomes less toxic when mature in fall. Black nightshade grows more than three-feet tall in fields and roadside ditches and at the edges of woodlands through much of the country. The danger lies in how much the berries resemble blueberries. This resemblance is close enough to fool children and adults who have no idea what a blueberry bush looks like.
Ever gotten sick from grabbing the wrong plant, nut, or berry? Let us know in the comments.